Cats can be expensive to own. In addition to food and vet visits, a primary expense involved in feline healthcare is vaccinations. Illness and disease prevention is essential for a cat to live a long and contented life.
Outdoor cats, or those with compromised immunity, should be vaccinated annually. A yearly booster of core vaccines protects a cat against rabies, herpesvirus, calicivirus, and panleukopenia. Healthy indoor cats can wait for up to three years between boosters due to their lower-risk lifestyle.
As with any medical procedure, there is an element of risk associated with feline vaccinations. Monitor your cat carefully for any sign of an allergic reaction following vaccination. This is no reason to avoid vaccines, though, as the benefits of vaccinating cats outweigh the small risks involved.
Why are Cats Vaccinated?
Cats, especially those that wander outside, are subjected to a constant barrage of illnesses and diseases. Feline vaccines protect against sickness and death.
All cats should be vaccinated. Typically, a new kitten will be vaccinated at the age of 4 weeks. From here, a cat should be vaccinated regularly. Annual boosters are safest, but some cats can wait longer.
No vaccine can offer 100% protection from illness and disease. Viral strains can mutate and evolve over time. Vaccines can greatly reduce the impact of illness, though, which means that they’re essential for older cats.
What Happens if Cats Don’t Get Shots?
If you’re lucky, nothing at all. If you’re not, the cat can become very sick. Also, you may be breaking the law. Some states insist on any domesticated cats getting a rabies vaccination, at the very least.
Vaccines are designed to protect a cat from diseases. There are many forms of feline vaccinations. Some are considered essential (core), and others are optional (non-core).
If your cat isn’t vaccinated, it is not just its health that can be jeopardized. You will also likely be prohibited from traveling with your cat. In addition, many catteries will refuse to accept unvaccinated cats.
How Do Cat Vaccinations Work?
Vaccines teach the immune system to recognize a virus and fight against it. In essence, a vaccine imitates a virus to prepare a cat’s body to remove it in the future. Feline vaccines come in three forms:
- Modified live vaccines contain a current version of a virus that has been diluted and weakened.
- Inactive vaccines inject a dead version of a virus into the bloodstream to avoid it in the future.
- Subunit vaccines contain traces of the DNA of a virus rather than the entire infection.
Most feline vaccines are administered by injection, but some can be inhaled nasally. As the cat is injected with a virus when vaccinated, it may experience some side effects. However, these will be minor and short-term.
Modified live vaccines provoke the strongest side effects but also offer greater protection. However, these are not always suitable for older or weaker cats.
Should Cats Be Vaccinated Every Year?
Opinion varies on this, even among vets. Vaccinations are a controversial topic in feline husbandry. As a veterinary surgery charge for vaccinations, some consider annual vaccinations to be an unnecessary cash-grab.
Vets will have different policies on vaccination. Some will claim that vaccinations are effective for up to 3 years. Others will insist upon annual boosters. Boosters are cheaper and easier to administer than entirely new vaccines.
Discuss the options with your vet and settle upon a vaccination schedule. Much will depend upon your cat’s lifestyle. Outdoor cats face a higher risk of contracting a disease as they will encounter various other animals with diseases.
If your cat wanders outside, commit to annual vaccination. This is not profiteering from a vet, cashing in on your emotional connection to your pet. Instead, it is a safety-first approach to hazards that can lead to sickness.
Cats with weaker immunity, caused by age or illness, are also good candidates for annual vaccination. This is because a cat’s body can become frail, and sickness can take a long-term toll.
Healthy indoor cats can wait for up to three years between vaccinations. Consider the impact that may have on your pet insurance as premiums and excesses can rise if a cat has not been recently vaccinated.
Why Do Cats Need Boosters?
Feline viruses mutate over time. This means that a new strain of FHV or FCV could impact a cat. Vaccinations are only effective for so long and can only combat certain seasonal variations of a virus.
Regular boosters ensure that your cat is protected against the latest strain of a virus. While this seems like another expense, it may save you money in the longer term. Your cat will stay healthy, staving off ad hoc veterinary bills.
In addition, boosters are easier to administer than conventional vaccines. If your cat has regular boosters, it will only need to be formally vaccinated occasionally. If you skip boosters, you may need to restart the process.
Are Cat Vaccinations Required by Law?
This depends on the state in which you live. Many vaccinations against infections that impact cats are optional but recommended. Failing to vaccinate a cat, especially an outdoor feline, opens it up to needless risk.
A rabies shot is a legal requirement in some states. Michigan State University provides a list of laws by state about rabies vaccinations. Ensure that you’re legally compliant to avoid getting a fine and quarantine for your cat.
This legal requirement applies to rural states with larger populations of wild animals. Wild animals cannot all be checked and vaccinated against rabies. This means that cats must be protected.
What Routine Vaccinations are Given to Cats?
Feline vaccinations are broken down into core and non-core. Core vaccinations are recommended for all cats. Non-core vaccinations are considered optional but advisable. This table details which vaccination falls into each definition:
|Core Vaccines for Cats||Non-Core Vaccines for Cats|
|Rabies||Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)|
|Panleukopenia (aka Feline Distemper)||Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)|
|Feline Herpesvirus (FHV)||Bordetella Bronchiseptica (aka kennel cough)|
|Feline Calicivirus (FCV)||Chlamydia Felis|
Many vets will offer an FVRCP vaccination. FVRCP is an acronym for Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia. This means all core vaccines bar rabies are concentrated into one treatment.
Two other vaccines are also available for cats but are not listed above. These offer protection against:
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
- Dermatophytosis (aka Ringworm)
Ask a vet for these vaccinations as FIP is invariably fatal if contracted. The American Association of Feline Practitioners does not recommend these vaccines, though. They are considered ineffective and promote a false sense of security.
Rabies is a deadly virus that spread through animal saliva. If your cat is attacked by a wild animal and bitten, rabies becomes a risk. Rabies leads to serious side effects and can be fatal. It is also a zoonotic concern, meaning that a rabid cat can infect a human through biting.
The Cornell Veterinarian posits that a rabies vaccine could be effective for three years or longer. It is not worth taking any chances, though. As discussed, many states will demand an annual rabies booster by law.
Panleukopenia is also called feline distemper, feline infectious enteritis (FIE), and feline panleukopenia virus (FPV). It is a deadly condition that cats must be protected against.
This highly contagious virus is primarily spread through a cat’s feces. Panleukopenia is stubborn, potentially surviving for up to 6 weeks in feces. The Journal of Virological Methods recommends assessing fecal matter in any suspected case of panleukopenia.
There is no cure for panleukopenia. As it is so contagious, some veterinary surgeries will also refuse treatment or offer euthanasia. All felines, whether indoor or outdoor, should be regularly protected against panleukopenia.
Feline Herpesvirus and Feline Calicivirus
FHV and FCV are colloquially referred to as “cat flu.” Both are respiratory infections with symptoms comparable to a common cold. In addition, cats with FHV or FCV will experience:
- Streaming from the nose or eyes
- Coughing and sneezing
- Loss of appetite
Respiratory infections are rarely fatal but are more dangerous in older or immunocompromised felines. In such cases, cat flu can lead to pneumonia. FCV is linked to acute inflammation and arthritis by Research in Veterinary Science.
No vaccination can completely protect a cat against respiratory illness. The viral strains mutate too quickly and frequently. A vaccine reduces the impact of the virus, enabling the cat to make a faster recovery.
Feline Leukemia Virus
FeLV is the leading cause of virus-related feline fatality. This virus may not kill a cat instantly, but the prognosis rarely extends beyond 30 months. This virus is not zoonotic but can easily be passed between cats.
Cancer Research confirms that FeLV is a contagious disease. Compare this virus to human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV-1), not cancer of the blood.
FeLV mostly impacts kittens, although it can strike felines of any age. It is spread through nasal secretions, milk while nursing, saliva, or urine. This means that all cats should be immunized and offered regular boosters.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
FIV dramatically weakens a cat’s entire immune system. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology make comparisons between FIV and HIV. In addition, FIV can make other, seemingly innocuous infections lethal.
FIV is shared through saliva. The most likely cause of transmission is a bite from an infected cat. This makes FIV an advisable vaccine for any outdoor cat. While other domestic cats are likely vaccinated, the same cannot be said of territorial feral felines.
FIV vaccinations should be updated regularly. This vaccine is less effective than some others. There is also no way of knowing how long a vaccine will remain effective. If you give this vaccine to your cat, obtain regular boosters.
Bordetella bronchiseptica is often called “kennel cough” due to its high prevalence in catteries and shelters. While more common in dogs, cats can develop this bacterial respiratory infection. The closest human equivalent is pertussis.
In some cats, the symptoms of Bordetella bronchiseptica will be identical to FHV or FCV. This condition can also cause a deep, hacking cough. This sounds comparable to a honking goose. It can be a frightening sound.
Bordetella bronchiseptica is among the most contagious illnesses. This means that vaccination is recommended for any feline that encounters other animals. In addition, if you plan to house your cat in shared accommodation, this vaccine is advisable.
Feline chlamydia is a reparatory infection but has some unpleasant side effects. As per the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, this condition is linked to conjunctivitis and could cost a cat its eyesight if left untreated.
Most cases of chlamydia felis occur in kittens under one year of age. This means that, as your cat ages, this non-core vaccination may become less essential.
Do Cats Need Vaccinations to Go Outside?
Any cat that ventures outside should be vaccinated in full. This means the cat should have all core and non-core vaccines. It also protects other cats in your neighborhood.
At a minimum, your cat may need a rabies shot to go outdoors. This depends on the legislation of your state. Regardless of whether this is a legal requirement, you should protect your cat from rabies.
Rabid pets in the United States are rare, not least due to the prevalence of vaccination. In wild animals, rabies can spread like wildfire. Common examples of wildlife that may carry the rabies virus include:
These animals could be predators or prey to cats. As rabies is passed on through biting, this makes them high risk. Rabies is far from the only risk, though.
If your cat is not vaccinated against the herpesvirus or calicivirus, it will get a heavy cold. At best, this will result in weeks of quarantine, low energy, and discomfort. However, in senior cats, a respiratory infection can be more serious.
Even more concerning is the risk of panleukopenia, feline leukemia virus, or feline virus. If your cat contracts these infections, its life is at serious risk. Vaccination reduces this risk, even if it cannot eradicate it.
Do Indoor Cats Need Vaccinations?
You may assume that your indoor cat does not need to be vaccinated. If it does not interact with other animals, it is surely protected by default? What vaccines do indoor cats need?
According to the Journal of Small Animal Practice, the WSAVA Vaccination Guidelines Group considers indoor cats low risk. All the same, some vaccines remain advisable for cats that stay home.
If you’re wondering what shots cats need for apartments, discuss with a veterinarian. The majority of vets will recommend a rabies vaccine, at the least. Most vets will also recommend the FVRCP vaccine.
This means that indoor cats can be protected with just two shots. Non-core vaccinations are optional. They are not deemed essential, so you can choose whether to administer them.
Do Cats Need Vaccinations for a Cattery?
If you need to put your cat in a cattery, it will need certain vaccinations. This is because catteries have a substantial number of animals living near each other.
The cat will likely be stressed initially. As explained by Animal Welfare, this anxiety will erode over time. All the same, stress weakens the feline immune system. Contagious viruses can spread quickly in a cattery.
Most catteries have strict rules regarding vaccinations before accepting residents. A cat is unlikely to be admitted without proof of core vaccination. Some catteries also demand an FVRCP booster eight weeks before admittance.
If using a cattery, non-core vaccinations – particularly Bordetella bronchiseptica – are also advisable. This condition is colloquially referred to as “kennel cough” for a reason. As per Veterinary Quarterly, some catteries experience chronic outbreaks.
Flea infestations in a cattery are often linked to spreads of bordetella bronchiseptica. Protecting your cat from parasites, as well as getting vaccinated, will reduce risk.
Do Older Cats Need Vaccinations?
The Journal of Comparative Pathology confirms that senior cats have weaker immunity than their younger counterparts. This suggests that older cats, especially those that wander outside, need core vaccinations.
As cats get older, any health ailment will be worse. For example, most healthy adult cats will recover from a respiratory infection in two weeks. However, a senior cat could take a month to recover or may not recover at all.
Vaccinations do not 100% protect a cat from infection. Your senior cat may still get sick, even if vaccinated. However, the impact of the infection will be reduced, giving the cat a chance of recovering faster.
How Much Do Annual Cat Vaccinations Cost?
This depends on a variety of different factors:
- Every vet has a unique price point
- Some vets will offer a lifetime booster discount
- Not all vaccines are mandatory, so you can choose jabs to give your cat
On average, expect to pay around $100 for your cat’s first set of vaccinations. Booster shots are usually cheaper. This bill should be closer to $60. If you miss a year of boosters, you will need to start again at a higher price.
If you feel that your vet is charging too much for vaccines, seek a second quote. Any veterinary surgery will have the appropriate vaccinations in stock at all times. Any legally licensed practitioner can administer vaccines to a cat.
No pet insurance policy will cover the cost of vaccines. However, protecting your cat will likely lower your premium or excess. The insurer will consider vaccines a fair and reasonable step to shield your cat from sickness.
If you cannot afford boosters for your cat, The Humane Society lists charities that may be able to assist by state.
Do Cats Have Reactions to Vaccinations?
Many cats experience short-term reactions to vaccines. Monitor your cat after vaccination. Most of these side effects are minor and temporary. Common reactions to feline vaccinations include:
- Low energy and lethargy
- Loss of appetite in the immediate aftermath of the vaccine
- Mild fever
- Slight swelling around the injection site
- Drop in body temperature
- Hind limb stiffness
These side effects should pass within 24 hours. If this is not the case, return to your vet. Your cat may be experiencing an allergic reaction to the vaccine that will need to be tempered with drugs. The Journal of the Hellenic Veterinary Medical Society explores the possibility of more serious potential complications. These include:
- Hypersensitivity (serious skin rashes and allergic reactions)
- Reproductive difficulties
- Sarcomas at the injection site
Hypersensitivity will usually pass within 24 hours. Reproductive difficulties, sadly, cannot be identified without extensive testing. Thankfully, this complication is rare. Sarcomas are equally unlikely but serious.
A sarcoma is a malignant tumor that vaccines can provoke. These are referred to as vaccine-associated sarcoma (VAS) or feline injection-site sarcoma (FISS). The sarcoma could appear within months, or it may take several years.
As per the American Veterinary Medical Association Journal, sarcomas become an emergency if they persist for 4 months. The tumor will be surgically removed, and your cat may require chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Sarcomas are rare, only affecting 1 in every 1,000 vaccinated cats. However, a sarcoma will invariably be fatal if left untreated. Do not let this deter you from vaccinating a cat, as the benefits vastly outweigh the risks.
Do Cats Get Sleepy After Vaccinations?
It is common for a cat to be sleepy in the immediate aftermath of vaccination. This is rarely anything to worry about. In fact, a burst of hyperactivity is more likely to be cause for concern.
Being vaccinated is a frightening experience for a cat. It will visit a veterinary surgery, and a stranger will handle the cat. It will be prodded and poked, experiencing a short, sharp burst of pain from a needle.
Also, the vaccine will involve administering a dose of a virus. Even if this virus is no longer active, it may have mild side effects. Most cats will want to sleep off any feelings of discomfort.
Once it is safe to do so, your cat will need a nap. When it gets home, offer your cat a treat for its bravery and leave it be. The cat will then find somewhere quiet and cozy to recover from its ordeal. Then, it will quickly bounce back.
My Cat Has Never Been Vaccinated
The real question to answer here is “why not?” Explanations include:
- You adopted a stray cat and have not got around to vaccination yet
- You feel bad about vaccinating your cat in case it hurts
- You do not believe in vaccination and think it is all a money-making ruse
- The cat became unwell after past vaccinations
- You cannot afford vaccinations
- The cat has never been vaccinated in the past, and it’s just fine
You may be breaking the law by skipping a rabies vaccination. Meanwhile, while it’s true that vaccination is unpleasant for cats, sickness is more so. The bill for treating a poorly cat is higher than a vaccine, too.
Put your personal reservations to one side and consider the cat’s health. As felines grow older, they become more vulnerable. So, skipping vaccination could lead to an avoidable illness that ends badly for your cat.
Annual vaccinations and boosters are an essential element of feline care. Cats are sturdy and independent but vulnerable to disease. Remaining up to date with vaccines improves your cat’s chances of a long, healthy life.