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Understanding cat vaccinations

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In recent years, there has been a gradual change in veterinary practice with respect to vaccinating cats. The question of the duration of vaccine immunity – as well as the diseases for which vaccination is recommended – have received increased attention. In the case of cat vaccinations, however, there has been less hard data available for the veterinary community to base its recommendations on. In addition, the higher rate of adverse reactions to vaccines in cats than dogs has been a cause of concern and confusion among cat owners. However, in recent years, new studies and developments in the area of feline vaccinations have resulted in a set of revised feline vaccination guidelines that have brought greater clarity to this aspect of cat care.

Vaccine-associated sarcoma: a special concern

In the 1990s, it was established that sarcoma – a kind of cancer – may occasionally develop in cats at the site of a vaccine injection. Understandably, this caused a great deal of concern among cat owners over the safety of feline vaccines, with the result that some owners have chosen not to vaccinate at all. Although their concern is understandable, by making this choice, these owners place their cats at increased risk of serious or fatal infections, a far greater risk than any posed by the vaccines. And when rabies is concerned, there is a significant risk of human infection as well.

Getting to the core

As in the case of canine vaccines, it is important to distinguish between the “core” vaccines – those that every cat should receive – and the “non-core” vaccines, which should be given only if there is a significant risk of exposure to the particular illness involved. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has identified these as follows:

Core vaccines:

Non-core vaccines:

According to the AVMA, feline leukemia is the number one viral killer of cats. However, indoor-only cats who are not exposed to potentially infected cats are unlikely to contract the disease and do not need to be vaccinated. Outdoor cats, or those who may be exposed to at-risk cats, should receive the vaccine as kittens.

There are additional non-core vaccines available for other, less common, infectious diseases. However, use of these vaccines is limited to cats especially at risk, such as those in shelters or those who are likely to be exposed to infection.

How do I know what’s right for my cat?

The AVMA lists a number of factors that should be taken into consideration when choosing which vaccines a cat should receive. These factors include:

  • The risk of exposure of the cat to particular diseases. This risk will vary depending on the environment in which the cat lives, including whether it is an indoor-only cat, and its possible exposure to other cats who may pose a risk of disease transmission
  • The seriousness of the illness for which the vaccine provides protection
  • The effectiveness of the vaccine for cats
  • The likelihood and potential severity of adverse reactions to the vaccine
  • The age and general health of the cat
  • Whether the cat has experienced adverse reactions to vaccines in the past

The vaccine partnership

The decision as to what vaccines are appropriate for your cat rests with you. But it should be a decision that is made as part of a “partnership in wellness” between you and your vet.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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