Tell Me About Vaccines

When you get a vaccine reminder card in the mail from your veterinarian, you probably think it looks like a game of Scrabble.What are FRCP,FeLV and FIP? Many owners don’t ask about what these letters stand for,and just tell the veterinarian to go ahead and give the cat all the shots she needs.I don’t think this is a good idea. As a cat owner,it is useful to have some basic knowledge about the diseases you protect your cat from with vaccines.You may be surprised to find out that vaccines are not as protective as you have been led to believe,and that annual vaccines may not be in your cat’s best interest. The purpose of vaccinating is to “teach” the cat’s immune system to fight specific infectious agents. Does the system need to be reminded every year?

Antibodies obtained from their mothers protect newborn kittens from many diseases. This maternal immunity decreases between 8 and 12 weeks of age, and the kitten then needs other protection.The purpose of vaccinating is to “teach”the kitten’s immune system to fight specific infectious agents.In almost all cases,vaccinating at 8 and then again at 12 weeks of age is adequate.Vaccination at these times provides protective immunity to the disease agents in the vaccine.This immunity protects against most symptoms connected with the disease agents but may not fully prevent infection.It can take up to 14 days after the vaccination for full immune function to develop.It is not known for sure how long the protective immunity lasts after that. Annual vaccinations for cats have long been veterinary standard practice,and owners have been taught to vaccinate their pets each year. However,in the 1990s the veterinary profession began to question the need for annual vaccinations.This comes in light of new information regarding the duration of immunity derived from vaccines,and adverse vaccine reactions,including tumors,that may be associated with sites of vaccination. The vaccine manufacturers have recommended annual re-vaccination based on studying the duration of immunity for a few weeks to months. They have not been required by the USDA to determine longer durations of immunity,except in the case of the rabies vaccine.Although rules have changed for establishing minimums, maximum duration of immunity studies are not required,so we do not know exactly how long a vaccine will protect a cat.


In the mid 1990s the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) took a bold step and created an advisory panel on feline vaccines. They first published feline vaccination guidelines in January 1998 and then revised them in 2000.These recommendations base vaccine administration on a cat’s individual risk factors,history and age.They question the necessity of vaccinating every cat every year for every disease. The following information highlights some of the vaccination guideline recommendations. Your veterinarian may or may not be familiar with these specific guidelines, but discussing your individual cat’s vaccination needs is important. The AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines state,“The objective of feline vaccination protocols should be to vaccinate more cats in the population, vaccinate individuals less frequently, and only for the diseases for which there is a risk of exposure and disease.” Assessing an individual cat’s risk of infection is a cornerstone in developing a vaccine protocol.The three items that need to be evaluated are the cat,the cat’s environment and the infectious agents the cat may be exposed to.
Evaluating Risk

When making a decision about vaccination,risk factors to consider are:
• Age of the cat

• Number of cats in the household

• Exposure to outdoor or free-roaming cats

• Whether the cat will be at a boarding facility

• Where the cat lives (cattery,shelter or private home)

• Whether the cat is shown or routinely goes out for other types of activities

Because they have immature immune systems, young kittens are more susceptible to disease than adult cats.Initially,kittens are protected by antibodies they receive through their mother’s milk.The first milk a queen produces is called colostrum, and it is rich in protective antibodies.These antibodies provide maternal immunity and are absorbed

into a kitten’s system during her first 24 hours of life.Maternal immunity wears off by 12 weeks of age,and kittens must then develop antibodies on their own.Antibodies are developed after vaccination or after exposure to infectious diseases. The number of cats in the home and the chance of exposure to other cats also play major roles in assessing risk.The chance of exposure to infectious agents in a household with one or two cats is significantly less than in a larger multicat household. Cats who go outdoors and come in contact with free-roaming or other indoor/outdoor cats face a higher risk of disease exposure. Cats who are housed in boarding facilities,catteries,or shelters have a greater opportunity of being exposed to infectious agents.This is due to stress, crowding, and simply the number of cats in the facility. Cats who regularly go out to shows or on visits also are at greater risk.That’s because cats who come from different environments can bring different infectious agents with them. It can take up to 14 days post-vaccination for the full immune response to develop.So if you vaccinate your cat for the first time today, she will not have protective immunity until at least 14 days after the initial vaccine series has been completed. The decision to vaccinate against a particular infectious disease agent should be based on reviewing the patient’s risk assessment. Currently, vaccines exist to protect against 11 different infectious diseases in cats,and several manufacturers produce vaccines.The infectious diseases are:
• Rhinotracheitis virus (feline herpes)

• Calici virus

• Panleukopenia virus

• Chlamydia (pneumonitis)

• Feline leukemia virus

• Rabies virus

• Feline infectious peritonitis virus

• Bordetella

• Ringworm fungus

• Feline immunodeficiency virus

• Giardia


The AAFP guidelines have created two categories of vaccines:core and non-core.A core vaccine is recommended for all cats.This recommendation is based on several factors, including severity of the disease, potential risk to humans,prevalence of the disease,and safety and efficacy of the vaccine.A non-core vaccine may be appropriate in certain situations,but is not recommended for all cats. The four vaccines that have been deemed “core” are the ones that fight feline panleukopenia virus,feline rhinotracheitis virus (feline herpes), feline calici virus and rabies virus.
Feline Rhinotracheitis, Calici and Panleukopenia

This vaccine is most commonly known as the FRCP or three-way vaccine.The general recommendations for this core vaccine are:

Vaccinate kittens at their initial veterinary visit (at six to eight weeks)

. Vaccinate again every 3 to 4 weeks until the kitten is over 12 weeks of age

. Give a booster one year later

. Booster every three years,unless the cat has a higher risk of exposure such as boarding or traveling to cat shows
Feline panleukopenia (FPV, also sometimes called feline infectious enteritis) is usually fatal to affected cats.It attacks white blood cells.The virus is shed in feces and transmitted through fecal-oral contact. Panleukopenia virus can contaminate cages, bowls and litter boxes and be spread through poor hygiene. Most vaccines available against this disease stimulate complete protective immunity.Clinical signs associated with panleukopenia can include fever,anorexia (loss of appetite),vomiting and diarrhea. Death can be rapid due to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.The most characteristic finding is an extremely low white blood cell count when a complete blood count is run. According to the AAFP report, there is some research to indicate that immunity is sustained for at least seven years after vaccination. However, the research is not definitive and the report recommends a three-year interval for now.

Feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus are estimated to cause up to 90 percent of upper respiratory disease in cats.These diseases are rarely fatal but are extremely prevalent.Transmission occurs through sneezing and is spread through the air, by direct contact and by touching contaminated objects.The most common signs are sneezing, anorexia and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the tissues around the eyeball). Feline herpes virus (FHV-1) does not cause disease in humans. (Humans can be affected with Herpes simplex, which causes fever blisters, and Herpes zoster, which is responsible for chicken pox and shingles.) Cats can develop chronic herpes virus infections that cause long-term,intermittent bouts of sneezing and conjunctivitis.Feline calici virus (FCV) infection can also cause limping or severe gum disease. Currently the most common form of vaccination is injectable,but the FRCP vaccine is also available as a topical vaccine.Topical vaccines may be administered intranasal (in the nose) or intraocular (in the eye). The benefits of topical vaccinations are that they stimulate more rapid protection and there is no chance of developing an injection site tumor. This type of vaccine can be useful in boarding,cattery,and shelter situations when quicker and more frequent upper respiratory disease protection is needed.The disadvantages of topical vaccination are that they can trigger mild sneezing,coughing and conjunctivitis. Vaccination against herpes and calici viruses does not prevent infection but does reduce the severity of the associated clinical signs.In addition, the calici virus vaccines that are currently available probably do not protect against all forms of the virus.

Rabies is among the core vaccines because of the potential for a rabid cat to bite and infect a human and because the disease is lethal to cats.Rabies is transmitted primarily through bite wounds,and the virus is present in the saliva of infected animals.Clinical signs associated with rabies infection are behavioral changes, pupil dilation changing to constriction, drooling and stumbling. Normally friendly and affectionate animals can suddenly and unexpectedly turn aggressive and agitated when infected with rabies, and normally aloof cats can become very friendly. Infected animals can die within four days of developing clinical signs.Once clinical signs develop,there is no effective treatment for rabies. The incubation period of the virus—the time from bite wound to clinical signs—varies. Rabies is introduced into a cat’s body by a bite, spreads up nerves to enter the central nervous system,then spreads to other body tissues.For some reason,the virus likes to go to the salivary glands.

A few species of animals are more likely to carry rabies than others. Always use caution if you come in contact with bats, skunks or raccoons (especially during the day,since these are normally nocturnal animals),because they are common carriers.These animals can carry rabies but not develop clinical signs. The rabies vaccine can be administered to kittens over 12 weeks of age, one year later and then every three years, according to the AAFP recommendations. However, the frequency of vaccination may be governed by state and local laws. Certain states require cats to be vaccinated against rabies,while others do not.Each locale may also have different rules regarding quarantine of animals who bite humans. Healthy,nonvaccinated animals who bite humans may be under observational quarantine for 10 or more days.

The decision to vaccinate with one or more of the non-core vaccines should be based on the previously discussed risk factors.Non-core vaccines are not necessary for all animals.They should be considered for those cats who have a risk of exposure to the particular disease.You should discuss the pros and cons of vaccination with your veterinarian.

Chlamydia felis is a bacterial infection that causes upper respiratory disease in cats.Transmission is through direct cat-to-cat contact.The most common clinical sign is severe conjunctivitis.Vaccination does not prevent infection with chlamydia, but it can lessen the associated clinical signs. Don’t be alarmed when you hear about feline chlamydiosis caused by Chlamydia felis.This is not the same agent that causes venereal disease in humans—that bacteria is Chlamydia trachomatis. The prevalence of Chlamydia felis in the United States is considered to be low.Some veterinarians believe vaccines for chlamydiosis produce a relatively high adverse reaction rate. Chlamydia is commonly the fourth component of a four-way booster vaccine (FRCPC—Feline rhinotracheitis, calici, panleukopenia and chlamydia), so be sure to ask your veterinarian what she is giving your cat. The AAFP report says that because this upper respiratory disease is not severe and most cats can be treated,and because the adverse events associated with the use of the vaccine are relatively high,its routine use is not recommended.At this time,the duration of immunity conferred by the vaccine is unknown, and annual vaccination is recommended only for those animals who are at risk.
Feline Leukemia Virus Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is a potentially fatal virus of cats. It is passed by direct cat-to-cat contact or by a queen to her kittens.Testing and identifying FeLV-positive cats is essential to controlling infection. Clinical signs associated with FeLV are nonspecific and can range from anemia to immunosuppression to tumor formation. FeLV can cause latent infections, which hide quietly in the cat but may cause clinical signs months to years later. Vaccination is recommended for cats who test negative for FeLV but live in environments where it is possible for them to be exposed to the virus.Some veterinarians recommend that all kittens receive initial vaccinations to FeLV because their exposure risk may not yet be defined.For example,even though you do not want your kitten to go outside,things might change and the animal could end up going out at some point in the future.You would want her to be protected in this situation. However, FeLV vaccine is not recommended for cats who have little or no risk of being exposed to other infected cats. The vaccination schedule for FeLV is as follows:

  1. Vaccinate at nine weeks of age or older. 2. Repeat vaccine four weeks later. 3. If the cat remains in a high-risk environment,continue vaccinating annually.
    Cats at risk for exposure to FeLV include cats who go outdoors, stray cats, feral cats, open multicat households (new cats are often brought into the home), FeLV-positive households and households with unknown FeLV status.Vaccination confers fair to good immunity in some cats,but this varies among vaccine manufacturers.The current vaccines do not induce protection against the disease in all cats, so preventing exposure to infected cats is still the best way to prevent FeLV.FeLV vaccines have been associated with adverse reactions.They are administered in the left rear leg muscle.