What Vaccinations Do Cats Need?
With so many different vaccines available today and veterinarians spreading different information in their practices and online, it is certainly easy to understand why you may be confused about which vaccines your cats need and how often they really need them. Of course, there are special circumstances and exceptions to every rule, but there are generally 2, or in some cases 3, cat vaccines that are or should be given to cats on a regular basis.
Cat Rabies Vaccine
The feline rabies vaccine is one of the most important and highly recommended cat vaccines. Rabies is a deadly zoonotic (can be passed from animals to humans) disease that is spread most commonly through bite wounds from infected animals. You can learn more about the rabies virus on this page. This vaccine, because it is directed against a disease that can be transmitted to humans as well, is often required by state, county, or township laws.
This is the perfect spot to tell you the story I mentioned at the beginning of this article. During the course of my 20 years of feline practice, there have been numerous times when I have been told "Doc, my cat doesn't need vaccines; he never leaves the house".
There are actually many stories I could tell you about cat owners who have said that to me only to find out weeks, months or years later that their cat has slipped out the door when someone accidentally left it open.
Sometimes the owner gets the cat back right away, but often the cat is frightened and runs and hides, and it can be hours or days or even months before the worried cat owner is able to get their cat back.
Meanwhile, the cat is outdoors, exposed to other cats and their excrements. Possibly exposed to rabies or feline leukemia or at the very least some of the feline respiratory viruses. I have seen some sad endings to such events.
But perhaps the story that stands out most in my mind is about the family that had insisted there was no way ever that their cat could be exposed to anything, that he could never possibly get outdoors ...and then one night, they found him playing with a bat in their house.
The bat was sent to the state rabies lab for testing and it was confirmed that the bat indeed had rabies. The father, mother, and two children had to have rabies inoculations and their unfortunate cat had a choice of either being euthanized and submitted to the rabies lab for testing OR being quarantined in a veterinary hospital for 6 months for observation and isolation.
Fortunately, they chose the 6 month quarantine and the cat did not develop rabies and eventually was vaccinated and taken home. Needless to say, it was an emotional roller coaster for them and an expensive one at that.
I have other similar stories, but suffice it to say that one never knows for sure what can happen. Never say never. If you live in an area that has the rabies virus in the wildlife, vaccinate your cats for their sake and for yours.
While you should always consult a veterinarian, animal shelter or your state or local officials for requirements specific to your area, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) maintains a list of summaries of current state laws to give you a good idea of whether your cat needs rabies vaccines.
Feline FVRCP Vaccine (or FVRCP-C)
If you’re wondering what in the world all those letters stand for, you’re not the only one. Over the last 20 years, many of my clients have asked the same question. When I answer Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia, and if the final C is part of the vaccine, Chlamydia, they look even more confused!
No wonder. That’s a lot of large, unfamiliar words.
The FVRCP-C vaccine for cats provides protection against Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia, and Chlamydia, which are primarily very serious forms of feline respiratory diseases. Some vets only vaccinate with FVRCP while others, including myself, most often use the FVRCP-C which includes vaccination against Chlamydia, a major cause of conjunctivitis in cats, a condition seen frequently.
This vaccine is more commonly called by a slang term, the cat distemper vaccine, which is really a misnomer. Dogs have a distemper virus which causes Canine Distemper, but cats don’t really have a version of distemper. Cats and dogs share some similarities in that panleukopenia in cats is caused by a parvovirus which is a relative of the parvovirus which causes Parvo in dogs, but neither is really related to Distemper.
At any rate, when you hear someone say your cat needs a distemper vaccine, just keep in mind it’s slang and cats aren’t really affected by a distemper virus. They are really referring to the FVRCP-C vaccine.
This vaccine is important for several reasons. As mentioned previously, the diseases caused by the rhinotracheitis, calici, and panleukopenia viruses used to kill many cats. With vaccination, we have been able to wipe out the most deadly effects of these diseases in our house cats, although these diseases still exist in feral colonies and other populations of unvaccinated cats around the world. If we were to stop vaccinating our pets, these diseases could re-emerge, bringing serious illness and death to the cat members of our families. With vaccination, these once deadly viruses now only produce mild symptoms in most cats.
Secondly, at least some of the respiratory viruses that the FVRCP-C feline vaccine protects against may never completely leave the bodies of infected cats. A good example is the herpes virus that causes Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, the FVR of the FVRCP vaccine. Similar to the situation with people, once infected with a herpes virus (the type of virus that causes Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis), it remains in the body for life. Since some of these viruses can be deadly and cats can be carriers if the virus is in their bodies for life, then this vaccine is strongly recommended.
Feline Leukemia Vaccine
FeLV is the abbreviation given to the feline leukemia virus, which is the number one deadly viral infection in cats, spread through contact with any infected cat, including contact with saliva, urine, feces, bite wounds and even through a mother cat’s milk. Outdoor cats are at the most risk for contracting feline leukemia, or any cat that comes into regular contact with cats that carry the virus.
The FeLV cat vaccine is generally not recommended for strictly indoor cats that have no contact with outdoor cats. You should discuss your cat’s age, exposure risk, and environmental circumstances with your veterinarian to decide if this vaccine should be given annually to your cat.
Testing for the feline leukemia virus should always be performed when you first adopt a new cat. If you already have a cat, always test before you allow the new cat to be around your present one. There is a simple blood test that most veterinarians can do right in their office or they will send it to an outside lab and have the results the next day. Isolate your new kitty from all others until you have the results.
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