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Posted on 01-17-2017

Why Do We Vaccinate?

As we discussed in our blog about dog vaccines, cats are also given several different vaccinations over the course of their lifetime. The vaccines that we give protect them from a variety of diseases that are both highly contagious, and potentially deadly. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the widespread use of vaccinations in the last century has prevented the deaths of millions of animals. If an unvaccinated pet contracts a preventable disease, supportive care becomes extremely expensive and may not be effective.

My childhood cat, Smudge, was only vaccinated as a kitten. It wasn’t until I started studying veterinary medicine that I learned cats were supposed to receive vaccinations on a regular schedule, especially rabies. It isn’t uncommon for cat owners to assume that their cat doesn’t need vaccinations, and many wonder if it is necessary for exclusively indoor cats. Several factors make it essential to have your cat up to date on all vaccines.

  • First, if your cat gets outside accidentally, it could be exposed to stray animals carrying disease.
  • Once lost, your cat may be picked up by a shelter and subsequently exposed to a community of cats with a variety of diseases.
  • Bats or raccoons could enter your home through small spaces or attics – both of which could be infected with rabies.
  • Rabies vaccinations are required for all cats, dogs, and ferrets in Utah.

Now that we (hopefully) agree that all cats need to be vaccinated, let’s talk about each vaccine individually.


This vaccine is broken up into three parts: FVR (feline viral rhinotracheitis), C (calicivirus), P (panluekopenia).

Feline viral rhinotracheitis is also known as feline herpesvirus. The term “rhinotracheitis” means inflammation of the nose and windpipe, or trachea. Many cats are exposed to this virus at a young age and it is highly contagious. Once exposed, the virus never fully goes away but can be managed with supplements and vaccine boosters. Flare-ups are especially common in unvaccinated cats, manifesting as eye and respiratory infections.

Calicivirus also causes severe upper respiratory infection. It is extremely contagious and accounts for a majority of respiratory diseases in kittens, especially in a shelter setting. This disease is spread easily from cat to cat through nasal and eye secretion. Some common symptoms include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Eye discharge
  • Nasal discharge
  • Development of ulcers on tongue, hard palate, tip of nose, lips or around claws
  • Pneumonia
  • Difficult breathing after development of pneumonia
  • Arthritis
  • Lameness
  • Painful walk
  • Fever
  • Bleeding from various sites

The treatment of this disease is typically supportive care and antibiotics to treat any secondary bacterial infections that may have developed. Depending on the symptoms your pet is displaying, antibiotics for the eyes as well as painkillers may also be necessary.

Panluekopenia (a.k.a Feline Distemper) is a highly contagious viral disease caused by the feline parvovirus. The name panleukopenia references the affect the disease has on the bone marrow and white blood cells. Unvaccinated cats and young kittens are most susceptible, and once contracted the disease is often fatal. Some symptoms include:

  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloody diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Low white blood cell count

Unfortunately, the virus is very resistant to environmental conditions and difficult to destroy; it can remain infective for years. Contact with blood, urine, feces, nasal secretions, or even fleas from an infected cat proves infective. The hands and clothing of people who have handled infected cats can also spread the disease. Preventing the infection through vaccination is better rather than treating an infected cat.

Kittens should receive the FVRCP vaccination in a series, receiving several injections 3-4 weeks apart until approximately 4 months of age. Your veterinarian will set the exact schedule, and one year after the final booster in the kitten series another round of this vaccinations is given and should continue to be given on a regular schedule every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine.


Feline Leukemia Virus is a serious disease in cats. There is no treatment and affected cats eventually die from consequences of the disease. More than 50% of cats that persistently have cat leukemia in their blood succumb to related diseases within two to three years after infection. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Anemia
  • Lethargy
  • Progressive weight loss
  • Abscesses
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Poor coat condition and ear infections
  • Fever
  • Wobbly uncoordinated movements
  • Inflammation of the nose, cornea, or the moist tissues of the eye
  • Inflammation of the gums and/or mouth tissues
  • Lymphoma (most common FeLV associate cancer
  • Fibrosarcomas (cancer that develops from fibrous tissue)

This disease is contracted by cat-to-cat interactions such as: bites, grooming, sharing dishes, or litter pans). Kittens can get the disease at birth from their mother or mother’s milk.

It is extremely important that all cats be vaccinated if any of the household cats go outside. This disease is ugly and unforgiving; many people are resistant to giving this vaccine because they haven’t personally suffered the consequences of it. Compared to the alternative, it is much better to be safe rather than sorry. All kittens should receive this vaccine at least once in their lifetime and have boosters up until age two. After age two, your veterinarian will determine if your cat is at risk and requires additional boosters.


Arguably the most important disease we vaccinate for is rabies. This vaccine is required for cats, dogs, and ferrets. Rabies is considered a zoonotic disease meaning it can be transmitted to humans, so it is very serious. Every pet is required to have a current rabies vaccine in order to be treated at a veterinary hospital.

 Rabies is a virus spread when an infected animal’s saliva or other bodily fluids enter a person’s open cuts, wounds, mouth, or eyes. Symptoms include sudden onset of rage and aggression, as well as paralysis.

In animal bite cases where pets aren’t vaccinated, there may be sad consequences depending on the state’s quarantine requirements. The only sure way to diagnose rabies is by testing the brain matter post-mortem. Even if your pet spends 100% of it’s time indoors with no contact with people, it should still be vaccinated for rabies. No one can be absolutely sure that his or her pet won’t get out or bite a visitor.

 Cats that go outside are especially at risk for this disease as they are often roaming unattended and in potential contact with wild animals. Rabies is an especially scary disease, the risk is too great not to vaccinate.

Cases of rabies in small mammals are being reported across the United States. Just last month, a horse and two dogs were euthanized in Arizona after being attacked by a rabid fox. None of the animals had been vaccinated for rabies. See the full story here.

New Year’s Resolution

If you haven’t been keeping your cat up to date on vaccines, make it your New Year’s Resolution to call us at Sugar House Veterinary Hospital and make an appointment to get up to date! An annual checkup and vaccinations visit is also a great time to discuss any other health issues or risks that your cat may be susceptible to. If getting your cat to the vet has been an extreme hassle and prevents you from coming regularly, check out our previous blog post: Making Your Cat’s Trip to the Vet a Breeze.

Have additional questions? Leave us a comment!

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