Over the past decade, concerns about problems associated with over vaccination have led the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a number of veterinary colleges, and many veterinarians to modify their approaches to vaccinations. Some people have even decided that vaccinations are “too risky” and have ceased vaccinating their cats. It's important, though, to put things into perspective.
Before effective vaccines were developed, millions of pets (and people!) routinely died or were debilitated by a host of horrifying diseases, most of which are still around. Vaccines do hold risks for a small minority of those who receive them, but proper vaccination is still the best protection we have against infectious disease.
Vaccines are classified in two ways: core vaccinations are considered critical for all cats to protect against diseases for which risk of exposure is high. Noncore vaccines protect against less-common diseases and are given or not given depending on the cat's age, health status, breed, potential for exposure, and type of vaccine.
The pharmaceutical companies that produce the vaccines and the veterinary community don't always agree on proper protocols for vaccinating cats. The manufacturers recommend annual revaccination in most cases. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), in contrast, recommends that core vaccines be given to most cats every 3 years unless there is a higher-than-normal risk of exposure to the disease.
Talk to your vet and inform yourself about the risks of both diseases and vaccinations, then decide which vaccines, given how often, make the best sense for you and your cat. Because laws in most states and many countries require the rabies vaccination, even if you choose not to give other vaccinations, be sure to keep your cat's rabies shots up to date.
Core vaccinations are given to cats for the following diseases:
- Feline Panleukopenia (feline distemper) is a widespread, potentially fatal viral disease. Most cats will be exposed to it at some time, so vaccination is critical. Kittens whose mothers have panleukopenia during gestation or who survive the disease themselves often suffer permanent brain damage and other lifelong problems.
- Feline Rhinotracheitis is a viral disease that causes severe upper respiratory infection. It is widespread, and although vaccination won't prevent the disease, it will make its symptoms more mild.
- Feline Calicivirus is a viral disease of the upper respiratory system and is responsible for nearly half the upper respiratory infections in cats. Once infected, a cat can continue to carry the virus and suffer runny eyes and sneezing all its life, even if it is treated.
- Rabies is perhaps the most frightening of the viral diseases that threaten pets because it can affect any mammal, including people, and it is always fatal once symptoms appear. The rabies virus, which attacks the central nervous system, is spread in the saliva of an infected animal, usually by way of a bite. Rabies is fairly common in wild animals, including skunks, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, and bats, which can pass the disease on to domestic animals.
Rabies occurs in two forms. Most of us picture a rabid animal foaming at the mouth and behaving aggressively, which are symptoms of furious rabies. But rabies can also cause paralysis, usually starting in the jaw and moving through the limbs and vital organs. This form, known as dumb rabies, is harder to recognize.
Once symptoms of rabies infection appear, death is inevitable. That's why rabies shots are required by law and common sense in the United States, Canada, and some other countries, and why rabies-free countries enforce quarantines on incoming animals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7,437 cases of rabies in animals were reported in the continental United States and Puerto Rico in 2001. The number of cases of rabies in cats increased 8.4 percent, while cases in all other domestic animals decreased. Cats accounted for more than twice as many cases of rabies as dogs or cattle.
Common Noncore Vaccinations
Noncore feline vaccines include those for feline leukemia (FeLV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), chlamydia (see Common Feline Diseases), and ringworm. The AAFP recommends that FeLV and FIP vaccinations be given only to cats who might be exposed to the diseases through contact with other cats. The decision to vaccinate against chlamydia or ringworm should be based on the cat's risk of exposure.
Colostrum is a concentrated mixture of antibodies, protein, vitamins, electrolytes, nutrients, and fluid produced by the mother's breasts during the first 36 to 48 hours after birth. It enhances the newborn kitten's chances of survival by providing protection from infectious disease as well as fluids needed for the heart and circulatory system to work properly.
When to Vaccinate
The timing and frequency of vaccinations depend on your cat's age, where you live, whether your cat goes outdoors or is ever boarded, and other factors, so work out your cat's individualized vaccination schedule with your veterinarian.
Newborn kittens born to healthy, properly vaccinated mothers get some immunity to disease from the colostrum in their mother's milk. This protection begins to wear off, though, sometime between the kitten's fifth and tenth week of life. By 20 weeks it's completely gone, so a series of vaccinations is typically given, starting at between 6 and 8 weeks of age. Most veterinarians recommend a series of 3 or 4 core and specific noncore vaccines, given at 3- to 4-week intervals. A kitten typically receives the final “kitten shots” at about 4 months of age. Booster vaccinations are normally given a year later and at various intervals after that to ensure lifelong protection.
Traditionally, most vaccinations have been given by injection under the skin (subcutaneous) or into the muscle (intramuscular), but newer vaccines are available in nasal forms, which can eliminate concerns about sarcomas (cancers) that develop near injection sites in a small percentage of cats.