Cat Vaccinations: What You Need to Know

Kitten Receiving Vaccination Cat Vaccination Feature

Cat vaccinations are an important part of keeping your cat safe and healthy. But what are vaccines, how do they work, which vaccines does your cat need, and what can you expect after your cat is vaccinated?

What are cat vaccinations?

Vaccines (also called immunizations or shots) help prevent a cat from contracting contagious infectious diseases. Vaccines are made from very tiny amounts of the bacteria or viruses that cause disease.

Vaccines are injected into the cat’s body or sometimes given intranasally (a liquid in the nose). Although the amounts of bacteria or viral particles are too small to cause the cat to become sick, the vaccines stimulate the cat’s immune system to mount a response against the disease-causing agents.

The cat’s body then develops the ability to create antibodies that can fight that specific bacteria or virus if the cat ever is exposed to an infectious disease in the future. These antibodies help your cat fight off the disease, preventing your cat from developing the viral infection or bacterial infection.

Vaccines are recommended for all cats and kittens, including outdoor cats and indoor cats. In the United States, the American Association of Feline Practitioners oversees a Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel, which periodically reviews the vaccination guidelines and research and offers recommendations for all cats.

The AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel last revised its vaccination guidelines for cats in 2013.

The Vaccinations Your Cat Needs

Although vaccines are recommended for all cats and kittens, every cat does not necessarily need every vaccine available. Some vaccines are called “core” vaccines, meaning the vaccines are recommended for all cats and kittens, regardless of whether they live indoors or outdoors.

Core Vaccines

Core vaccines include:

  • Feline panleukopenia (feline distemper or FPV)
  • Feline herpesvirus (feline viral rhinotracheitis)
  • Feline calicivirus (FCV)
  • Rabies virus

For cats, one combo vaccine (abbreviated FVRCP) covers rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia.

Other vaccines are considered “non-core,” meaning they are recommended for some cats, but other cats might not need them.

Non-Core Vaccines

Non-core vaccines include:

  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough)
  • Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)

Your veterinarian can tell you which non-core vaccines are recommended for your cat or kitten, for instance, the FeLV vaccine, based on your cat’s lifestyle, age and health status, which can help them determine the cat’s risk of exposure.

It is important to note that although a vaccine for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) was once available, its effectiveness was questionable and the vaccine is no longer produced nor distributed in North America.

Vaccination against FIV is no longer recommended by the AAFP. Additionally, although a vaccine for feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) exists, the AAFP does not recommend vaccination for FIP.

What to Expect After Cat Vaccinations

After your cat receives vaccines, she might be a little sore at the injection site for a few days. The feeling is likely similar to what people feel after getting a flu vaccine. It’s best to avoid touching your cat in the area where she was injected with the vaccine. Some cats are a little sleepy or lazy after getting shots, but this generally goes away on its own by the next day.

Cat Vaccination Side Effects

Side Effects of Cat Vaccinations

Cat vaccines, although extremely safe, do carry some risk of side effects. It’s good to familiarize yourself with the common side effects of cat vaccines so you can watch out for anything abnormal.

Some common minor side effects of cat vaccines include:

  • Discomfort at the injection site
  • Minor swelling (a lump) at the injection site
  • Low fever (a cat’s normal temperature ranges from 100.5 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Lethargy (low energy)
  • No appetite
  • Runny nose, coughing or sneezing (after intranasal vaccines)

Sometimes cats experience a more serious adverse reaction to vaccinations.

A serious allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, can cause severe, life-threatening symptoms. Anaphylactic reactions to vaccines are rare in cats, occurring in approximately 1 to 10 of every 10,0000 vaccines administered. Such reactions usually happen soon after the cat receives the vaccine.

If your cat develops any of the following symptoms within a few hours of getting vaccines, call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary hospital:

  • Hives (raised bumps on the skin)
  • Facial swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Collapse

If your cat experiences an allergic reaction to vaccines, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t ever be vaccinated again. Your veterinarian will work with you to determine a plan for future vaccines. Such plans may include spacing vaccines out, administering a premedication before vaccines to prevent a reaction, or, in some cases, not giving the vaccine again.

Another serious adverse vaccine reaction that is seen in cats is called feline injection-site sarcomas.

FISSs are rare, occurring in approximately 1 out of every 10,000 to 30,000 vaccinations. FISSs are cancerous tumors that develop at the injection site. These tumors can occur a few months after vaccines or even up to 10 years later.

If your cat develops a lump at the site of the vaccine, tell your veterinarian right away. Most lumps go away on their own and do not go on to become FISSs, but your veterinarian will want to keep a close eye on any lumps that pop up after your cat receives vaccines.

Frequently Asked Questions About Cat Vaccinations

What vaccines do indoor cats need?

All cats, whether they live indoors exclusively or go outside, need the core vaccines, which are panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline herpesvirus (viral rhinotracheitis or FHV-1), calicivirus and rabies. Your veterinarian may also recommend certain non-core vaccines for your indoor cat depending on her health history and the health of any other pets living in the household.

Do cats need to be vaccinated every year?

How frequently your cat needs to be vaccinated depends on her age, lifestyle, and individual health risks. Kittens are vaccinated frequently at first (every three to four weeks starting at 6 to 8 weeks of age until they are 16 to 20 weeks old). After a kitten is done with her initial vaccination series, booster vaccines are required one year later. Thereafter, adult cats need additional vaccines every one to three years, depending on the specific vaccine. Some vaccines, like the rabies vaccine, have different recommended frequencies depending on the vaccine manufacturer (some rabies vaccines are good for just one year and others are good for three years). Consult with your veterinarian to find out how frequently your cat requires immunizations. Vaccines, however, are just one part of your cat's health care plan. Regardless of vaccine frequency, cats should have a physical exam from a vet every year.

When should cats be vaccinated?

Kittens should start their initial vaccines series 6 to 8 weeks old. If kitten vaccinations are given before this age, maternal antibodies (which the kittens get from their mother’s milk, providing them with immunity) interfere with the vaccinations, rendering them ineffective.

How much is a vaccine for a cat?

The price for vaccines varies, depending on where you live and where you choose to get your cat vaccinated. At your veterinary hospital, you might pay anywhere from $15 to $28 per vaccine. If you combine your cat’s vaccines with her yearly physical exam, the cost is higher since you are paying the exam fee as well (this varies, but might range from $45 to $55). You can save some money by taking your cat to a low-cost vaccine clinic, which might be offered by your veterinarian, a humane society in your town, or your local government. Vaccines at these shot clinics may be as low as $10 per vaccine, with no exam fee. However, it’s always a good idea to have your cat examined by a veterinarian before she gets vaccines because it’s not safe to give vaccines to a cat that is running a fever or otherwise sick. rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia.

Jackie Brown

About Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is a freelance writer specializing in the pet industry. She writes on all pet and veterinary topics, including general health and care, nutrition, grooming, behavior, training, veterinary and health topics, rescue and animal welfare, lifestyle, and the human-animal bond. Jackie is the former editor of numerous pet magazines and is a regular contributor to pet magazines and websites.

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