By Adam Lee-Smith
Published: 03/16/2021, edited: 01/16/2023
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Vaccinations are essential not only for pet parents but their fur-babies as well. Your feline friend can contract a range of diseases during their lives, from rabies to feline herpesvirus to feline leukemia. With so many potential dangers, vaccinations are key to ensuring your tiny tiger has a long and happy life. But are cat vaccinations always necessary? Here's the lowdown.
What vaccines do vets recommend for cats?
Vaccines are divvied up into two categories: core vaccines and non-core vaccines. Core vaccines are the bare minimum cats should have for daily living. These include:
- panleukopenia (feline distemper)
- feline calicivirus
- feline herpesvirus type I (rhinotracheitis)
Non-core vaccines may be recommended for cats at risk of developing certain diseases. Non-core vaccines recommended for cats include:
- Feline immunodeficiency virus
- Feline leukemia
- Chlamydophila felis
Do outdoor cats need vaccines?
If your little lion loves to roam around your neighborhood, you should definitely get them vaccinated. It's worth pointing out that regardless of whether your cat is indoors or outdoors, it's illegal in most states not to give your cat their rabies shots.
The feline rabies vaccination is considered a core vaccine by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). You can find a full list of state-by-state requirements on the American Veterinary Medical Association's (AVMA) website.
While your cat may not stray far from home, they'll likely encounter other felines, who may spread diseases like feline immunodeficiency virus and feline leukemia virus. These diseases are usually spread through interactions with other cats, from sharing food to fighting.
While vaccines against some diseases, like bordetella, aren't mandatory by law in most states, it's important you get your outdoor cat vaccinated to avoid them contracting these potentially serious diseases.
Do indoor cats need vaccines?
But what about if your cat never ventures outside? You might think Smudge doesn't need vaccinations because they're a home bird, but that's not the case. As mentioned, it's a legal requirement to vaccinate your cat in many states.
For example, many states follow the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control guidelines published by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV), which states that all cats should receive their primary rabies vaccination at approximately 2 to 3 months old, depending on the vaccine type.
As cats are curious by nature, you should get your indoor cat their core and recommended non-core vaccinations as a precaution. There’s always the risk of your rambunctious kitty making a run for it when you open your door, especially if they aren’t spayed or neutered. Felines in heat tend to roam looking for a male to mate with. If they pick up the pheromones of a female in heat, males will often try to escape in search of them too.
Mingling with other cats isn’t the only danger lurking outdoors. Fleas picked up outside can transmit illnesses like distemper, which can be deadly for kittens. These fleas transmit the pathogen from the infected cat's blood and transfer it to other felines when they bite.
Do cats need booster vaccines?
You may be asking yourself, "Once my cat has its primary vaccinations, do I need to bother with boosters?" Studies show that if your cat doesn't get booster vaccinations, it puts them at an increased risk of infection. Most research suggests an initial vaccination covers a cat for 1 to 3 years, so boosters are essential for continued protection.
As veterinary science evolves, the timeframe for boosters may change. For example, your vet may suggest your indoor cat doesn't need their booster as regularly as an outdoor cat. That being said, coverage can vary from disease to disease.
Some studies suggest coverage for bordetella can be less than a year, so annual vaccinations are essential. Vaccination schedules can differ depending on your cat's age and health. Consult your vet to check when's best to book your cat in for booster vaccinations.
What are the side effects of vaccinations for cats?
One common reason pet parents don't get their cats vaccinated is due to potential side effects and misinformation from anti-vaxxers. As most vaccines involve administering a small amount of a disease or virus to stimulate an immune response, it's possible your cat may show some minor side effects, similar to a flu jab in humans.
A 2021 survey of veterinarians looked at their experiences with vaccine hesitancy among pet parents. Each vet was asked to rate how often vaccine hesitant pet parents voiced specific concerns about vaccinations.
Over 50% of vets said that vaccine hesitant pet parents "often/very often" thought vaccines were unnecessary. Over 77% of vets said pet parents "often/very often" stated their cat never goes outside and isn't at risk of infection.
Other common concerns among vaccine hesitant pet parents with cats include the cost of vaccines, vaccine-associated sarcoma, and soreness at the injection site. The study found a positive correlation between organized human anti-vaxxer movements and a growing number of vaccine hesitant pet parents.
Many anti-vaxxers believe that cats and dogs can get many diseases and disorders from vaccinations, including autism. It's worth pointing out that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has carried out studies that prove there's no link between vaccines and conditions like autism. There's also no evidence that suggests cats can be autistic.
The most common short-term side effects of vaccinations in cats include:
Uncommon vaccine short-term side effects in cats include:
In very rare cases, cats can be allergic to certain vaccines. If you notice your cat having a severe reaction like difficulty breathing, or if your cat has been having mild symptoms for over 48 hours, contact your vet immediately. If you have any quick queries about vaccinations, you can also contact a vet 24/7 through Wag!.
Can cats live without vaccines?
Cats can develop a number of illnesses if they don’t have their shots, but feline leukemia is one of the worst. This illness is a top cause of feline death with a fatality rate of nearly 90%.
Feline immunodeficiency virus, also known as cat AIDS, is a serious, lifelong illness transmitted by unvaccinated cats. This disease leaves cats vulnerable to opportunistic infections because it damages virus-fighting white blood cells. At this time, there is no known treatment for FIV, only prevention by vaccines.
Bordetella is a less severe bacterial infection that often spreads through colonies of felines. This illness is tricky to prevent since the bacteria can survive on shared surfaces, like food bowls, for weeks. Cases are usually mild, but it can be serious for kittens and immunocompromised cats. Treatment of bordetella is challenging since it’s resistant to many common antibiotics.
Chlamydia felis is another bacterial infection that vaccines help prevent. Symptoms of this illness include eye infection, sneezing, and infertility. This bacteria can also infect humans and cause eye infections, though this is uncommon.
Rabies is perhaps the scariest illness an unvaccinated cat can get. What's more, cats are more likely than any other domesticated animal to get rabies. This illness poses a human health risk and is always deadly since the CDC requires euthanasia for all rabid animals, domesticated or otherwise.
Other infectious diseases unvaccinated cats can contract are feline calicivirus and herpesvirus. Since they’re spread by airborne particles, these upper respiratory illnesses can quickly pass from one fur-baby to another. Both of these illnesses can be prevented by the feline distemper vaccine.
There are many ways cats can catch preventable diseases even if they are exclusively indoors. It’s important to consider that most states mandate rabies vaccinations, so opting out of these may get you fined. Talk to your vet about the pros and cons of vaccinating and if your cat needs non-core vaccines as well. Choosing whether or not to vaccinate can be a life-saving decision. It’s up to you to make decisions for your cat, so weigh the risks carefully.
Preventable conditions like feline leukemia aren't just life-threatening — they're also expensive to treat. To avoid high vet care costs, start searching for pet insurance today. Brought to you by Pet Insurer, Wag! Wellness lets pet parents compare insurance plans from leading companies like PetPlan and Trupanion. Find the “pawfect” plan for your pet in just a few clicks!
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