Vaccinations for Kittens:

There are many diseases that may be fatal to cats. Fortunately, we have the ability to prevent many of these by using very effective vaccines. In order to be effective, these vaccines must be given as a series of injections. Ideally, they are given at about 6, 9, 12, and 16 weeks of age, but this schedule may vary somewhat depending on several factors.

The core routine vaccination schedule will protect your kitten from four diseases: distemper, two respiratory viruses, leukemia and rabies. The first three are included in a combination vaccine that is given at 6, 9, 12, and 16 weeks old. The leukemia vaccine is necessary as a kitten and its first-year booster vaccination. It will also be needed as an adult if your cat will ever see other cats, be boarded or groomed, or you may leave windows open at times in the year. Leukemia vaccination is needed at 12 and 16 weeks of age. If your cat presents for vaccination after 12 weeks of age, it will still need each of these vaccinations at first presentation and again 3-4 weeks later to gain adequate immunity. One vaccine of any of these alone is not enough to be protective. A rabies vaccine is also necessary and is usually given at 16-week vaccination series.

What Are the Vaccinations?

1) FVRCP (Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, Panleukopenia virus) – this is a 3-in-1 vaccination that provides protection from highly contagious viruses that result in the upper respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections, that when severe, may be life-threatening. Kittens initially receive an FVRCP vaccine between 6 and 9 weeks of age, then are re-vaccinated every 3-4 weeks until at least 16 weeks of age. Unvaccinated kittens over 16 weeks of age and unvaccinated adult cats only need an initial FVRCP vaccine and an additional booster vaccine 3-4 weeks later. Thereafter, cats should be vaccinated every 2-3 years.

Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis - Also known as a herpes virus, and Calicivirus cause upper respiratory infections. Symptoms may include sneezing, coughing, nasal and eye discharge, eye problems, oral ulcers and inflammation, fever, laryngitis, and loss of appetite. Diagnostic tests are available but often a diagnosis is made based on clinical symptoms. Treatment is often outpatient and may include topical eye medications and antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections. More severe cases may require fluid therapy, nebulization, and hospitalization.

Panleukopenia vaccine - This vaccine is given to prevent infection with the feline parvovirus. This virus results in severe gastrointestinal symptoms and bone marrow disease. Feline Panleukopenia has also been referred to as Feline Distemper. Symptoms in older kittens include loss of appetite, depression, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, white blood cell abnormalities, and often death. Pregnant cats may pass the virus to the unborn kittens which may result in abortion or brain development abnormalities and death in newborn kittens. Diagnostic tests are available. Treatment usually requires hospitalization with fluid therapy, antibiotics, medications to reduce vomiting, and nutritional care.

2) Leukemia vaccine – This vaccine is given to prevent infection with the leukemia virus. The leukemia virus is typically spread through bodily fluids, particularly saliva, of infected cats. Most cats are exposed from direct contact either through grooming or during biting behavior, but can also be exposed by sharing a litter box with another infected cat. The virus may also be transmitted to kittens when still in the uterus or nursing from an infected mother. When exposure occurs, an infected cat may fight off the virus, become a non-contagious carrier, or become actively infected and contagious. Feline Leukemia Virus infection can cause immunosuppression, bone marrow disease, anemia, and cancer and is often eventually fatal. A newly acquired kitten or adult cat should always be tested for the leukemia virus, especially if being introduced to any other cats in the home. The test is most often conducted in our hospitals and only requires a few drops of blood. A positive test indicates the leukemia virus is in the bloodstream and the cat is contagious. Depending on when the cat was infected there is a chance the immune system may clear the virus so periodic retesting and additional diagnostics are often recommended. All cats that test negative may then be vaccinated if deemed appropriate for age and lifestyle. We recommend that all kittens aged 12 weeks and up initially receive 2 leukemia vaccinations typically 3-4 weeks apart to provide adequate immunity. This ensures that even indoor kittens are protected in the event they happen to escape from the house or are accidentally exposed to another contagious cat. The kittens should then receive one additional booster 12 months later. Thereafter the vaccine is only administered if exposure is still a concern.

5) Rabies vaccine – This vaccine is given to prevent infection with the rabies virus. The rabies virus is eventually transmitted through all bodily secretions/fluids of an infected mammal. Rabies virus is most often found in wildlife. Commonly infected wild animals include bats, skunks, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes. The typical route of infection is through a bite wound that penetrates into another animal’s or human’s tissues. Infection through contamination of bodily fluids into open wounds and mucous membranes such as the mouth rarely occurs. Once the virus enters the body it may take days, many months, and even up to a year before symptoms begin. Symptoms may include changes in behavior, subtle neurological symptoms, chewing or licking at the site of the initial bite wound, disorientation, seizures, weakness, paralysis, changes in the tone of the bark/meow, labored breathing, coma, and death. Symptoms occur over 3 to 7 days and is ALWAYS fatal. There are no diagnostic tests for infected live animals and no effective treatment. PREVENTION is the only option.

The Need for a Series of Vaccinations

When the kitten nurses on its mother, it receives a temporary form of immunity through its mother’s milk. This immunity is in the form of proteins called antibodies. For about 24-48 hours after birth, the kitten's intestine absorbs these antibodies directly into the bloodstream. This immunity is of benefit during the first several weeks of the kitten's life, but at some point, this immunity fails and the kitten is left with no additional immunity. Each kitten must then be able to make its own long-lasting immunity. Vaccinations are used for this purpose, to stimulate the immune system into generating its own protective amount of antibodies. As long as the mother’s antibodies are present they will interfere with the vaccination’s ability to stimulate the kitten's immune system. Many factors determine when the kitten will be able to respond to the vaccinations. These include the level of immunity in the mother cat, how much antibody has been absorbed, and the number of vaccines given to the kitten. Therefore, a series of vaccinations is required to ensure that each kitten produces an appropriate amount of antibodies. A single vaccination, even if effective, is not likely to stimulate the long-term immunity that is so important.