I get a lot of questions in my small animal practice about whether cats need to be vaccinated. In most veterinary practices, dog visits usually vastly outnumber cat visits. I would say that I see at least 4 to 5 dogs for each cat. This is surprising, especially when you consider that there are more domestic cats in the United States than dogs (70 million dogs versus >74 million cats)! So clearly veterinary care (including vaccinations) is underutilized in cats overall. But what vaccines do cats actually need and how often? This is a controversial area (as all vaccine discussions tend to be). I can talk about the issue in general terms, but you should talk to your veterinarian about your own individual situation.
There are three important vaccines that cats are given: Rabies, Feline Leukemia Vaccine (FeLV)and FVRCP (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia). All these vaccines protect against viruses that cats can be exposed to during contact with other cats. For this reason, an indoor cat with minimal to no contact with other cats has a much lower risk of contracting these diseases compared to a cat who spends a lot of time outdoors or co-mingles with other cats.
I strongly recommend that all kittens get vaccinated because they are at high risk of getting feline leukemia as well as respiratory illnesses. Kittens should get their shots at 8 weeks, 12 weeks and 16 weeks of age. At the first visit FVRCP is given. It is very important that a cat get a blood test for feline leukemia before the FeLV vaccine is given for the first time (this lab test is usually done at the 8-week visit). At the 12-week visit, a FVRCP booster is given as well as the FeLV vaccine (assuming the blood test is negative). At the 16-week visit, FVRCP, FeLV and Rabies are given.
After the initial set of kitten vaccinations, cats should get vaccines 1 year later, and then every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine. There is controversy as to the frequency with which adult cats need to be vaccinated. Vaccine manufacturers recommend annual FVRCP and FeLV for all cats (and only guarantee their product for a year), but obviously they have a strong financial incentive to maximize vaccine usage. The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends FVRCP and FeLV annually for high risk cats (cats who spend time outdoors or have exposure to other cats), and every two years for low risk cats. The European advisory board recommends these vaccines every 2-3 years for low risk pets.
The Rabies vaccine is not required for cats (unlike dogs), but I strongly believe that it is a good idea to keep your cat’s rabies vaccination up to date. The standard rabies vaccines that are used are good for 3 years. (Note that there is a rabies vaccine available [canarypox] that is only good for one year; this is very expensive however, and rarely used, and I never recommend it). Keeping your cat up to date on rabies vaccination can save you a lot of hassle in the event of a cat bite! All cat and dog bites have to be reported to the county, and if the rabies vaccination status is unknown, the cat could be quarantined for up to 4-6 months! Why would you risk that when the whole situation can be avoided with a $20 vaccine every 3 years?
This is my opinion on cat vaccinations:
1. Kittens should get vaccinated at 4 weeks (FVRCP), 8 weeks (FVRCP & FeLV) and 12 weeks (Rabies, FVRCP & FeLV)
2. Cats should get a FVRCP, FeLV and Rabies 1 year later
3. Low risk cats (indoor cats or cats with no exposures) can be vaccinated every 3 years for Rabies, FeLV and FVRCP.
4. High risk cats should get FeLV and FVRCP vaccines every year. If you occasionally board your cat at a facility, you should consider vaccinating the cat annually as well (many facilities require them). Rabies vaccines should be given every 3 years.
I have three indoor cats and what I personally do is vaccinate them every three years (with all 3 vaccines) when the rabies vaccine is due.
The other important thing to consider is that cats typically hate to go to the vet. Many owners (including me) have witnessed the dramatic transformation of their sweet cuddly kitty into a ferocious snarling beast in a veterinary clinic. This is probably the main reason that cats don’t get the routine care that they need. A mobile veterinarian is a great option to make sure cat vaccinations are up to date! We offer all of the vaccines listed above, in addition to a variety of other services that are described in more detail in other pages on this website.
This blog is not intended to provide individual veterinary advice for your individual pet situation; talk to your veterinarian about specific questions pertaining to your pet. Please email me with any comments, or suggestions for topics for other discussions in the future. I look forward to hearing from you.
Kim Cork, DVM