Nothing is more heartbreaking than when pets suffer from cat illnesses that could have been prevented with a vaccine.
I stood across the exam table from a family, all of us looking down at their poor kitten whose eyes were swollen shut. She could hardly breathe from the amount of discharge clogging up her nose.
“What can we do for her?” the wife asks.
“Lots of supportive care,” I tell her, “and let’s get the rest of the litter in for vaccines right away.”
Keeping up with vaccines is one of a pet parent’s major duties. They’re usually started early in kittenhood, sometimes as young as 6 weeks old.
Although local or state governments often require one vaccine in particular (the rabies vaccine for cats!), there are other “optional” vaccines to consider.
Here are vaccines that I consider “mandatory” for preventing major cat illnesses.
1. Rabies Vaccine
The rabies vaccine for cats is generally required by law.
Rabies is a viral disease transmitted through a bite from wildlife carrying the virus, particularly foxes, skunks and bats. Despite contrary belief, direct contact with wildlife is not the only way to get infected. Cats also can be infected if salvia from a rabid animal gets into their eyes, nose, mouth or an open wound. Because of this, all cats (even indoor-only cats) should get vaccinated.
Not only is rabies a fatal condition for your cats, but this virus can also transmit to humans. There is no treatment for rabies-infected cats, and they ultimately die.
The age for vaccination and frequency of booster vaccines can vary by location so consult your local veterinarian for recommendations.
2. Feline Distemper Vaccine
Many people refer to this as a distemper vaccine, but this shot protects the animal from far more than only one disease.
Depending on the brand chosen by your veterinarian, the “distemper” vaccine usually protects against at least three diseases. Again, vaccine frequency varies, but most kitten shots are repeated every three to four weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks old and then the cat is given the vaccine at 1 year, and then usually again every three years.
The most common diseases the “distemper” vaccine prevents are:
Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (FVR)
FVR is a viral infection that can cause high fever, sneezing, runny nose, conjunctivitis and ulcers on the surface of the eye. There is no cure; the only treatment is supporting the body by maintaining hydration and preventing secondary infections with antibiotics.
Anti-viral medications may speed recovery. But, even with treatment, symptoms may persist over a lifetime.
Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
FCV is a viral infection that primarily causes upper respiratory issues, but it can also cause ulcers in the mouth, pneumonia and occasionally arthritis.
No specific treatment is available, which means supportive care is the primary option. Some animals do become persistently infected.
Feline Panleukopenia (FP)
FP is a very severe viral infection that primarily causes gastrointestinal signs, including vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, severe dehydration and changes in the blood and immune systems. Death is common.
No specific treatment is available, but aggressive supportive care is required.
3. Feline Leukemia Vaccine
Kittens are particularly sensitive to feline leukemia (FeLV). It is spread by direct contact with infected cats.
This virus can infect the kitten (sometimes even before birth) and weaken his or her immune system, as well as make the kitten more prone to certain types of cancers. As cats age, they often develop some natural immunity to the virus. However, there is no treatment for FeLV once a cat is infected.
This is the one “lifestyle dependent” vaccine on the list. It’s recommended for all kittens to get vaccinated against FeLV, as they are most likely to become infected. Also, indoor-only kittens are more likely than indoor-only cats to attempt (and succeed) at the occasional jailbreak, increasing their chances of getting exposed to this virus.
It’s reasonable to discuss discontinuing the FeLV vaccine if your kitten has reached 1 year of age and is permanently an indoor-only kitten who doesn’t have a tendency to escape. For cats that go outside, live with other infected cats, or have other risk factors (such as the tendency to slip out the door once in a while), I recommend continuing lifelong annual vaccination.
I hope that this overview of vaccines and discussion of their importance will motivate you to get your new kitten vaccinated, and your adult cats back up to date on vaccines to prevent major cat illnesses.
Fortunately, the kitten mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article did survive her infection, and thanks to the quick action of the owners—the other kittens were much more mildly affected, and the entire litter survived.
By Dr. Sandra Mitchell