Cats can be costly for family members. In addition to food and toys, feline health must be factored into your budget. A primary expense involved with feline healthcare is vaccinations. Protecting your cat from illness and disease is critical for 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 potentially wait 3 years between boosters due to a lower-risk lifestyle. The absence of vaccinations can impact pet insurance policies, though.
As with any medical procedure, there is an element of risk of feline vaccination. Monitor your cat carefully for any sign of an allergic reaction. This is no reason to avoid vaccines, though. The benefits and safety of vaccinating cats outweigh the small risk incurred.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Why are Cats Vaccinated?
- 2 How Do Cat Vaccinations Work?
- 3 Should Cats Be Vaccinated Every Year?
- 4 What Routine Vaccinations are Given to Cats?
- 5 Do Cats Need Vaccinations to Go Outside?
- 6 Do Older Cats Need Vaccinations?
- 7 How Much Do Annual Cat Vaccinations Cost?
- 8 Do Cats Have Reactions to Vaccinations?
- 9 My Cat Has Never Been Vaccinated
Why are Cats Vaccinated?
Cats, especially those that wander outside, are subjected to a constant barrage of potential infections. Any number of bacterial viruses can make a cat sick. The purpose of feline vaccines is to protect a cat from these health concerns.
All cats should be vaccinated. Typically, a new kitten will be vaccinated at the age of 4 weeks. From here, the cat’s vaccines should be updated regularly. Annual boosters are safest, but some cats can wait longer.
It should be noted that no vaccine can offer 100% protection from illness. Viral strains can mutate and evolve over time. Vaccines can greatly reduce the impact of illness, though. This makes them especially important in weaker, 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. In addition, you may be breaking the law. Some states insist on a rabies vaccination, at the very least, for any domesticated cat.
Vaccines are designed to protect a cat from diseases. There are many and varied forms of feline vaccination. Some are considered essential (core) and others optional (non-core).
If your cat is not vaccinated, it is not just health that is jeopardized. You will also likely be prohibited from traveling with your cat. Many catteries or other lodging establishments will also refuse to accept unvaccinated cats.
How Do Cat Vaccinations Work?
Vaccines teach the immune system to recognize infection and fight 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 so it can be banished in future
- Subunit vaccines contain traces of the DNA of a virus, rather than the entire infection
Most feline vaccines are administered by injection. Some can be inhaled nasally, though. As the cat is injected with a virus when vaccinated, it may display some side effects. These are usually minor and short-term, though.
Modified live vaccines provoke the strongest side effects, but also offer greater protection. These are not always suitable, though. Older or weaker cats may be unsuitable candidates for live vaccines.
Should Cats Be Vaccinated Every Year?
Opinion varies on this, even among vets. Vaccinations are a slightly controversial topic in feline husbandry. As a veterinary surgery charges for vaccinations, some consider annual vaccinations to be an unnecessary cash-grab.
Different 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 options with your vet and settle upon a vaccination schedule. A lot will depend upon your cat’s lifestyle. Outdoor cats, for example, will be considered at higher risk of contracting a disease. They will encounter various other animals and bacteria.
If your cat wanders outside, it is advisable to commit to annual vaccination. This is not profiteering from a vet, cashing in on your emotional connection to your pet. 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. A cat’s body can be frail, and sickness can take a long-term toll.
Healthy indoor cats may be able to wait longer between vaccinations. Three years may be considered an appropriate interval. Consider the impact that may have on your pet insurance, though. Premiums and excess 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 only combat particular, seasonal variations of a virus.
Regular boosters will 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 is likelier to stay healthy, staving off ad hoc veterinary bills.
In addition, boosters are easier to administer – and thus cheaper – 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 from scratch.
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 feline, 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 pertaining to rabies vaccinations. Ensure that your pet ownership is legally compliant. Failure to do so could lead to a fine and quarantine for your cat.
This legal requirement typically applies to rural states with larger populations of wild animals. The reason for this is simple. 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 two categories – 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. As you have likely guessed, 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)
You are welcome to ask a vet for these vaccinations. 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.
The other non-core vaccines are also worthy of consideration. Understanding what each vaccination protects against will help you understand whether to administer it.
Rabies is arguably the most important vaccination of all. This is a deadly virus that spread through animal saliva. If your pet is attacked by a wild animal and bitten, rabies becomes a risk.
Rabies is fatal and leads to serious side effects. 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 3 years or longer. It is not worth taking any chances on this, though. As discussed, many states will demand an annual rabies booster by law.
Panleukopenia goes by many names. It is also referred to as feline distemper, feline infectious enteritis (FIE), and feline panleukopenia virus (FPV). Whatever we call it, panleukopenia 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 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, and it causes a sudden – but painful – death. As it is so contagious, some veterinary surgeries will also refuse to attempt treatment or euthanasia. All felines, whether indoor or outdoor, should be regularly protected against panleukopenia.
Feline Herpesvirus and Feline Calicivirus
We have combined these 2 conditions as they are often discussed together. FHV and FCV are colloquially referred to as, “cat flu.” Both are respiratory infections, with symptoms comparable to a common cold. Cats with FHV or FCV will experience:
- Streaming from the nose or eyes
- Coughing and sneezing
- Loss of appetite
Respiratory infections are rarely fatal for cats. They are more dangerous in older or immunocompromised felines, though. In such cases, cat flu can lead to pneumonia. FCV is also linked to acute inflammation and arthritis by Research in Veterinary Science.
No vaccination can completely inoculate a cat against respiratory illness. The viral strains mutate too quickly and too frequently for that. A vaccine reduces the impact of the virus though, helping a cat 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 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, though 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, as the name suggests, dramatically weakens a cat’s entire immune system. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology makes comparisons between FIV and the HIV virus. While not deadly in itself, 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 remains effective. If you provide this vaccine to your cat, also obtain regular boosters.
Bordetella bronchiseptica is often called, “kennel cough” due to high prevalence in catteries and shelters. While more common in dogs, cats can develop this bacterial respiratory infection. The closest human equivalent is pertussis, aka whooping cough.
In some cats, the symptoms of Bordetella bronchiseptica will be identical to FHV or FCV. This condition can also cause a deep, hacking cough, though. This sounds comparable to a honking goose. It can be a frightening sound if you are unfamiliar with it.
Bordetella bronchiseptica is among the most contagious illnesses to impact cats. This means that vaccination is recommended for any feline that encounters other animals. If you plan to house your cat in shared accommodation, this vaccine is advisable.
Do not be alarmed by the name of this virus. As with herpesvirus, feline chlamydia is a reparatory infection, not an STI. Chlamydia felis does have nasty side effects, though.
As per the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, this condition is linked closely to conjunctivitis. This 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. That is a judgment for you to make.
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. This is the only way to keep your cat safe. It also protects other pets in your neighborhood.
At a bare minimum, your cat may need a rabies shot to go outdoors. This depends on the legislation of your particular 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, though, 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.
Reparatory infections are no fun for cats, either. If your cat is not vaccinated against herpesvirus or calicivirus, it will go down hard with a cold. At best, this will result in weeks of quarantine, low energy, and discomfort. In senior cats, a respiratory infection can be much 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 entirely.
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?
As per the Journal of Small Animal Practice explains, 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 professional. Most vets will recommend a rabies vaccine, at the very 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. It is advisable to protect cats against any disease that could do it harm, though.
Indoor cats can escape on occasion, or other animals may somehow access your home. The choice is yours. If money is tight, consider sticking with the core vaccines only for indoor cats. Just be aware of the risks involved in this decision.
Do Cats Need Vaccinations for a Cattery?
If you need to temporarily place your pet in a cattery, it will need certain vaccinations. Catteries involve a substantial number of animals living in close proximity. This is anathema to most felines.
The cat will likely be stressed by this living arrangement, at least 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 like wildfire in a cattery.
With this mind, 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 no older than 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 infestation in a cattery is often linked to spreads of bordetella bronchiseptica. Protecting your cat from parasites, as well as vaccination, will reduce risk. Research a cattery’s standards of care, too. Typically, all the residents will be healthy – or none of them.
Do Older Cats Need Vaccinations?
The Journal of Comparative Pathology confirms that senior cats have weaker immunity than younger counterparts. This suggests that older cats, especially those who wander outside, need core vaccinations more than ever. It is never too old to vaccinate a cat.
As cats get older, any health ailment will hit it harder. Most healthy adult cats will recover from a respiratory infection in about two weeks. A senior cat could take a month or more. If the cat is particularly unlucky, it may not bounce back at all.
It should be remembered that vaccinations do not 100% protect a cat from infection. Your senior cat may still get sick, even if vaccinated. The impact of the infection will be reduced, though. This gives the cat a fighting 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 – you may pick and choose jabs to give your cat
On average, expect to pay around $100 – possibly more – 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 the higher price.
If you feel that your vet is charging too much for vaccines, seek a second quote. Any reputable 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 or refund the cost of vaccines. Protecting your cat will likely lower your premium or excess, though. The insurer will consider vaccines a fair and reasonable step to shield your cat from sickness.
If you cannot afford boosters for your cat, look for help. The Humane Society lists charities that may be able to assist by state. It is better to swallow your pride and accept help than risk your cat’s wellbeing.
Do Cats Have Reactions to Vaccinations?
Many cats experience short-term reactions to vaccines. Watch your cat in the aftermath of a vaccination or booster. 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 infection 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. This will need to be tempered with drugs.
The Journal of the Hellenic Veterinary Medical Society explains 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 typically pass within 24 hours. Reproductive difficulties, sadly, cannot be identified without elaborate testing. Thankfully, this complication is rare. Sarcomas are equally unlikely, but serious.
A sarcoma is a malignant tumor that can be provoked by vaccines. These are referred to as a 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 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 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 impacted one in every 1,000 vaccinated cats. If your pet is an unfortunate statistic, a sarcoma will invariably be lethal if left untreated. Do not let this deter you from vaccinating a cat, though. 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 likelier to be a cause of concern.
Being vaccinated is a frightening experience for a cat. It will visit a veterinary surgery – scary in itself, especially if a car journey is involved. The cat will be handled by a stranger. It will be prodded and poked, and experience a short, sharp burst of pain from a needle.
In addition, 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 discomfort.
All of this means that, 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. It will quickly bounce back.
My Cat Has Never Been Vaccinated
The real question to answer here is, “why not?” Possible 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
None of these reasons hold up. You are potentially 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 invariably higher than a vaccine, too.
Put your personal reservations to one side and consider the cat’s health. As felines grow older, they become increasingly vulnerable. Skipping vaccination could lead to an avoidable illness that ends badly for your pet.
Annual vaccinations and boosters are an essential element of feline care. Cats are sturdy and independent, but vulnerable to disease. Do not take any risks with your pet’s health. Remaining up to date with vaccines improves your cat’s chances of a long, healthy life.