Source: Photo by Rocky on Unsplash
Kittens get their first immunity from the colostrum (first milk) of their mother.
How long this protection lasts varies from kitten to kitten; maternal antibodies disappear between 6 and 16 weeks of age. At this age, kittens will need protection of their own from dangerous diseases. This is where vaccines come in.
Vaccines all work by exposing the cat to a safe version of a disease. This exposure stimulates the cat’s immune system, so if she is exposed to the disease again, she has already developed immunity.
There are several types of vaccines available. Modified live virus vaccines contain a virus that is alive but that has been changed in some way so it doesn’t cause the actual disease. Killed virus vaccines use a dead version of the virus; sometimes this is combined with an immunity stimulant called an adjuvant. Recombinant vaccines stimulate immunity using DNA taken from a single protein that is part of the disease agent.
Injectable vaccines with an adjuvant have been associated with inflammatory reactions at the injection site. The degree of inflammation varies among products.
This inflammatory response may or may not be linked to a type of cancer in cats called vaccine-associated sarcoma.
There is an association between vaccination— particularly for feline leukemia and rabies—and this type of sarcoma. But the potential role of vaccines with adjuvants in causing vaccine-associated sarcomas remains controversial, and an exact link between adjuvanted vaccines and vaccine-asso-ciat- sarcoma has not been proven. It’s also important to remember that vaccine-associated sarcoma is very rare and seems to be associated with a genetic predisposition.
There has been a great deal of controversy about what vaccinations cats need and how often they need them. There are many terrible diseases that once killed kittens in alarming numbers, and without vaccines kittens (and adults cats, too) would still be dying. But most veterinary groups now agree that older recommendations for vaccinations left our companion animals overvaccinated.
So the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Academy of Feline Medicine formed a committee bringing together some of the best veterinary minds in the country to study what we know about communicable diseases and vaccines. They came up with a set of recommendations for vaccination schedules that abandoned the former “one approach fits all cats” model. Instead, they divided the available vaccines into three categories:
1.Core: vaccines every cat should have
2.Noncore: vaccines only some cats need
3.Not generally recommended: vaccines that either have not been proven to be effective or that are for diseases that don’t pose a serious threat to cats
Specifically which vaccines a cat needs depends on the cat’s age and circumstances. The cat’s owner and veterinarian need to review the recommendations and together come up with a plan that is right for each individual cat.
Keep in mind that if you keep your cat indoors, not only will she be healthier and live a longer life, but she will require fewer vaccines. Many infectious diseases are passed on by contact with infected cats, wild animals, parasites, or the droppings of wild animals. Lack of exposure means lack of risk.
In 2006, the vaccination recommendations for cats were revised to take into account new vaccine technologies. As of this writing, these are the current vaccination protocols issued by the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) is a highly contagious virus that attacks the white blood cells. It’s a leading cause of death in kittens who have not been vaccinated. The vaccine is very effective and safe, so there is no need for any kittens to die from this disease.
FPV is usually administered as a combination vaccine along with feline herpesvirus- and feline calicivirus (FHV-1/FCV). These are the two main groups of viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in cats. Upper respiratory infections can be deadly in kittens. The FHV-1 and FCV vaccines are highly effective, but they won’t prevent all cases of upper respiratory illness because the cat may be exposed to a specific virus strain that is not in the vaccine. However, if this happens, a vaccinated cat will usually have a milder case of the disease than an unvaccinated cat.
The combination vaccine comes in many forms. Injectable forms include a modified live vaccine and both killed adjuvanted and killed nonadjuvanted vaccines. There is also an intranasal modified live vaccine.
Kittens can be vaccinated with this as early as 6 weeks of age and then revaccinated every three to four weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks old. If an adolescent or young cat hasn’t been vaccinated, the protocol is two doses, three to four weeks apart. For all cats, booster shots are given one year after the last dose of the initial series, and then no more frequently than every three years.
Killed vaccines are preferred for pregnant cats, and then only if vaccination is absolutely necessary. Killed panleukopenia vaccines should be used in kittens who are less than 4 weeks old. All kittens and cats should receive at least one injectable panleukopenia vaccination.
Rabies is a disease that is always fatal. It is transmitted through the bites of infected animals. The vaccine is required in every state and is highly effective. It comes in a recombinant form and a killed adjuvanted form.
Initially, the rabies vaccine can be given as a single dose to a kitten as early as 8 to 12 weeks of age, with a second vaccination a year later. The killed adjuvanted vaccine has been tested and shown to be effective for at least three years, but how often it must be administered varies from state to state.
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) can cause a large number of diseases in cats, including cancer, and contributes to the severity of many other feline diseases. It is highly contagious, and kittens can acquire it before they are born or from an infected mother’s milk.
There is no effective treatment, although cats who test positive for the virus but are still healthy can live a long life if they have excellent care.
This vaccination is highly recommended for all kittens, but booster shots are recommended only for cats who are at risk. The vaccine comes in a killed adjuvanted injection or a recombinant transdermal patch.
If the cat needs this vaccine, the first dose is given when the kitten is 8 to 12 weeks old, depending on the product, with the second dose given three to four weeks later. Adult cats who haven’t previously been vaccinated will need two doses, three to four weeks apart.
If necessary, a single dose is given a year later. However, this vaccine is given annually only to a cat who is considered to have a continuing risk of exposure to FeLV.
Only cats who have tested negative for FeLV should be vaccinated, so it’s important that cats be tested before vaccinating them. They should also be tested if they have been exposed to FeLV since their last vaccination for it.
Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) attacks the cat’s immune system. Cat bites are the main source of transmission. There is currently no effective treatment for the disease. The FIV vaccination will provide protection from some strains of FIV but not all of them. The vaccine is recommended only for cats who are at high risk of infection, such as cats who roam outdoors and fight and those who live with FIV-infected cats.
This is a killed adjuvanted vaccine. When it’s indicated, three doses are required. The initial dose can be given to a kitten as young as 8 weeks old; two subsequent doses are given at an interval of two to three weeks. When it’s necessary, a single dose is given a year after the initial series, and each year thereafter if the risk of exposure to FIV continues.
Vaccination interferes with the ability to diagnose an FIV infection, because cats who test positive for FIV may have FIV or may simply have been vaccinated.
Cats should be tested for FIV before being vaccinated to be sure they are FIVnegative. Kittens may have FIV antibodies from their mother and therefore may test positive, but this immunity appears to wane by about 12 weeks of age.
Chlamydophila felis is a bacteria-like organism that causes conjunctivitis and a mild upper respiratory disease called feline pneumonitis. The vaccine should be used only as part of a control regime for cats living in a multicat environment in which some cats are infected with the disease. It comes as either a live or a killed adjuvanted injection. Kittens can be vaccinated as early as 9 weeks old, with a second injection three to four weeks later. Adult cats will need two doses, three to four weeks apart. An annual booster is advised only for cats who are at continued risk.
Bordetella bronchiseptica causes upper respiratory infections in cats. The illness is more severe in young cats and in cats living in poor housing. Vaccination may be considered before a cat enters a rescue shelter, a boarding facility, or a cattery where bordetellosis has been confirmed. This is a live nonadjuvanted vaccine. It can be administered in a single dose intranasally in kittens as young as 8 weeks old, and to adult cats. It’s only administered where cats are determined to be at risk. An annual booster is administered to cats who continue to be at risk.
Not Generally Recommended Vaccines
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a fatal disease that develops in a very small percentage of cats who have been exposed to the coronavirus. The disease is not contagious. The coronavirus is an extremely common virus that does not cause serious illness in most cats. Most cats who are exposed encounter the virus before the age of 16 weeks, but the vaccine cannot be given before that time. And there have been some studies showing that only cats who have never been exposed to coronavirus at the time of vaccination are likely to develop some level of protection from the vaccine.
Therefore, vaccination is not recommended for cats living within households in which FIP is known to exist or cats who are known to be positive for coronavirus antibodies.
The existing vaccine comes in a nonadjuvanted intranasal form. It’s administered at 16 weeks of age, with a second dose three to four weeks later. The efficacy of the vaccine is controversial, and the duration of immunity is short. The manufacturer recommends an annual booster.
Feline giardia is caused by protozoa that’s usually picked up from infected water. Most infections are extremely mild, although, as with all diseases, they affect young cats more seriously. The vaccine is in a killed, adjuvanted injectable form.
There aren’t enough studies available to show that the vaccine will prevent giardia in cats. It’s also not known whether vaccination will help infected cats recover. The vaccine, if administered, can be given as early as 8 weeks of age. A second dose is given two to four weeks later. In adult cats, two doses are given two to four weeks apart. The manufacturer recommends an annual booster.