BENEFITS AND RISKS
Vaccinating your adult cat or kitten can be one of the most important steps you take to prevent disease in your pet. Two veterinary associations, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the Academy of Feline Medicine (AFM) Advisory Panel on Feline Vaccines, have developed recommendations for the selection and administration of vaccines for cats. Feline vaccinations fall into two basic categories, the "core" vaccines, or those that are recommended for most cats, and the ancillary vaccines, or those that are only recommended for a small percentage of cats. Although most feline veterinarians are familiar with both groups of vaccines and how and when they should be administered, it is also important for cat owners to educate themselves on what is available and the benefits and risks of vaccinating their pets.
Deciding which vaccines your cat should receive requires that you have a complete understanding of the benefits and risks of the procedure. For this reason, it is extremely important that you discuss vaccination with your veterinarian so he or she can help you decide which vaccines are most appropriate. Be sure to inform your veterinarian of your cat's lifestyle, environment, medical history, current medical problems, and medications your cat may be receiving. Remember, your veterinarian is more than willing to answer any questions you may have and will help you make the right vaccine choices.
Why does my cat need to be vaccinated?
The immune system plays a pivotal role in maintaining your cat's health. One of the most important functions of this complex system of specialized cells and molecules is to protect cats from disease and infection caused by viruses, bacteria, and a host of other microbes and parasites.
Vaccines help prepare your cat's immune system to fend off invasion by a particular disease-causing organism. Vaccines contain antigens, which to the immune system "look" like the organism but don't, ideally, cause disease. When a vaccine is administered, the immune system mounts a protective response. Then if your cat is subsequently exposed to the disease-causing organism, its immune system is prepared to either prevent infection or reduce the severity of disease.
Though vaccines play an important role in controlling infectious diseases, most do not induce complete protection from disease, nor do they induce the same degree of protection in all cats. For extra protection, you should make every effort to reduce your cat's exposure to infected cats or contaminated environments.
Why do kittens require a series of vaccinations?
During the first few hours after birth, kittens ingest maternal antibodies contained in their mother's milk. These antibodies help protect the kitten from infectious diseases until its own immune system is more mature.
Unfortunately, maternal antibody also interferes with a vaccine's ability to stimulate the kitten's immune system. To counteract this problem, veterinarians often administer a series of vaccines, usually beginning when the kitten is around six to eight weeks of age. Vaccination is then repeated at three- or four-week intervals until maternal antibody has waned, usually at around twelve weeks of age. In some cases (e.g., rabies vaccines) the initial vaccine is not given until maternal antibody has disappeared altogether.
Does my adult cat need to be vaccinated every year?
The answer depends in part on the vaccine. For example, certain feline rabies vaccines provide protection for longer than one year, so vaccination with a triennially approved rabies vaccine every three years (after the initial series is completed, and when consistent with local rabies vaccine requirements) is sufficient.
Recent research suggests that panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus vaccines provide adequate protection for several years, so that many veterinarians are now recommending that this vaccine be boosted no more than once every three years.
Unfortunately, far less is known about the duration of protection provided by other vaccines. Until that information is known, annual vaccination with those products-when their administration is necessary-is a good idea.
Are vaccines dangerous?
Not usually. Unfortunately, a perfect, risk-free vaccine does not exist. Vaccines are indispensable in fighting feline infectious disease. But as with any medical procedure, there is a small chance that reactions may develop as a result of vaccination. To maximize the benefits of vaccination while minimizing the risks, it is important to vaccinate only against infectious agents to which your cat has a realistic risk of exposure, infection, and subsequent development of disease. Also, make sure to inform your veterinarian of any problems your cat is currently experiencing, medications your cat is receiving, or vaccine reactions experienced in the past before your cat is vaccinated again.
Reactions may be mild or (very rarely) severe.
The following reactions are fairly common and usually start within hours to several days after vaccination. They typically last no more than a few days.
discomfort at the site where the vaccine was given
diminished appetite and activity
sneezing about four to seven days after administration of an intranasal vaccine
temporarily sore joints and lameness following calicivirus vaccination
Development of a small, firm, painless swelling under the skin at the site where the vaccine was given. The swelling usually goes away after several weeks, but if you notice such a swelling, contact your veterinarian.
Lameness, loss of appetite, and fever beginning approximately one to three weeks after Chlamydia psittaci vaccination.