What are Vaccines and Which does my Cat need?

Last month we discussed canine diseases and vaccines and so this month, lets talk about cats. As I said last month, vaccines are made up of either live or killed pathogens (bacteria and viruses) that cause an immune reaction in the body. Then, during a natural infection, the immune system remembers seeing this pathogen and can kill it easier. This is immunity.

Cats are generally classified as indoor only, indoor/outdoor or strictly outdoor. For the purpose of this discussion I will combine indoor/outdoor and strictly outdoor as they have the same health issues.

Cats get exposed to numerous pathogens on a daily basis, some of which the animal has natural immunity for and some that are so virulent that they need vaccines to induce immunity so the pathogen does not kill them.

The big question in most cat owners minds are “which vaccines does my cat really need and how often do they need to be given?”

In the Eastern United States the following feline diseases are endemic, meaning they are always here whether to vaccinate or not will depend on the lifestyle of your cat:

Panleukopenia virus: Causes a mild to fatal gastrointestinal infection as well as a severe loss of white blood cells. Most commonly transmitted through infected cat’s feces but this virus can exist in the environment for up to one year. Panleukopenia infections in pregnant cats can also lead to a lack of growth of certain parts of the brain in the kittens.

Rhinotracheitis: Caused by a herpes virus transmitted through direct contact of cats and through indirect contact with infectious discharge. This virus causes moderate to severe nasal and ocular discharge, sneezing and occasionally pneumonia.

Calicivirus: Another virus that causes upper respiratory infections but this one also causes ulcers in the mouth and sometimes on the skin. Recently however, a new strain has surfaced in several areas across the US that has resulted in a severe hemorrhagic syndrome with a large number of fatalities.

Feline Leukemia Virus: A retrovirus that can be transmitted from cat to cat, through bites, nasal secretions or in utero from mother to kitten. Besides causing cancers throughout the cat, infection with this virus can also lower a cat’s immunity, causing him to have secondary infections of other types.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV): This virus causes a progressive disruption of the cat’s immune system leading to fatal infections and/or tumors. This virus is transmitted primarily through bite wounds so it is more prevalent in males than females.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP): Infection with this virus can lead to immune mediated problems usually associated with the GI system but can also affect the nervous system, kidneys and liver. This virus is usually transmitted through contaminated feces.

Rabies: Invariably fatal in mammals. The OAH estimates that between 50,000 and 60,000 people die from rabies annually. There have been 16 Rabies positive animals found in Chittenden County this year. Rabies is transmitted through bites or any other secretion coming in contact with wounds or mucous membranes. The most common carrier of rabies is bats. Most cats think a bat is just a bird and they should catch it, so the most common domesticated animal to get rabies is the cat.

Although there are others, these are the most common diseases your cat may come into contact with and now we will discuss vaccination and prevention.

Panleukopenia, Rhinotracheitis and Calicivirus are commonly given as a combination called FVRCP or RCP. This vaccine requires a series of vaccines 3-4 weeks apart in kittens and until recently was a yearly vaccine but now there is a vaccine that ensures 3 year immunity but can only be given to adult cats. Due to how these viruses are transmitted this vaccine should be given to all cats whether they go outside or not.

Rabies vaccines are also good for three years now but again, only in adults. The initial Rabies vaccine is only good for one year. This vaccine is mandated by law and all cats and cats MUST be vaccinated.

Feline Leukemia vaccines cannot be given until a kitten is at least 12 weeks old and initially must be given as a series of two, 3-4 weeks apart. After the initial series the vaccine needs to be given yearly. This vaccine is not needed for cats that never go outside. Stray kittens and cats whose history is unknown should always have a blood test for FeLV prior to any vaccines.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus and Feline Infectious Peritonitis are difficult diseases to deal with. Although there are vaccines for both of these diseases neither has proven effectiveness and some have even enhanced the virus replication. Also, once a cat is vaccinated for FIV they will test positive for the disease and it is impossible to distinguish vaccinated cats from infected cats.

At this time I do not stock or recommend either of these vaccines for my feline patients

These are the common feline diseases and vaccines but every cat is different and your veterinarian may suggest more or less vaccines depending upon your cats’ level of risk.


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