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Cat Vaccines 101: Make Sense Of The Alphabet Soup

Part of being a good cat parent is sticking to your cat’s annual check-up and vaccination schedules. But when you think about cat vaccines, all of these letters can look like confusing alphabet soup, making you wonder, “What vaccinations does my cat need?”

Fear not, we have the information you need to make informed decisions when it comes to cat vaccines.

As of 2020, a task force of experts in the field of feline veterinary medicine established by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has published updated recommendations for vaccination schedules for cats.

Why are these vaccination updates important? The task force states: “Active immunization, achieved through proper vaccination, plays a critical role in fighting infectious diseases, both for individual cats and for the entire cat population.”

Common questions about cat vaccines

Should I get my cat vaccinated?

Vaccination is a personal choice, but for your cat’s safety it is recommended that they be vaccinated to prevent them from contracting diseases that can make or kill them. If your cat has access to nature or comes into contact with other cats, they can pick up certain diseases and then pass them on to other cats in the household. But every household is different, explains the task force: “The decision to vaccinate yourself with core vaccines should be based on a risk-benefit assessment for each cat and for each vaccine antigen. The benefits of vaccination should be weighed against the risk of adverse events, the likelihood of exposure, and the severity of the disease. “

Do domestic cats need vaccinations?

Again, this comes down to personal preference, but keep in mind that domestic cats can at times be accidentally exposed to viruses and bacteria. Domestic cats can be smart and sneak outside for adventure. They are exposed all over the world, but annual vaccines protect them from disease.

Vaccinations for cats

Do vaccines cause side effects?

You may find that your cat is not feeling well after the vaccination. Don’t be alarmed. Vaccines trigger an immune response that can cause kittens and humans to climax after vaccinations and intranasal administration. Keep an eye out for these vaccination side effects and contact the vet if they don’t improve after a few days:

  • lethargy
  • fever
  • In a bad mood
  • Hives
  • Lameness
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite

Are there different types of vaccines?

This jumble of letters becomes even more confusing when clinical terms are added related to the type of vaccine being given. Here’s a glossary to help make the head and tail when it comes to vaccines for cats:

  • Inactive vaccines are “vaccines in which the target pathogen is” killed “and therefore cannot replicate in the host.” This means that there is no live virus in the blood, but the immune system now knows what to do in the face of an infection with that live virus or bacteria.
  • Live attenuated vaccines are modified live viruses that the body introduce into viruses and bacteria in small quantities so as not to make the host too sick, but to introduce the immune system to produce antibodies.
  • Recombinant Vaccines “Made by manipulating a pathogen’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in the laboratory,” and when injected into the body, the modified DNA triggers an immune response to the modified virus or bacteria.

If you want to know what type of vaccine your veterinarian prefers, just ask! Have them explain the benefits and risks of each type when it comes to your cat’s needs.

Cat vaccines

Now let’s get to the point and look at the core and non-core vaccines for cats!

Core vaccines for cats

These core cat vaccines are believed to be beneficial for all cats, including domestic cats that are not in contact with other cats.


This combination vaccine, also known as the “distemper shot” and considered the core vaccine for all cats, protects cats from three different viruses:

  • Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis – The FVR of this combination vaccine represents feline herpesvirus or FHV-1, one of the two most common viruses behind upper respiratory infections in cats.
  • Calicivirus – This is the other common virus that is known to cause respiratory infections in cats. It is highly transmissible in environments with multiple cats.
  • Panleucopenia – This viral disease is also known as FPV or distemper and can cause low white blood counts and severe diarrhea. It can be fatal, especially to young kittens and pregnant queens.

There are no cures for any of these three viruses, so prevention through vaccination is key.

Starting dose and booster schedule: The first injection for the FVRCP vaccine is given to kittens between 6 and 8 weeks of age. The first booster should be repeated between 6 months and a year. Re-vaccinate every 3 years after these initial doses.

FeLV vaccine

According to AmericanHumane.org, “Feline Leukemia (or FeLV) is the No. 1 Virus Killer in Cats”. The most common type of cancer in cats, the virus weakens the cat’s immune system and causes blood disorders. A weakened immune system puts cats at higher risk of developing other diseases that they cannot fight as effectively due to leukemia.

Starting dose and booster schedule: At 8 weeks of age, kittens can receive the first dose with a second dose given 3 to 4 weeks later. They will be re-vaccinated 12 months later and will schedule an annual vaccination protocol for cats that are at higher risk of contracting feline leukemia.

Cats vaccination schedule


Rabies is a viral disease that is transmitted through bites from infected animals. It affects the central nervous system and leads to death. Some states require rabies vaccinations by law; Check to see if your state is one of these states.

Starting dose and booster schedule: Kittens can get their first rabies between 12 and 16 weeks old, but not earlier than 12 weeks. The new recommendations for 2020 suggest re-vaccination every three years.

Non-core vaccines for cats

For cats that spend more time outdoors or with other cats, these non-core vaccines are recommended to keep a multi-cat population healthy.


Bordetella is another nasty bug that is known to cause respiratory disease in cats. It hits the lower respiratory tract and can be serious to kittens. Although this bacterium is highly transmissible, the Bordetella vaccine is not always given to companion cats because it does not provide a full spectrum of infection protection. However, this vaccination can be used to slow the spread in multi-cat environments where Bordetella has been confirmed.

Starting dose and booster schedule: Intranasal administration can be given to kittens from 16 weeks of age.

Cat vaccinations


Feline chlamydia is a bacterial infection that causes conjunctivitis and breathing problems in cats and kittens. Like the Bordetella vaccine, Chlamydia vaccines do not always fully protect cats from infection. Once the vaccine has been detected in a multi-cat environment, it can be given to slow or stop its spread. The Task Force points out that “Vaccinations may be associated with a higher risk of side effects (lethargy, pain in the limbs, anorexia).”

Starting dose and booster schedule: Kittens can be vaccinated after 8 to 10 weeks, with the second doses 3 to 4 weeks later.

Vaccines are no longer recommended for general use in cats

FIP vaccine

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) in cats causes upper respiratory symptoms and stomach problems such as diarrhea, depression, and weight loss. FIP vaccinations are no longer considered relevant because “the uncertain ability to consistently prevent disease in North American cat populations does not warrant routine use”.

Cat vaccines

FIV vaccine

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) often scares people when they hear the term, but FIV + cats can still live long and healthy lives with good care. There is no cure for FIV and vaccinations were previously recommended for prevention, but thoughts have changed. PetMD.com lists the reasons why the FIV vaccine is no longer widely used:

  • Domestic cats are typically not exposed to FIV as it is primarily transmitted from cats outdoors during fighting behaviors such as deep bites and scratches.
  • The FIV vaccine does not provide complete immunity to cats.
  • Repeated boosters of the FIV vaccine increase a cat’s risk of developing sarcoma at the injection site.
  • Vaccinations produced false positive results and the diagnosis of FIV.

If you’re struggling to decide which vaccines are right for your cat, the AAHA has a lifestyle-based vaccine calculator to help you make that decision. You can also contact your veterinarian’s office to discuss the perfect vaccination schedule for your cat.

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