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Cat Vaccination - What to Know About Cat Vaccinations


What exactly are cat vaccinations?

A vaccination is an injection of a mixture of molecules that will help stimulate an immune response to a specific disease. A common one would be the rabies vaccine. In the rabies vaccine, there are parts of the rabies virus, not the entire virus. It's not an active or live virus, but parts of the virus that we inject along with other chemicals into your cat to help them start to build antibodies, to protect them against exposure to rabies, and keep them safe. We also have vaccines for many different diseases in cats. There is the feline leukemia vaccine and what we call the distemper vaccine, a combination of several diseases that can cause feline distemper and various respiratory diseases.


Dr. Menolly Cote
Freeport Veterinary Hospital

Are cat vaccinations necessary?

Some cat vaccinations, I would say, are necessary for pretty much every cat. The most important one would be the rabies vaccine required by state law for all cats. Even if they're inside 100% of the time, it's a good idea to do it still. Bats can get in the house Anybody that's got an old camper or an old house here in Maine will know that you get a bat in the house here and there. You don't always necessarily know if that bat has interacted with your cat or even with you when you've been asleep. You can't tell if you've been bitten sometimes, and that's still a potential vector for rabies. We must keep all of our pets safe so that we keep ourselves safe.

Even for indoor cats, I recommend doing distemper shots every three years until they're about anywhere between 8 to 10 years old. That's just to protect them against potential exposure through a screen, or if you decide to get a kitten, to keep them safe. For cats going outside, I also recommend the leukemia vaccine because that is a disease that we can't cure, and it can cause several health problems. Leukemia is transmitted from cat to cat, usually through an aggressive activity like scratching or biting.

What vaccinations are typically recommended, and what are they for?

We went over that a little bit. In general, for kittens, I recommend doing all three vaccines that we've discussed. The distemper vaccine, which is the combination vaccine, I recommend rabies, and for kittens, even if we're pretty sure that they are not going to be going outside, I recommend doing the leukemia vaccine during their kittens series to make sure they're protected. Sometimes plans change between kittenhood and a year old, and we end up letting kitties out, or they get out because they're wily little creatures, and we want to make sure that they're safe. After the kittenhood vaccines, we recommend every three-year vaccines for rabies and distemper, and leukemia comes every two years, but only for outdoor kitties.

What is the vaccination schedule for kittens, adult cats, and senior cats?

We typically recommend doing a distemper shot for kittens every three to four weeks, starting between six and eight weeks of age until about 14 to 16 weeks of age. We do several boosters because the antibodies that kittens receive from their mother through the milk can interfere with the vaccine's effectiveness. It varies from kitten to kitten as to how long those antibodies stay in their system. Based on studies, we know that if we continue to vaccinate until they're 14 to 16 weeks old, the vast majority of kittens will get a solid immunity to the diseases we're vaccinating for by 16 weeks of age. Rabies is such an effective vaccine, and there is not a lot of maternal antibody interference, so a single vaccination - usually between 12 and 16 weeks - is adequate. We typically start between eight and 12 weeks for leukemia, and typically two vaccines as a booster series are enough.

As I mentioned before, we typically maintain adult cats with every three years on rabies and distemper, and then leukemia vaccines every two years for cats that go outside. As we get into the senior years, I start to reevaluate vaccination schedules based on lifestyle. For indoor cats that we don't have fostering happening or exposure to outdoor cats, and there are no plans for new cats to be added to the household, I usually discontinue the distemper vaccination between eight and 10 years old. For leukemia vaccines, if we have a relatively sedentary outdoor cat, I usually will stop that around 10 to 11 years old. We maintain just the rabies in elderly cats in most situations.

Are there risks or side effects associated with cat vaccinations?

There are risks with any injection that we do, but the risks are pretty minimal. These vaccines are pretty darn safe in most situations, but there's always a risk of soreness at injection sites, swelling, bleeding, and those sorts of things. Those are probably the most common things that we would see. On very rare occasions, we can see an allergic reaction. This would typically happen within 30 minutes of the injection, and it's very apparent. We would see wheezing, facial swelling, vomiting, or diarrhea. If you ever notice any of these sorts of signs after your cat's been vaccinated, you want to get them back to us as soon as possible so that we can treat that reaction. We can also see that sometimes kitties will be quiet for two to three days after a vaccination, which usually resolves on its own.

There's also a small subset of cats that seem to have a genetic predisposition to developing a tumor called a vaccine-associated or an injection site-associated sarcoma. These cats with the genetic predisposition are more prone to developing a tumor at the site of injection. It doesn't necessarily have to be with the vaccine, but because that's the most common injection that cats get, that's one we see the most. It's not a very common occurrence, but one of the things that we do to mitigate this risk is we give the vaccinations as low on the leg as possible so that if they do start to develop a growth there, it's easier to remove than if it were between the shoulder blades or over a hip or an area like that. This is something that we monitor very carefully. This complication is also covered by the vaccine manufacturers so that they would pay for any potential treatment. That goes for any complication associated with the vaccines, as they're all guaranteed by the company that we use, so you know that you're going to get good care in any situation.

If my cat is going to strictly live indoors, do they still need to be vaccinated?

Absolutely. As I've mentioned before, rabies is still a risk even if your cat never goes outside. We still recommend distemper in most cases, too, just because we keep our windows open in the summertime here, and some cats go out and about. We want to keep any potential risk factors minimized by keeping those indoor kitties vaccinated.

Why is it important to avoid missing a cat vaccination?

We just want to keep our pets up-to-date. We want to be able to see your cat at least once a year, every year. That is a time that we can evaluate vaccination needs and get boosters up-to-date. If we're not keeping up with those boosters, the immunity may wane over time, and with potential exposure, we may or may not know if your cat is going to be protected.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Cat Vaccination - FAQs


Dr. Menolly Cote
Freeport Veterinary Hospital

Is it safe to get multiple vaccinations at the same time?

If your cat has always tolerated vaccinations well, it's absolutely safe to go ahead and get multiple boosters simultaneously. Just like as kids, we got two or three shots at a time to keep us safe from measles or chickenpox or things like that; the same goes with cats. We are competent in the safety of our vaccines, and it's actually safer to do multiple vaccines at once than run the risk of a kitty not getting back into the vet at the appropriate time to get the boosters they need.

Once my cat is vaccinated, will it need boosters?

Yes. So, immunity doesn't last forever. In most individuals, we sometimes need to jumpstart the immune system in the form of a booster to remind us how to keep us safe from a particular disease. And so, with most cats, we recommend seeing them every three years. We like to see them every year, but we will do them every three years for rabies and the distemper combination for boosters. And then, for those cats that need the leukemia vaccine, we typically do that every two years after kittenhood.

What should I do if I miss my cat's vaccine due date?

There is some leeway there. If we're off by a few months even, it's not likely to be a big issue. But once you realize your cat's overdue, just give us a call, and we'll get them in to get them up to date.

If my cat is vaccinated, is it safe to be around other animals that are not vaccinated?

No vaccine is one hundred percent guaranteed. And so, I would always recommend that you limit contact to hanging with pets that you know are healthy and are protected in all ways, whether that's with vaccinations or good heartworm and flea and tick prevention. We want to minimize the risk to our pets to keep them as healthy as possible for as long as possible. So, I would do that in their associates and playdates as well.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (207) 865-3673, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

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