Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Vaccines: What Cat Owners Need to Know

Pet Column for the week of July 9, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

On my first trip to the veterinarian's office as proud new cat owner I pondered the question that I am sure has crossed the minds of many cat owners at some point. Does my cat really need these vaccines? My kitten, like many of yours, was destined to be an indoor-only cat so why did I need to drag her into the vet clinic every year for vaccines?

According to Dr. Melissa Riensche, a small animal internal medicine resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, the answer is actually quite simple. As with human medicine, vaccinations are an important part of the preventative medicine veterinarians practice. The ultimate goal of a vaccination is to eliminate the spread of certain diseases or, if that is not possible, to reduce the disease severity.

The vaccines engineered for your cat are separated into several categories referred to as core, non-core, and those that are generally not recommended. These categories are defined based on factors like: the overall efficacy of the vaccine, your pet's individual risk factors, and the health risks associated with the vaccine. Core vaccines are ones that most animals should receive and in some cases a core vaccine may actually be required by law.

The vaccine for the rabies virus is one such vaccine that is required by law, although requirements to vaccinate can vary by state and county. Dr. Riensche recommends checking with your local veterinarian to see if the rabies vaccine is mandated by law where you live. In these areas there can be penalties and fines for owners that choose not to vaccinate for rabies, with the most severe consequences occurring should your pet bite a person or another animal.

Other core vaccines include feline herpesvirus 1, feline calicivirus, and feline panleukopenia virus vaccines. Dr. Riensche explains that "While these vaccines may be listed as core vaccines, certain health conditions and lifestyles can change your cat's need for vaccination and owners should discuss with their veterinarian to make sure the benefits of vaccination outweigh any risks."

Core vaccines are those that most animals should have. Vaccines that are considered to be non-core, including vaccines for Chlamydophila felis, bronchiseptica (bordetella), feline immunodeficiency virus, and feline leukemia virus (FeLV), are given based on your pet's individual risk factor for acquiring those diseases.

For example, if your cat lives its entire life indoors with no contact with any other cats it may not be a good candidate to receive the FeLV vaccine since that disease is spread from cat to cat via bite wounds, nursing, and other close, direct contact. However, cats that are negative for FeLV that spend time outdoors or may otherwise come in contact with an infected cat should be vaccinated against the virus.

In order to determine your cat's need for any non-core vaccines your veterinarian will need to know your pet's risk factors. Discuss with your veterinarian whether your cat will have any access to the outdoors, if there are any potentially infected pets in your household, whether you routinely foster any animals or take in stray cats, etc. Based on your cat's lifestyle, your veterinarian will be able to make recommendations as to which, if any, non-core vaccines your fluffy companion should receive.

The last category of vaccines are those that are generally not recommended, regardless of your pet's risk of infection. Vaccines in this category include those for feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and giardia. Many veterinarians refrain from using the FIP vaccine since the efficacy of the vaccine is controversial. Similarly, routine use of the Giardia vaccine is not recommended since infection is not usually life-threatening, in fact most infected animals are asymptomatic, and the vaccine does not actually prevent infection.

After you and your veterinarian determine which vaccines your cat should receive during its appointment your job as an owner is not over. According to Dr. Riensche the risks associated with vaccinations are low but can include allergic reactions and vaccine-associated sarcomas.

"An allergic reaction to a vaccine will usually present itself soon after vaccination. Owners should watch for vomiting, swelling of the face or around the injection site, respiratory distress such as panting, and any other signs that their pet just isn't doing well," advises Dr. Riensche.

If you know your pet has reacted to a vaccine in the past Dr. Riensche recommends discussing with your veterinarian how to prevent reactions from occurring next time your pet is vaccinated and whether the risk of your pet's vaccine reaction outweighs the benefit of vaccination.

Some of the vaccines that your pet may be receiving can carry with them the risk of a cancer known as vaccine-associated sarcoma. While the risk of your pet developing a vaccine-associated sarcoma is low, this form of soft-tissue cancer has been linked to the use of adjuvanted FeLV and rabies vaccines.

"Owners should be vigilant when their cat is receiving its vaccines to make sure they are given in the correct region of the body and as far down on the limb as possible. This will make diagnosis and treatment easier if your pet does develop a sarcoma later down the road," explains Dr. Riensche.

For more information on vaccines for your cat please contact your local veterinarian.