A lot has been in the news lately about vaccinating our companion animals, the emphasis of which has focused on how cats can develop cancer at the site of vaccination. The risk is very low statistically, 1:10,000 – 1:100,000 but very high if it is your own beloved feline friend. Both the rabies vaccine and the feline leukemia vaccine have been implicated. It is thought that the “adjuvant”, the substance added to the vaccine to create a better response, is the culprit.

In response to concerned cat owners, veterinarians across the U.S. established an Advisory Panel on Feline Vaccines to develop recommendations for use of vaccines in cats. The guidelines from the panel were published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, a few years ago. The following is a summary of their recommendations.

FELINE DISTEMPER VACCINE: (which includes feline panleukopenia, feline herpesvirus, and feline calicivirus): Should be given to kittens 2-3 times until they are greater than 12 weeks old. It should be boostered 1 year after initial vaccination, then again at 3 year intervals. On going studies have shown that most cats actually have immunity lasting longer than 3 years and maybe even for life. The feline distemper vaccine (FVRCP) is strongly recommended for all cats. Two of these viruses, the herpesvirus and calicivirus, produce upper respiratory infections similar to the flu. While not typically life threatening, they can make cats very sick. Panleukopenia virus, however, is often fatal.

RABIES VACCINE: Vaccination (1 dose) should be given to kittens greater than 12 weeks of age. A booster is given 1 year after initial vaccination, then at 3-year intervals. There is no justifiable reason to vaccinate even outdoor cats more frequently. However, if another animal bites your cat and it has been longer than 1 month since its last rabies booster, it must be re-vaccinated.

FELINE LEUKEMIA VACCINE (FELV): Initial vaccines are given in a series of two, 3-4 weeks apart, to kittens over 8 weeks of age. The initial vaccines are boostered 1 year later, then at yearly intervals. This vaccine is only recommended for cats at risk (i.e. outdoor cats, indoor/outdoor cats, stray cats, feral cats, cats in open multicat households, cats in FELV positive households, and cats in households with unknown FELV status). Since the FELV vaccine has been implicated as causing cancer at the site of vaccination, it is a very good idea to test all cats in the household for the virus, especially newcomers, thereby eliminating the need for the vaccine in FELV negative households.

The remaining vaccines (FELINE INFECTIOUS PERITONITIS (FIP), FELINE IMMUNODEFIENCY (FIV), and CHLAMYDIA VACCINES) need only be given to cats at high risk, namely those pure bred cats coming from a cattery where FIP and Chlamydia have been a problem, or household with many stray cats with FIV.

I would like to stress at this point the need for yearly examination of your cat by your veterinarian. Just because vaccines may only be needed at 3 year intervals for adult cats, this does not justify not bringing your cat to the vet for its annual physical. A thorough examination will reveal early dental problems, heart problems, and weight changes, not to mention any tumors. In addition, dietary changes and parasite control can be discussed. And, in the case of an emergency, your veterinarian will be much more likely to drag him/herself out of bed at 4 AM to treat your cat if you have a good client-patient-doctor relationship already established.

If your veterinarian is not following the guidelines of the Advisory Panel, ask them why they are not. You as the consumer/pet owner should know why your cat is receiving vaccinations, just as you would know about your child’s vaccine requirements. In short, an informed pet owner makes a better pet owner.