Just as with dogs, cats need vaccinations both at their kitten stage of life and throughout their older years.
Vaccinating your kitten is one of the most vital things you can do as a new pet owner. Not only does it prevent them from picking up any diseases, but it also limits the spread of these illnesses.
For cats who go outside, this is particularly important. Cats may interact with stray cats who are carrying diseases by not being vaccinated. Their chance of picking something up is therefore high.
A kitten will need its first set of vaccinations at nine weeks old. This means it may be the responsibility of the breeder if you’re adopting your kitten at 10 weeks old. They will then need their second doses at three months old.
A kitten should not be allowed outside until they have had all of their vaccinations, and have been neutered.
Vaccinating adult cats
After their initial kitten vaccinations, an adult cat will need a booster vaccination every year.
This is usually done as just one vaccination, so is quick and simple. It can be done at the same time as their annual vet checkup.
What diseases do cat vaccines protect against?
With a vaccine, cats are commonly protected against:
- cat flu (feline herpes virus and feline calicivirus)
- feline infectious enteritis
- feline parvovirus (FPV)
The vaccine to protect against the feline leukaemia virus is not part of the core vaccine. But it is highly recommended for cats who go outside. Therefore, most cats will need it. Many vet practices offer it as an all-in-one, but it does cost slightly more.
Cat flu is a generalised term for what is actually a very serious upper respiratory disease. It is highly contagious, and the virus shows symptoms that are not unlike that of a human cold.
Key symptoms include:
- discharge from the eyes or nose
- breathing issues
- loss of appetite
If the condition is left to worsen, it can cause issues with blindness, pneumonia and death. Cats can become severely debilitated in older life. Kittens and older cats are mostly affected, due to their weaker immune systems.
Cat flu is often spread through direct contact and bodily fluids (such as saliva or nasal discharge). But it can also be spread indirectly through contaminated food bowls, bedding, litter and human contact.
To treat cat flu, plenty of rest and fluids are needed. Any infected cats must be kept separately from other cats. Recovery often takes up to two weeks. Sometimes, there is no need for veterinary intervention, but you may have to get some help if your cat stops eating and drinking and requires an intravenous drip.
Vets can also prescribe some antibiotics to prevent secondary infections, caused by their weaker immune systems. Because cats can commonly be affected for life by this respiratory disease, it is vital they are vaccinated as early as possible to limit infection and the risk of illness.
Lifelong carriers of cat flu
Some cats who have had feline flu can actually become lifelong carriers of the illness. This means the flu is ‘shed’ during periods of high stress, such as if at the vets or in a cattery. They don’t show signs of the illness, however.
This is why, if you take your cat to a cattery or let them socialise with other cats, it is vital to be responsible and ensure your cat is protected.
You will also want to regularly wash your cat’s bedding, dishes and toys to prevent any shed disease from spreading to other cats in the home.
Feline infectious enteritis
Also known as parvovirus or Panleukopenia Virus, FIE is a disease caused by infection of parvovirus. It is also referred to as the panleukopenia virus because an infected cat will develop a low white blood cell count.
Infection carries a very high mortality rate, especially in cats who have not been vaccinated. Parvoviruses are particularly dangerous as they can survive for years in the environment without being detected.
FIE is spread by direct faecal-oral contact and contamination of the environment or equipment. Cats infected with FPV can continue to shed the virus for at least six weeks following infection, and the virus can also be transmitted by dogs.
It is an infection that all rescue centres are always very high on alert for, due to how resilient it is and how rapidly it spreads. An infection will show symptoms such as:
- haemorrhagic vomiting and diarrhoea
- damage to the lining of the intestine
- viral infection (via the blood to the bone marrow and lymph glands)
- lack of eating
Unfortunately, some cats die before showing any of these signs. Because their white blood cells are depleted due to the viral infection, cats who do show signs commonly pick up other secondary diseases before it is spotted, too.
There is no treatment. Cats must be isolated, with humans wearing protective clothing. Affected cats can die with dehydration and weakness, so intravenous fluids and a broad spectrum of antibiotics are crucial. But it doesn’t guarantee any form of recovery. Anti-emetic drugs may be given to stop vomiting.
Interferon products may be given if a cat shows signs of potential recovery. These have an antiviral effect in the body. Most cats will need lifelong care if they recover, so pet insurance is vital. The only way to prevent it is through vaccination.
Infection during pregnancy
Pregnant Queens with parvovirus will pass it on to their kittens. They are then commonly infected with cerebellar hypoplasia. The cerebellum is the part of the brain associated with coordination, so affected kittens are very wobbly and uncoordinated.
The infection leads to uncoordinated movement, or ataxia. This is a neurological disorder. Some or all of the kittens in the litter can be affected, and kittens can also pick it up in the first few weeks of their lives.
There is no treatment for cerebellar hypoplasia, but symptoms usually do not worsen. Therefore, a cat can learn to live with this disability. Any potential owners will need to be mindful about helping them out and possibly keeping them indoors depending on the severity. The life expectancy of a cat with hypoplasia is the same as one without.
Feline leukaemia virus
FeLV in cats is incurable. It eventually produces fatal illnesses in infected cats. According to the Blue Cross, between 1 and 2% of all cats in the UK are FeLV positive, and most die within four years.
Because cats can still live for a few years after diagnosis, it is classed as a virus they can live with. But it drastically cuts most cats’ lives short.
Initial symptoms are fatigue and a fever, so it is hard to spot straight away. More serious symptoms will start to develop within just a few months though, with the main effect being the depletion of white blood cells in the cat’s body. This leaves them much more susceptible to picking up secondary infections and struggling to fight them off.
Because the initial signs are often tricky to spot, or may not arouse suspicion, more common signs are:
- weight loss
- issues with balance and walking (nervous system)
- recurrent diarrhoea
Anaemia is common for FeLV+ cats to develop, and produces lethargy, weakness and paleness of the gums and tongue. Cancers of the white blood cells (called lymphosarcomas) can also develop. Around 20% of all FeLV-infected cats die from cancer.
Diagnosing cats with feline leukaemia
FeLV is diagnosed through blood tests. However, this is not a simple procedure. False negatives and false positives are common, so you may need to repeatedly test your cat or send results off to a laboratory. Labs use different testing methods which increases reliability versus in-house vet practices.
Recently exposed cats can test positive despite actually being clear of the virus. Therefore, a second test will be needed around 12 weeks after the first. If a cat is positive but seems healthy, another test will be offered.
For cats who are clearly sick, however, a positive result likely means they are indeed positive.
Is there a vaccination for the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)?
Even though they sound similar, FeLV and FIV are two very different diseases taxonomically.
There is currently no vaccine to protect your cat against FIV. Vaccines do exist, but their reliability and safety are unknown. They have been used in the USA but were not approved for use in the UK.
Therefore, keeping your cat away from FIV infected cats and ensuring your cat is neutered (to prevent fighting and mating) is key, You can read more about the feline immunodeficiency virus in our guide.
How much do cat vaccinations cost?
Prices vary between vet practices and where you reside. According to Bought By Many, the initial cost of core kitten vaccinations (and for feline leukaemia) is around £73.
FeLV is not a core vaccine, but over 96% of vet practices offer it as part of their core package. It is cheaper to get a vaccine that doesn’t include this, but we don’t think it is worth the risk, especially as it is a fatal disease.
On average, an annual booster is around £49 in the UK. So, it is worth keeping these up-to-date as it is cheaper than the restart costs. It is cheaper in the long run to protect your cat against the illnesses above, versus trying to treat the,, which could cost thousands of pounds and result in lifelong medication.