4 min read

Understanding Cat Vaccination Schedules


By Leslie Ingraham

Published: 11/01/2021, edited: 11/02/2021

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You’ve found the "purrfect" kitten or cat to adopt, and it’s time to think about practical things like vaccinations and other healthcare. Unless your kitty has some illness or injury that requires immediate attention, the veterinarian will start out by reviewing what, if any, vaccinations a cat needs or may already have had. 

Breeders and shelters will likely have begun the vaccination process before handing the kitty over to you. It’s important to obtain vaccination records to give to your permanent vet so they know where to start.

So where does the vet begin with vaccinations for your feline? The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and its Vaccine Guidelines Group (VGG) have created a long, detailed document that covers all the information anyone should need about when to start vaccinating, what to give, and for how long.

We’ve broken down much of the information from WSAVA and other resources to make it easier for you to understand cat vaccinations.

Why do cats need vaccines?

Cats are vulnerable to a number of infectious diseases throughout their lives, many of which are preventable. Some of these diseases may be treatable, but the cost and trauma of treatment will cause unnecessary stress for both cats and humans.

Vaccination is the answer to preventing several diseases. Other, optional vaccines are given depending on the cat’s age, environment, and lifestyle.

Both indoor and outdoor cats should be vaccinated. Who knows when Fluffy will escape and come into contact with infected cats or other animals? It’s far better to have them protected, even if the chance of contact with another animal seems unlikely. Even indoor cats may need to go into a cattery during an emergency.

Vaccination doesn’t give cats disease, although parts of live or killed organisms are usually used in vaccines to help cats gain immunity.

There are 3 types of vaccines:

  • Modified live vaccine: Live organisms are scientifically weakened. This type of vaccine will provide the highest level of protection. It shouldn’t be used in pregnant or immunocompromised cats.

  • Killed (inactivated) vaccine: Infectious organisms are killed by various methods and injected into the cat. Killed organism vaccines may include other ingredients to improve the vaccine’s effectiveness.

  • Sub-unit vaccine (recombinant): This vaccine is made by pulling the organism’s DNA apart and only using pieces of it in the vaccine. 

Vaccines are available as injections and nasal drops.

Which core vaccines does your cat need?

According to a journal article by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, the core feline vaccines protect against:

Which non-core vaccinations does your cat need?

Non-core vaccines are recommended for some cats, except those that are geriatric, never go outside, or don't have contact with other cats. Non-core vaccines include:

Optional vaccines that are given if the cat’s living arrangements and lifestyle call for them are:

  • Giardiasis (Giardia lamblia)
  • Ringworm (this vaccine has disputed efficacy and not generally recommended)

In all cases, your veterinarian is the expert whose recommendations you should follow.

What should your cat’s vaccine schedule look like?

Most kittens will get their first vaccinations from 6 to 12 weeks of age. Rabies is mandated by law to be given to all cats when they are kittens, even if they are not outside cats. Bats or other animals that might enter the house could have the disease and pass it on to Fluffy in a bite. Or the feline may decide to escape. 

A protected cat should not get rabies or pass it on to their human family. Here’s a list of ages and vaccinations that should be on every cat’s healthcare schedule:

6 to 8 weeks old

The distemper vaccine needs to be given early because the mama cat’s milk contains distemper antibodies. Once a kitten starts to wean, these antibody levels lower. Repeated vaccinations should be given when the kitten is 14 to 16 weeks old.

8 to 12 weeks old

This is the time for the cat to receive the feline leukemia vaccine. This vaccine is given as boosters in year one and then every 2 years.

12 to 16 weeks old

The rabies vaccine should be administered when the kitten is 12 to 16 weeks old. The rabies vaccine is readministered every 1 to 3 years, depending on the formulation the veterinarian is using. Senior cats may stop other vaccinations but will continue to get inoculated against rabies.

The veterinarian will notify you about what interval the cat needs to have boosters. Typically, distemper is given every 3 years and feline leukemia every 2 years.

Your vet may recommend optional vaccines for kennel cough, giardiasis, and other diseases based on where you live and your cat's daily habits.

Which vaccines should my cat receive annually?

Boosters for optional vaccination coverage may be given annually, including Bordetella. This group also includes chlamydia, giardiasis and bordetella.

How often should my cat receive their core vaccine boosters?

The boosters for the core and non-core vaccines are given either every 2 years or every 3 years. The rabies vaccine may be formulated for 1-year or 3-year boosters.

What should I do if I have questions or concerns regarding my cat’s vaccines?

It’s important to consult your veterinarian if you have questions related to vaccinations or concerns about any other medical issues. 

Vaccinations are a critical part of preventing diseases in cats. Where you live, whether your cat is an indoor or outdoor feline, and what their habits are will all be taken into consideration when your veterinarian is deciding which vaccines to administer to your cat. 

Paying for your cat’s vaccinations can be difficult to budget for. Fortunately, Wag! Wellness plans reimburse routine care costs for your pet within 24 hours. In the market for wellness plans? Compare wellness plans to find the right match for your pet!

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