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Vet 101 Q & A: Kittens & Vaccinations

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Welcome to this week’s Q & A with our own vet Dr. Rich Goldstein who has the scoop on vaccinations from kittenhood on. If you have a question fro Dr. G. please send it to [email protected] with Vet 101 Q & A in the subject line. And yes, that’s Odin in the photo (above) the first time I laid eyes on him in 2010 at five, feisty months old.

Q:I’m thinking of getting my first kitten (maybe two) and trying to learn as much as I can. What I don’t understand is why kittens need so many vaccinations in one year and why would an indoor cat need to be vaccinated against rabies? What would be the bare minimum?

A:Good for you for considering adoption!! As you all know, it’s a cause I deeply believe in! Now, hold on to your wigs and keys as we tackle the feline vaccination question.

The immune system works by producing an army of protective antibodies that attack foreign invading organisms that enter the body. If the body happens to have antibodies already present to a certain invader, the defenses can mount an early attack and get a jump on the infection. This is really the purpose of vaccines: to sensitize and booster the body’s immune system to specific invaders so that a quick response can be mounted if needed. In kittens, this is extremely important because their immune system is not developed, and they have minimal natural defenses. The antibodies provided by vaccines are constantly on patrol, and the speed of their defense can literally mean the difference between life and death for an exposed kitten.

So, why do kittens need a series of vaccines? Most kittens will receive some antibodies from their mom. But, mom’s antibodies don’t last long, and they don’t provide lifelong immunity in their kittens. The key would be to find out when mom’s antibodies are fading out, and then start vaccinating. Unfortunately, there’s no way to measure or predict when that will happen. We do know that mom’s antibodies will go away somewhere between 8 and 16 weeks. That’s why we give a series of vaccines, starting at 8 weeks, and then every 3-4 weeks until 16 weeks of age. The hope is to stimulate the kitten’s own immune system to make antibodies just as mom’s immunity is waning, and prevent any gap in coverage.

There are two categories of vaccines: core and non-core (or, optional) vaccines. Core vaccines should be given to all cats, and include the 3-in-1 (typically, feline herpes, calicivirus, and panleukopenia), and rabies. Non-core vaccines are given to some cats, depending on their lifestyle, and should be discussed with your veterinarian. Non-core vaccines include feline leukemia, Chlamydia, coronavirus (FIP)and others.

It is generally accepted, that, for most kittens, the 3-in-1 (FVR-C-P) should initially be given as a series of boosters, 3 to 4 weeks apart, from 8 weeks of age until 16 weeks of age. The vaccine should then be boostered again 1 year later, and then every 3 years for life, in order to maintain the antibodies at protective levels. For those who are reluctant to continue vaccinations after kittenhood, blood tests can be performed to measure the level of antibodies in adult cats, to see if they have protective levels of antibodies.

I am often asked if it’s important to continue vaccinating adult cats. The answer to this depends on your cat’s lifestyle, risk of exposure, overall health, and your feeling on vaccines. This should be an important discussion to have with your vet. But one thing to keep in mind: in humans, which groups are strongly recommended to get the annual flu shot? The very young, and the very old — the two groups with the potentially weakest immune systems.

Now, what about the rabies vaccine for your indoor cat? Here’s where things get a little hairy. Rabies is an invariably fatal disease to all species that are infected, including humans. In an effort to protect humans and animals, state legislators have enacted mandatory rabies vaccination protocols for domestic animals (the rules vary depending on your state). Here are a few things to consider about why it may not be such a bad idea to vaccinate your indoor cat:

  • In our part of New York, rabies has been found in raccoon, bats, and, even a couple of feral cats. Even though your cat knows to stay indoors, what happens if a bat gets into your house and your unvaccinated cat kills it? The health department gets involved. Now your potentially-exposed cat is quarantined while you frantically await the results of rabies testing on the remains of the bat (not to mention your potential exposure).
  • Your otherwise-friendly kitty becomes spooked by the rambunctious neighbor child, and accidentally nips his finger, drawing blood. The parents rush him to the doctor, who legally has to report the incident to the health department. The health department comes knocking on your door asking for proof of the kitty’s current rabies vaccine (yes, even though she is completely indoors and has no history of contact with rabid animals). It can become a legal and logistical headache as the cat can be quarantined, and you could be fined.
  • The housekeeper accidentally leaves the front door open, and your kitty decides to go on an excursion outdoors. She returns a few hours later with an unexplained bite wound. What attacked her? An unknown traumatic wound can lead, again, to quarantine, a visit from the health department, and anxious sleepless nights.

Bottom line on rabies vaccines: the new recombinant rabies vaccines are very safe in cats. Can you 100% guarantee that your indoor cat will never be exposed to this 100% fatal disease? Can you 100% guarantee that your kitty will never bite someone, even accidentally? These are important things to consider in your decision-making process.

So, now that you understand why all these shots need to be given, go out there and ADOPT that kitty and enjoy him!!

Editor’s note: As cats age, the need to re-vaccinate changes case by case. For example: our Cat Wisdom 101 cats were seen last week by Dr. G. and will be seen again next week. Odin received a booster for rabies because of a recent unexplained wound sustained outdoors, while Merlin as a declining geriatric has had no need for vaccinations for the past few years. To learn more about individual state laws on rabies vaccination, visit this link from The American Veterinary Association.

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  • Kate Welling

    I didn’t think it was that important to get my kitten vaccinated, but after reading your scenarios, I understand why they are crucial! I will remember to get my cat revaccinated, as you mentioned. We just got a kitten, and my children love it. I would hate for anything to happen to her, so I will seek out a vaccination service for her.

  • Abby

    Excellent information.
    Thanks so much for the insights.
    WE grapple with the need for vaccines too.


  • Tamago

    Thank you for great information and very clear explanaitons 🙂 When I got a kitty, I asked my coworker who is a cat expert what I need to do and she gave me all the info about vaccines. This is a great post for people who are going to adopt a kitten!

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