You have probably heard differing opinions on the issue of cat vaccination. This can lead to confusion and worry in both new and experienced cat owners. There are also plenty of myths, rumours and false information out there.
To make a balanced and informed decision about whether vaccination is right for your precious feline friend, and to select which vaccinations are appropriate, you need straightforward and reliable facts. Here we give you all the essential information you need to make the best choices for your puss.
How Vaccinations Work to Protect Your Cat
The aim of a vaccination is to protect your cat from an infectious disease. They do this by introducing a weak or a man-made version of a germ that causes the disease to trigger your pet’s immune response. The cat’s body produces antibodies which are little structures that fight the germ and which stay in your cat’s bloodstream. Therefore, if they are exposed to that disease in the future, the cat’s body is ready and will fight it off, keeping your cat well.
A ‘primary vaccination course’ is the first round of vaccinations given to a kitten. They need two rounds of injections before they’re fully protected and it is safe for them to mix with other animals. Booster vaccinations are needed to top up the level of antibodies throughout your pet’s life. Some boosters are needed annually and others every 3 years.
Myths vs Facts about Cat Vaccination
When you are considering vaccinating your cat, it is important to get advice from a qualified professional and not to rely on information from unreliable sources. This is an issue you should always discuss with your vet.
You will see some myths written about vaccinations that are simply not true. Here are the most common ones:
- Myth – Vaccinations aren’t needed. It’s true that many cat diseases are less prevalent these days but this is BECAUSE OF vaccination. If vaccination rates fall, the diseases will get more common. It is also true that kittens get some antibodies from the mother’s milk but this protection only lasts for a few weeks. Many diseases are very dangerous in kittens so they need the vaccinations.
- Myth – Vaccinations are dangerous. A very low percentage of cats can have an allergic reaction to vaccinations but you have to balance this with the risk of getting the disease. Many of the diseases that you can vaccinate against are fatal.
- Myth – Vaccinations are very expensive. There is a cost involved but you may be able to get a special offer or assistance. Think of the cost of caring for a sick pet if they get the disease.
- Myth – Boosters are not needed. The immunity of your pet will decrease and if you do not have boosters when they are recommended and your cat will not be protected.
- Myth – Vaccinations don’t work. It is possible for a small number of vaccinated cats to still get the disease but they are likely to get a milder version and have more chance of surviving.
When to Vaccinate your Cat
The primary vaccination course (the first vaccinations) takes place when your kitten is eight or nine weeks old. They receive one injection and then another about three weeks later. It’s a good opportunity for a general health check by your vet and a chance for you to discuss any concerns.
Your kitten/cat will then have a vaccination appointment each year and your vet may have a system of sending reminder texts, letters or emails to alert you. When you adopt an adult cat with an unknown vaccination history, you have to start with a primary vaccination course as soon as possible to get them protected.
Different vaccines last for different amounts of time and some are dependant on lifestyle so your cat will not receive every vaccine every year. Your vet will know which ones are needed at what time.
What you Can Expect at a Vaccination Appointment
At each vaccination appointment, your cat or kitten will be weighed and will be given a thorough medical check-up. This is to make sure that they are well enough to have the vaccination. Your vet will ask questions about your kitten’s behaviour and eating and drinking habits. You are welcome to ask questions.
The vaccines that your pet requires that year will be combined in one injection and administered to your puss through a needle inserted under the skin at the back of the neck. Vets are highly skilled at making this as quick and painless as possible and most cats are not that bothered by it.
Types of Cat Vaccinations
Depending on your cat’s individual vaccination schedule, they may be offered any of the following:
- Cat flu vaccination
Cat flu is caused by two types of virus called Feline Herpesvirus (FHV) and Feline Calici virus (FCV) and both are very common in the cat population.
Both types of virus spread very easily from one cat to another and so the disease is described as ‘highly contagious’. Your cat or kitten could get cat flu by being in direct contact with an infected cat. It is spread through droplets from the mouth or nose (especially during sneezing) and through contact with infected eye discharge. The virus can survive for a while out in the environment. It can land and live on food and water bowls and litter trays as well as bedding, toys and grooming tools. When another cat comes into contact with these objects, they can become infected.
If your cat gets cat flu, they will start sneezing and will have nasal and eye discharge. They may also get conjunctivitis and mouth ulcers and appear generally unwell. Some cats have a milder illness but others are extremely unwell and a few develop serious complications such as pneumonia. Once a cat has had an initial bout of cat flu, they may get flare-ups in the future when their immune system is low.
A vet may use a variety of treatments to try to help a puss with cat flu. Antibiotics won’t kill the virus but will stop them getting secondary infections. A cat with cat flu often needs supportive treatment which may include anti-inflammatories, a drip and steam inhalation. Some require nutritional support because they are too ill to eat.
A cat flu vaccination could also protect your puss from the other conditions that these two viruses can cause. FHV can also cause keratitis which is a skin and eye condition and FCV can cause painful joints as well as inflammation inside of the mouth. Both conditions require treatment by a vet.
A cat flu vaccination may not be 100% effective in every cat treated but it will help to greatly reduce the severity of the disease. It is the only truly effective way of preventing the spread of cat flu. Pregnant cats can pass the disease onto their kittens, therefore it is vital that they are vaccinated before they become pregnant. Young kittens should not come into contact with older cats until two weeks after they have had their second set of jabs.
- Feline infectious enteritis
You may see this disease called Feline Parvovirus or Panleukopenia virus and it is highly contagious. Sadly, it has a very high mortality rate (especially in kittens) so if your puss gets it, it is truly life-threatening.
It spreads extremely easily from one cat to another via contaminated bodily fluids, faeces and even via cat fleas. The virus that causes the disease is very robust and can survive for ages (several years) in the environment. Therefore, if contaminated faeces etc. from an infected cat gets onto food bowls, bedding and floors it is very difficult to remove and it is resistant to many common disinfectants. Other cats coming into contact with those objects will pick up the infection. The virus is, of course, invisible so you will not know it is there.
The symptoms include sudden vomiting and diarrhoea and you may notice streaks of blood in the faeces. There can also be fever, fatigue and seizures. It can cause brain damage (blindness or cerebellar hypoplasia) and mobility problems in newborn kittens.
There is no reliable treatment. Sometimes supportive treatments (intravenous fluids, medicine to control vomiting and antibiotics) help but the virus causes cats to become severely dehydrated and, because the immune system is repressed, they get horrible secondary infections. Kittens are rarely able to survive the disease but some older cats will.
The good news is that the vaccine is highly effective. Kittens should remain in your house until two weeks after completing their primary vaccination course. Female cats should not become pregnant until they have had a full vaccination course.
- Feline Chlamydophilosis
You may see this referred to as ‘feline chlamydia’, it is caused by a bacteria and it is fairly common in the cat population. It is passed from one cat to another by direct contact and it does not generally survive on feeding bowls etc.
The bacteria affects the lungs, stomach, eyes, intestines and reproductive system. If your cat has it, you will notice sneezing, runny eyes and nose, conjunctivitis and breathing difficulties as well as a fever and general lack of energy. A vet can prescribe antibiotics to treat it.
Not all cats are offered the chlamydophila vaccination, it is usually only given to cats who live in groups. The vaccination is the best way to prevent feline chlamydia but is not successful in every case.
- Feline Leukaemia virus
This virus attacks your cat’s immune system so they are more susceptible to getting infections and developing lymphoma, leukaemia and other tumours. It is fairly common in the UK and is transmitted in saliva, faeces, urine and milk. Therefore, it is passed from one cat to another by mutual grooming, sharing food and water bowls, bites and from a mother to her kittens.
The first signs of the infection that you will probably notice is weight loss and lethargy as well as pale gums, a deterioration in their coat, fever and diarrhoea. You may be able to feel noticeable tumours or lumps. The disease is progressive and sadly most cats will not survive for more than four years. There is no specific treatment.
The best way to protect your cat from Feline Leukaemia virus is to vaccinate kittens and keep them indoors until two weeks after their second set of shots. Some cats that never go outside may not need it but you should always discuss this with a vet as each cat is unique.
Rabies is not a threat in all countries but if you want to travel with your cat you will need to comply with the country’s regulations regarding infection control. This is also something that you may need to organise if you want to adopt a cat from another country. The rabies vaccine can be given to a kitten at either eight weeks or at 12 weeks of age and is annual.
Your vet will assess your cat’s need for some other vaccinations based on their age, where you live and the risks that your cat is exposed to. There is a vaccine for the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection. This causes immunodeficiency disease in cats. There is also one to prevent Bordetellosis which is a contagious respiratory disease caused by a bacteria.
The best way to make a decision about vaccination is to discuss it with your vet. They will ask you questions about your cat or kitten to assess the risks that they are exposed to. Based on your answers, they will put together a recommended vaccination schedule that gives your puss the best chance of staying healthy.
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- Cat advice: vaccinating your cat against disease, Vets4Pets
- Vaccinating cats, PDSA
- Cat vaccinations, Ped MD