Vaccinating your kitten or cat is an important part of responsible pet ownership. It’s an inexpensive way to protect your feline friend from a number of serious diseases.
Generally, vaccines are given as an injection (read: a shot). Often the vaccine will be a "combination" that protects against several different diseases. Outdoor cats are often vaccinated against rabies and the feline leukemia virus.
Vaccinations are particularly important for kittens. Generally, it’s a series of "kitten shots," that are given at periodic intervals to provide the best immunity. You should discuss the specific vaccination schedule for your cat or kitten with your vet, but here is some information about the vaccines and the diseases they protect against:
Feline panleukopenia is sometimes called feline distemper, although it isn’t related to canine distemper. This viral infection is actually caused by the feline parvovirus, which is similar to the canine parvovirus. Like canine parvovirus, feline panleukopenia attacks the gastrointestinal tract causing fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. Feline panleukopenia used to be a leading cause of death in cats, although it is much less common now thanks to effective vaccines. Young kittens are particularly susceptible to the virus and the prognosis for kittens under the age of 8 weeks is not good.
Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) and feline calcivirus cause 90% of upper respiratory infections in cats. These extremely contagious respiratory diseases can lead to death from pneumonia in kittens. Sneezing, runny nose and eyes, and coughing are the primary symptoms of an upper respiratory infection. Although the viruses are very contagious, cats must be exposed to an infected cat or come in contact with toys or people who have been around an infected cat to become ill, so it’s more common in environments that have cats living in close proximity to one another.
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a fatal disease caused by a coronavirus infection. The virus is relatively uncommon, but the incidence is much higher in areas where large groups of cats are housed. Kittens, older cats, and cats in poor health or experiencing stress are most susceptible. Although a vaccine exists, studies have not yet confirmed how effective it is.
Feline Leukemia (FeLV) is a retrovirus that causes immunosuppression in cats. Before administering a feline leukemia vaccine, usually a cat or kitten is tested first to make sure the cat is not harboring the virus. Outdoor cats are more likely to contract FeLV than indoor cats. Although there is no known cure, it’s easy to prevent FeLV simply by vaccinating your cat.
Rabies is a viral disease that causes brain swelling in mammals. Vaccinating a cat against rabies protects you (and other people) along with the cat, since rabies can be transmitted to humans. Outdoor cats should be vaccinated; the laws regarding the frequency vary, so check what the rules are in your community.
Opinions differ as to how often booster shots should be administered to cats. Cats can develop a cancer called feline vaccine-associated sarcoma near the spot a shot was given. Because of this risk, some vets are recommending longer intervals in between booster shots in older cats. However, all kittens and young cats should "get their shots." The risks of the diseases far outweigh any other concerns, so be sure to talk to your vet about shots when you get a new cat.