Though there has been lots of controversy surrounding vaccines for both humans and animals in recent years—and there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding shots for cats, such as that the indoor cats don’t require vaccinations—organizations such as the American Academy of Feline Practitioners still strongly advise cats owners to make vaccinations part of their pet’s care regimen.
“If a pet owner chooses not to vaccinate their cat, they are putting their pet at great risk,” asserts Dr. Carolyn R. Brown, senior medical director of community medicine for the ASPCA. “Vaccines are very important to managing the health of your pet.”
Vaccines for Cats—Explained
According to Brown, as long as the mother has a healthy immune system, kittens automatically receive antibodies in the milk their mother produces. Once the kitten is around six to eight weeks of age, your veterinarian can begin to administer a series of vaccines at three- or four-week intervals until the kitten reaches 16 weeks of age. “Adult cats are generally revaccinated annually or every three years,” she adds.
Brown explains that vaccines for panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus type I (rhinotracheitis), and rabies are considered core vaccines—meaning that all cats, regardless of their lifestyle, should receive them. A series of non-core vaccines may also be given depending on the cat’s lifestyle; these include vaccines for feline leukemia virus, Bordetella, Chlamydophila felis, and feline immunodeficiency virus. “Your veterinarian can best determine a vaccination schedule for your pet. This will depend on the type of vaccine, your pet’s age, medical history, environment, and lifestyle,” she adds.
According to Dr. Jessica Romine, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary
Partners in Southfield, MI, rabies is a deadly neurological disease with no cure, which is why it’s the vaccine that’s required by law. There were 4,454 domestic animals diagnosed in the United States in 2017, in addition to two human cases, according to the CDC.
“Vaccines are designed to trigger protective immune responses that will fight future infections from disease-causing agents. They can lessen the severity of diseases, and certain vaccines can prevent infection altogether,” asserts Michael San Filippo, spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “It’s important to remember that vaccinating a pet also protects people from deadly diseases…by vaccinating your pets for rabies, you also protect your family from the disease.”
Myths about Vaccines for Cats
Even though vaccines are recommended for pets, the most common misconception about vaccinations for cats is that indoors cats that don’t spend time outside do not need to be vaccinated. “While some diseases are spread by close cat-to-cat contact, others may be spread indirectly with family members introducing viruses to the home through contact with other cats or on their shoes or clothing,” Brown explains. “Some viruses will live in the environment for a long time under extreme temperature conditions and remain virulent…meaning they’re able to cause disease. That’s why all cats, including indoor cats, require vaccinations.”
Additionally, Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC), points out that even if you live in a city and your cat never leaves the apartment, when they need to go to the vet, they are being exposed to potential danger. Boarding facilities will also require your cat to be vaccinated. “And if you have a guest come over to home and they are bitten by your unvaccinated cat, you are now liable,” he explains. “I’ve seen plenty of cases where a new boyfriend comes over, the cat decides it hates the boyfriend so it bites him and lo and behold the cat has rabies.”
Romine adds that the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is a deadly virus similar to humans AIDS viruses, and is common in outdoor cats. Cats are tested for FeLV and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, which is a less common vaccination) when they enter a household, and they are usually vaccinated for FeLV at that time. Cats that are indoor-outdoor will continue to receive boosters of FeLV, but indoor-only cats do not always need boosters.
Another concern by owners of both cats and dogs are the potential side effects of vaccines—or even the potential to cause other illnesses. “Studies have been conducted, and are still ongoing, regarding vaccines causing more serious immune diseases including anemia, bleeding disorders, and white blood cell issues…but this link has not been established definitively in current literature,” Romine says. She explains that vaccines for dogs and cats have to go through the same rigorous testing and government approval as for human vaccines, and require the same amount of safety reporting.
The viruses and bacteria in vaccines undergo major processing to avoid them causing the actual disease. Additionally, some vaccines, including Leptospirosis, some Lyme vaccines, some FeLV vaccines, and the injectable Bordetella are inactivated, which ensures that the antigen is completely incapable of replicating.
“There’s been a lot of media attention to the anti-vaccination movement…and over the past few years, veterinarians have been noticing an uptick in the number of pets that are not being vaccinated, due to a similar anti-vaccination ideology,” San Filippo adds. “We understand pet owner’s concerns about vaccination, but for the vast majority of pets, the benefits far outweigh the risks.”
In recent years, veterinarians have also become increasingly willing to work with pet owners on establishing a vaccine schedule that’s appropriate for each individual pet. “One recent and well-accepted movement in veterinary medicine is vaccinating less often, as research has shown that some vaccinations generally protect a cat or dog for a minimum of three years,” Brown adds. “It’s important for each pet owner to discuss their cat’s lifestyle and potential exposure to diseases for which there are vaccinations with their veterinarian, and decide upon a vaccine program tailored to their needs.”
Understanding the Risks
Immunizations stimulate the animal’s immune system in order to create protection from specific infectious agents, and this stimulation can sometimes create mild symptoms, ranging from soreness at the injection site to fever and allergic reactions. “Because of proven medical benefit, we recommend giving all puppies and kittens an introductory series of vaccinations and keeping all pets current on rabies vaccinations,” Brown says.
In cats, there is a rare reaction that can lead to a sarcoma, which is a type of tumor that develops at the vaccination site. “We know that certain cats may develop rare tumors at sites where vaccines have been administered. Although these tumors are serious, this adverse response is rare—affecting only about 1 in 10,000 vaccinated cats,” San Filippo explains. Veterinarians can now minimize this risk by carefully selecting vaccines on the basis of a cat’s individual needs, along with choosing appropriate injection sites. “The frequency of sarcoma formation has dramatically reduced due to improvements in vaccines, vaccine frequency, and guidelines for location of vaccination,” he adds.
More importantly, maintaining the recommend vaccine schedule also ensures that your cat has plenty of opportunities to be examined by their veterinarian. “For many cat owners, it’s stressful to have to catch their cat, stuff them into a carrier, and go to the vet…so it’s understandable why they don’t want to do it. But most people will never look inside their cat’s mouth or ears, listen to their heart for a potential murmur, notice changes in weight gain or urine production...so those visits to the vet on at least a yearly basis are not only important for vaccines, but for that general check-up,” Klein concludes. “Going to the vet can sometimes be a hassle with cats, but it’s important to understand their current health status—and to be able to detect problems before they become serious.”