Is there such a thing as over-vaccinating your cat? Are there any health risks associated with vaccines? During this My Lovely Feline Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks looks at controversies surrounding feline vaccinations.
My Lovely Feline content contributor Liz Italia also joined the call and shared her personal experience with a vaccine-induced sarcoma in her oldest cat.
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this call are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.
Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis Calicivirus Panleukopenia (FVRCP) Vaccine
The FVRCP vaccine provides some protection to three different viruses. The first part of the vaccine is for feline viral rhinotracheitis (also known as feline herpes or a kitty cold).
It’s similar to the flu vaccination in humans, as it helps to prevent the signs and symptoms of the herpes virus from getting too pronounced and it allows the cat to more easily fight it off. The feline herpes virus never goes away and is always in a cat’s system (like the herpes virus in humans … think cold sores).
It’s recommended that every kitten goes through the booster series. After they get their first annual vaccination, even if the vaccine isn’t labeled as a three-year vaccination, studies have shown that cats have antibodies for these viruses up to three years.
Some vet clinics won’t recommend another FVRCP vaccine for three years. Others will require annual vaccinations, especially because it reminds owners their cat must be seen by a vet annually to monitor other aspects of their health.
Once an indoor-only cat reaches 12 years of age, has received vaccinations for their entire life, and no new pets are being introduced, Dr. Brooks feels you can stop getting the FVRCP vaccine.
By that point, they will have built up antibodies to keep them protected for the remainder of their life. Dr. Brooks also stressed that’s her opinion, and it’s very important that you discuss your personal situation with your vet.
Rabies is a little bit of a different story than FVRCP, because it’s a public health issue for humans too. It’s much less likely that a cat will be exposed to rabies, especially in the U.S. where only 1-3 people die from rabies every year.
In cats, even though you don’t hear about it as much, in 2018, there were 241 cats that tested positive for rabies, so it is still out there. Cats get it from wildlife: racoons, bats, etc. Even though that’s a small percentage of the cat population, rabies still exists, and it’s an important vaccine to get.
If an unvaccinated cat or dog bites someone, vets aren’t allowed to vaccinate the animal. The law requires they wait 10 days, and if the animal is still alive at that point, it means they didn’t have rabies.
However, if your cat goes outside and comes back with a bite wound, your vet might recommend they get their rabies vaccine boostered. Even if they received their rabies vaccine two weeks prior, a booster will stimulate an immune response in the body, so if they were exposed to rabies, they’ll be able to fight it off.
Dr. Brooks shared that because of state laws, technically every cat should get their rabies vaccine until they pass. However many vets will make exceptions for older cats over 12 years, especially if they don’t go outside or have health risks. Talk to your vet about your comfort level.
Rabies vaccines come in one-year and three-year vaccines. You can get the three-year vaccine and also alternate with the FVRCP vaccine so your cat isn’t getting two vaccines the same year. The three-year vaccine will be a little more expensive, but it may work better for your individual situation.
Cats can have reactions to vaccines, and they vary in severity:
No reaction - Most common. Typically cats don’t act any different after receiving a vaccine.
Mild - Mopey for a few hours after the vaccine, but fine by the next day. Totally normal and nothing to be concerned about.
Moderate - Kind of lethargic for a few days. Appetite is off. Some vomiting and diarrhea. If that happens, talk with your vet about what to do the next time. They may recommend giving your cat a dose of Benadryl or a steroid before giving the vaccine next time to prevent such a strong response from their immune system.
Severe - Although it’s not common, it can happen, and there’s no way to know until you do it. Symptoms include extreme lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, anemia.
If that happens, don’t ever get your cat vaccinated again. Get your vet to write a letter explaining why your cat can’t get vaccines, and present it to groomers or boarding locations if they ask for proof of vaccinations.
Feline Leukemia Vaccine
The feline leukemia vaccine is recommended in kittens. If your cat goes outside, they should continue to be vaccinated every two-years, but if your cat is indoor only, they don’t need it. Feline leukemia is called the “lover’s disease” because it’s from grooming each other and sharing food bowls and bedding.
Sidenote: Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is called the fighter’s disease and is transferred by cats that get bit by FIV+ cats, so it’s seen more frequently in outdoor, unaltered males who are fighting for females. There isn’t a vaccine for FIV yet.
Tumors at Site of Vaccine Injections
Dr. Brooks shared that vaccine technology has improved to decrease the chances of vaccine-induced sarcomas (cancer). Cancer from vaccines is seen far less frequently than it used to be. This type of cancer is extremely treatable and tends not to metastasize, so once the tumor is surgically removed, the cat is usually in good shape.
Liz shared that even though her cat VIto had fibrosarcoma from a vaccine, she agreed with Dr. Brooks’ statement. Vito’s cancer was from a vaccine he’d gotten when he was younger because it was in the back of his neck, where vaccines used to be given.
Now, guidelines outline vaccines should be given in the back leg so if a tumor develops, the leg can be amputated. It was clear Vito’s cancer had been growing a long time and was very deep. He’s been in remission for two years, and just celebrated his 16th birthday.
Questions & Answers
Q: Do cats get the coronavirus?
Dr. Brooks: We believe so, because there have been a few that tested positive. They likely get it from their owners. One cat might have had the sniffles, but none of the other cats had issues.
Q: Is it safe to vaccinate at the same time as a cat’s teeth cleaning?
Dr. Brooks: Generally, yes, as long as it’s just a regular dental cleaning. Now, if they have an abscessed tooth or some sort of bad situation in their mouth, then I wouldn’t recommend it.
Also, if it’s something mild like an ear infection or a skin issue, it’s usually okay to vaccinate them.
If you have a kitten with an upper respiratory infection (URI or feline herpes), a lot of vets will recommend coming back for the booster after the URI symptoms are gone.
Q: Do cats need a bordetella vaccine?
Dr. Brooks: It’s a kennel cough vaccine, so it’s more common for dogs. I’ve never given it to a cat.
Q: When is teeth cleaning recommended for cats?
Dr. Brooks: It varies from cat to cat. If otherwise healthy, their first dental cleaning doesn’t need to be until they’re at least five years old. That excludes cats with resorptive lesions or major gingivitis. Those cats will need a dental sooner.
Q: My cat is overweight and breathes heavily after he’s running around, especially in the spring. Does he have asthma?
Dr. Brooks: If he starts to make a sound like he’s trying to cough up a hairball it could be asthma. If he isn’t making noise, it could just be panting. You can ask your vet to do an x-ray to look for asthma, and if it’s moderate to severe it will show up. They make a special inhaler for cats.
Liz: I have a feeling it could be panting from playing., One of my cats pants after playing for a while. If your cat is also overweight, the combination of the activity plus his size could be contributing.
During play, panting is a sign he’s had enough. You can also feel his paw pads and if they’re hot, he’s had enough playtime and you can stop.
Q: When can I give my six-month-old kittens adult food?
Dr. Brooks: You can start transitioning.
Liz: As long as they aren’t underweight, I usually transition around 6-8 months.
Q: I bought the My Lovely Feline wipes and foam since I seem to be allergic. I try to do it every other day but they don’t seem to enjoy it.
Liz: I think spacing it out a little more might not be a bad idea, as long as you can tolerate it. Maybe do it 1-2x a week and try to incorporate play or treats into it.
Talk with Your Vet
When it comes to vaccinating your cats, you should talk to your vet and put together a plan that will protect your cat, both from viruses and over-vaccination. Take a look at your cat’s lifestyle (indoor, outdoor) as well as age to help you make decisions on what will work best.
The risk of not vaccinating, especially in younger cats, has greater consequences than more side effects from vaccines, but it’s still important to weigh all your options.