Cat vaccinations are an important part of their routine care.
In the USA the main illnesses they will protect your pet against are feline distemper, cat flu and rabies. But there are some regional differences.
Some pet owners worry about vaccinations, and in this article we will attempt to help reassure you by explaining exactly how they work.
Letting you know any potential safety concerns or side effects, and why vaccinating your cat is so important even today.
We’ll also give you a simple guide to cat vaccination schedules, and let you know the rare occasions when cat vaccination might not be the best idea for your pet.
Not so many years ago, pet animals often died of infectious diseases.
It is the natural way of things for regular outbreaks of disease to sweep through any population of animals.
Especially when they live together in large groups.
Kittens and elderly cats, or those that were already unwell, were particularly vulnerable.
Serious infections were more likely to kill them, and regularly did.
Then mass vaccination became available. And changed everything.
Why do people vaccinate their cats?
People vaccinate their cats because they are worried about the risks of infection.
Vaccinations protect vaccinated individuals against certain diseases.
But even more importantly, vaccines decrease the pool of potential infection within the population.
Making life safer even for unvaccinated cats too.
Vaccines have altered the course of medical history. Both for people and their animal friends.
But there is a dark side to vaccination that many are concerned about.
Vaccinating our pets has reduced the incidence of many diseases, and lowered the death rate for those that do contract them.
But vaccinations themselves have also been implicated as a potential threat to health.
Do cat vaccinations work?
How well a vaccination works depends on the vaccine itself, and on the individual cat receiving it.
This is because vaccines vary in how effective they are. A vaccine for one condition may be less effective than another.
The cat flu vaccine for example, offers about 80% protection.
How effective are cat vaccinations?
When we are judging how effective a vaccine is, we look at the proportion of vaccinated animals that are protected.
And at the degree of protection provided.
For example, some vaccines will give complete immunity to nearly all vaccinated individuals.
Others may give only partial immunity (where a milder version of the disease is experienced) to some cats, and complete immunity to others.
There are also times when vaccination fails completely.
Occasionally you’ll hear of a cat becoming very sick with a disease that he has been vaccinated against.
Cat vaccination isn’t perfect, but it’s important to appreciate that most modern vaccines are highly effective.
They protect the vast majority of pets that receive them.
And they save many, many lives in the process.
But how do they do it?
How do cat vaccinations work?
In the natural course of things, animals develop immunity to diseases they have been in contact with.
Once a virus or bacterium enters an animal’s body, an army of antibodies goes to work to create a ‘clean up’ campaign and dispose of the invaders.
For many diseases and illnesses this system is great.
The animal is sick for a few days, and then the body annihilates the bad guys and restores a healthy balance.
But with more serious illnesses, the infection may overwhelm the animal and he may die before his body is able to build its defences.
This is where vaccines come into their own.
Vaccines work by putting a substance into your cat that tricks his body into making those antibodies.
This means that if he meets the disease in the future, his army is already there, waiting to fight off the invaders.
They create a ‘memory’ of what the invader looks like, so that your cat can instantly recognise and deal with it in the future.
Your cat’s natural immunity
Of course, if your cat gets a mild disease and fights it off himself, his natural immunity will protect him in the future.
This is why we normally only use vaccines for diseases where there is a high chance of your cat being seriously harmed should he catch one of them.
There are bacteria or viruses so powerful that they may overwhelm your cat or kitten within days or even hours.
Certainly long before his immune system has a chance to muster an army of antibodies.
Now it’s true to say, that if we leave nature alone, all the cats with weaker immunities will succumb to these horrible diseases and those that are left will be the ones with the strongest, and most powerful immunity.
They’ll then pass that powerful immunity on to their kittens.
But, you probably don’t want to go back to the dark ages, where diseases would wipe out whole populations.
Leaving just a handful to start things over again.
Nor do you want to rely on your cat being one of those with the best immunity to survive.
Most of us would rather give our cats a little assistance.
And that is why many killer diseases are now largely controlled or prevented by vaccination.
What vaccines do cats need?
Different regions have different diseases. Most regions have what are called ‘core’ vaccines which all cats will normally need.
These protect against the really nasty infections that can kill or permanently damage your cat. Especially in kittens and older cats
Extra vaccines are available on a regional basis depending on local conditions.
In the USA, core vaccines given are FVRCP and Rabies.
The FVRCP vaccination covers three airborne infections:
- Feline distemper (also known as Panleukopenia)
- Feline calcivirus
The second two are often referred to as cat flu.
A dose of the flu sounds rather ordinary, but cat flu can be a very serious disease, especially in kittens.
Additional vaccines that your vet might offer are:
- Feline infectious peritonitis
- Feline Leukemia
- Feline lower urinary tract disease
- Feline immunodeficiency virus
Your veterinarian will let you know which vaccination is appropriate for your cat.
Kittens need to be vaccinated before they are at risk of infection, but not so early that their maternal antibodies interfere with the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Every kitten receives some immunity from disease in his mother’s milk, but gradually loses these maternal antibodies once he is weaned.
But until they are completely lost, they can damage the vaccine and prevent it from working.
When do kittens get their first shots?
The timing of a kitten’s first shots will depend on where you live.
In the USA kittens get their first shots at 6 to 8 weeks and these are repeated three more times at monthly intervals.
Shots are boosted every year or two at the vet’s recommendation.
In the UK Kittens get their first shots at 9 weeks and these are repeated at 12 weeks. Then boosted after 12 months.
Check with your vet to find out what the schedule is in your region.
How much do cat vaccines cost?
Veterinary treatment is never cheap, and vaccinations are not covered by insurance.
So it is not surprising that one of the most common questions from new cat owners is “how much does cat vaccination cost?”
Vets are private practioners so costs will vary widely from one practice to another.
The initial cost is usually the greatest, with annual boosters half to three quarters of that.
You are looking at anything from $50-$90 in the USA and £40-£70 in the UK for kitten vaccinations.
Cat vaccination schedules
At one time all vaccinations were repeated annually. But the trend nowadays is to avoid over-vaccination.
We now know that some shots last for more than a year while others do need boosting annually.
So, while your cat will need to attend for annual injections, what he receives may vary depending on what he received the previous year
It’s important to keep your cat’s record card with this information on it, in case you change vets for any reason.
Otherwise he’ll have to have all his shots, all over again, whether he needs them or not.
The same applies if you let too long elapse between boosters.
Cat vaccination side effects
After vaccination the most side effects an average cat will suffer from are mild.
Tiredness, a little soreness around the injection site, and possibly being off their food for a couple of days.
Yet in some ways, fear of disease has been replaced by fear of vaccination.
The question of side effects, or vaccination reactions has become a real concern.
Vaccinations that were once gratefully received are now sometimes regarded with suspicion.
We hear about dreadful vaccination reactions and even of cats dying after being vaccinated
Let’s be clear. Vaccinations do cause side effects.
But that doesn’t mean we should turn away from vaccinations, it’s more complicated than that.
How common are cat vaccination side effects?
A large study took place at the Banfield Pet Hospital in the USA from 2002 to 2005.
It found that adverse reactions were reported within 30 days of vaccination at the rate of 51.6 per 10,000 cats treated.
This works out at about half a percent.
The true rate of adverse reactions is probably higher, as it is likely that many mild reactions go unreported.
Why do vaccinations cause side effects?
Any drug or chemical that causes changes in the body, even good changes, has the potential for harm.
This is because there are no ‘effects’ without ‘side effects’.
This is unfortunate but true. If a remedy claims to have no side effects, this is usually because it has no effects either.
We have not yet learned how to accurately treat one tiny part of an animal, without that treatment having some effect on other parts of the animal.
That is because animals have such a great system for transporting substances around their bodies.
Mammals generally are incredibly efficient at transporting drugs via an intricate maze of blood vessels.
That’s how the painkillers you swallowed with your breakfast, can relieve the pain in your big toe ten minutes later.
Basically, a substance injected for the purpose of fighting a problem, is always going to have other effects.
And those effects are likely to pop up in unexpected places.
Cat vaccination pros and cons
Because every medicine ever invented that is effective, is likely to have some side effects.
The question should never be “does this drug have any side effects?”
It should always be “do the benefits outweigh the risks”?
In most cases, the answer is yes.
This is because vaccinations are only usually carried out for serious illnesses, and because the majority of vaccination side effects are mild.
How we perceive and weigh up the pros and cons of vaccines is likely to depend to some extent on who we have spoken to.
The rare and more serious side effects of vaccinations tend to be widely reported. The benefits of vaccines do not.
Serious cat vaccination side effects
It is now recognised that there is a slight risk, in cats, of a tumour occurring at the injection site.
This could be months or even years after an injection.
Vaccine associated sarcoma in cats first came to the public attention in the 1990s.
Initially it looked as though the risk might be 2 in every 10,000 vaccine doses.
Larger and more recent studies put the risk much lower at less than 1 cat for every 10,000 vaccines.
We’d all like it to be less, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s a pretty low risk.
Despite this being a very unusual side effect of vaccination, it’s good practice to keep an eye out for lumps and bumps on your cat.
A small swelling at the injection site, which gradually disappears is probably nothing to worry about, but to be on the safe side, show it to your vet.
Allergic reaction to cat vaccines
An allergic reaction to the vaccine is another rare possibility with anaphylaxis, occurring 1-5 in every 10,000 vaccines.
If your cat has a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine you may need to avoid revaccination.
If the vaccine is a mandatory one in your state or region, your vet will need to apply to the local authority for an exemption for your cat.
Are cat vaccinations safe?
It is only right and proper that you want to do your best to protect your cat.
To ensure that any medical treatment she is given is going to do her some good.
At the very least you want to be sure that it is going to do her no harm.
We all want a straightforward answer “this is safe” or “this is not safe.” But some things in life are not like that.
Sometimes we have to make a judgement call. And to take responsibility for a decision without a guarantee of success.
The fact that serious vaccine reactions are rare doesn’t mean your cat won’t get sick if he suffers from side effects from his shots.
Your cat could be the one in ten thousand. There is no way to know.
An Educated, Tiny Risk
This apparent ‘randomness’ of vaccine reactions is what people find it so hard to get their head around.
And I understand your frustration at not getting a definitive answer.
In real terms, out of thousands or possibly millions of individuals treated with any given drug, quite a few will have mild side effects.
But only a very tiny number will suffer from serious side effects.
In much of the world vaccinations are subjected to rigorous tests to make sure that they are a safe as they can be.
The over-riding message is that vaccination has been thoroughly proven to be of benefit to the population overall.
And that vaccines will protect your kitten from harm, with very little risk.
Do raw fed cats need vaccinating
There is something of a myth going around, that raw fed pets don’t need vaccinations.
I know a bit about raw feeding because I have been raw feeding my dogs for a decade. But I am unable to discover how this myth arose.
And it probably is a myth.
Because while a healthy diet undoubtedly enhances overall health and well being, there is no evidence whatsoever, that raw feeding protects cats, or dogs, from serious infectious diseases.
What about alternative cat vaccinations?
It would be great, wouldn’t it, to have an alternative to vaccination.
One that really worked. That protected your pet against terrible diseases with gentle natural methods and no side effects.
But this simply does not exist.
Please beware of fake remedies. Even homeopathy has been proven beyond all doubt, to be no more effective than a placebo.
In a trial of homeopathic vaccines tested on small puppies, all the ‘vaccinated’ puppies died when exposed to the disease.
If you choose not to vaccinate your pet, do so based on logic and reason, not because you place false hope in a fake remedy.
Reasons not to vaccinate a cat
Vaccines are not suitable for every cat, and some cats may not need them
A cat that has had a reaction to a previous vaccination, may be at risk of a more serious reaction if vaccinated again.
Some other cats are also more at risk of vaccination reactions.
Pregnant cats should not normally be vaccinated, but do talk to your vet in case there are circumstances that might warrant this.
Cats with certain illnesses may not be suitable candidates for vaccination. Illnesses which depress the immunity for example.
This is where you need to work together with your vet.
Talk to him about all the options for your pet, and about the risks of not vaccinating.
What about herd immunity?
You may have heard of a cat that lived to a grand old age without ever being vaccinated. I know I have.
This is because of the protection offered to that cat by the other cat owners who have vaccinated their own cats.
Providing what is called herd immunity
Herd immunity is really important for cats that cannot be vaccinated.
If enough cats in the neighbourhood are vaccinated, then your unvaccinated cat might, MIGHT, be safe.
However, this is a gamble. And one with more serious consequences for the cat if you get it wrong
If you live in an urban area this is a very risky strategy indeed as there will almost certainly be a population of feral street cats providing a pool of infection.
Protecting cats everywhere
My own view is that leaving your cat’s safety to your neighbours is a hazardous approach.
Hazardous to your own cat, and hazardous to the local cat population in general.
The more people that avoid cat vaccinations, the lower herd immunity becomes until it drops sufficiently for a disease outbreak to occur.
Do indoor cats need vaccinating?
Many vets do recommend vaccinations for indoor cats, and not just because they make money from them.
They argue that the risk of cats escaping is quite high, and that there is always a risk of another animal entering your home and infecting the cat.
This is particularly relevant in areas where rabies is an issue.
Wild animals such as bats and raccoons can carry rabies and it isn’t unusual for them to gain access to homes.
And of course, in some regions, rabies vaccines are compulsory for cats.
In addition, there are some diseases that can lie dormant and appear again years later. And yet others that can be carried in on shoes or clothing.
Again, this is something to discuss with your vet. Listen to his arguments, and ask plenty of questions if you have any concerns
Should I vaccinate my cat?
I said we’d help you decide, but we can’t make the decision for you.
If your cat regularly goes outdoors, the risks of illness from being unvaccinated, probably outweigh the risks of a rare vaccination reaction.
And by participating in the vaccination program you are helping to keep herd immunity strong in your local cat population.
If your cat spends his entire life alone indoors and you live in a region where there are no animals carrying rabies, then you could argue that there is little point in having him vaccinated.
Your vet would probably disagree.
If your cat has health problems that make vaccination more risky than it is for other cats, the risks of vaccination in this case, may outweigh the benefits.
Vaccination has changed our world for the better.
However, there is no doubt that vaccination reactions do occur and serious vaccine reactions are utterly tragic.
But the truth is, that for most animals, vaccination is a force for good.
And vaccinating your pets benefits not just your own pet, but the wider pet population too.
Most cats will have little or no noticeable reaction to getting their shots and will be safer for having had them.
Every region is different when it comes to which diseases to vaccinate against and when.
Vaccines can even vary somewhat from vet to vet. So the schedules described here are just a guide.
Always consult your vet about your vaccination concerns. And be guided by him as to what is best for your cat.
How about you?
Have you vaccinated your kitten or cat? What did you pay for shots? Share your experience in the comment box below
- Gaskell et al. 2002 “Veterinary Products Committee working group report on feline and canine vaccination” Vet Rec.
- Day. 2006 “Vaccine Side Effects: Fact and Fiction” Vet Microbiol.
- Glickman LT. 1999 “Weighing the Risks and Benefits of Vaccination” Adv Vet Med.
- Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 2013 “AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel Report“.
- “Vaccines and Sarcomas – A concern for Cat Owners” American Vet Med Assoc
- Jas D et al. 2009 “Onset of immunity in kittens after vaccination with a non-adjuvanted vaccine against feline panleucopenia, feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus.” Vet Journal.
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