You can definitely prolong -- and maybe even save -- your cat's life by immunizing her against dangerous diseases.

playful cat
Help keep your kitty healthy by vaccinating her.

Vaccinations are one of the most effective tools at your disposal for safeguarding your cat's health. Like all medical procedures (for animals and humans alike), they carry a small risk. But their risks are outweighed by their benefits, given that they protect your cat from dangerous, potentially deadly diseases -- some of which can't be cured.

How Vaccines Work

Your cat's first line of defense against disease is her immune system. When it's working well, this system fends off invasion by disease-causing organisms such as bacteria and viruses.

Each vaccine that's given to your pet "trains" the cat's immune system to fight off a particular organism. How? By introducing antigens, substances that resemble the disease-causing organism, but don't actually cause disease. These antigens stimulate the immune system into a protective response -- a kind of "rehearsal" that prepares the immune system to respond effectively if your cat ever comes into contact with the real disease-causing organism.

Extending Protection

Vaccines go a long way toward protecting your pet from disease, but they can't guarantee 100-percent immunity. In some cases, vaccines don't prevent an animal from catching a disease, but can make the symptoms less severe if it does contract the illness. You can give your cat extra protection by:

  • Avoiding exposure to infected cats (by keeping your cat indoors and having any new pets or animal visitors tested for disease before allowing them to come into contact with your cat).
  • Keeping your pet away from areas that might be contaminated (especially places where other animals have left bowel movements, a major source of infection).

Protection Against What?

Although vaccines haven't yet been created to address every possible threat to your cat's health, the list of diseases for which vaccines are available is a long one. It includes:

  • Respiratory infections, including calicivirus, herpesvirus (cause of feline viral rhinotracheitis), and bordetellosis
  • FeLV (feline leukemia virus)
  • FIP (feline infectious peritonitis)
  • Feline panleukopenia
  • Rabies
  • Chlamydiosis (a bacterial infection)
  • Giardiasis (a parasitic infection linked with gastrointestinal-tract disease)
  • Ringworm (a skin disease caused by a fungus)

Who Needs Vaccines?

Just about every cat can benefit from being immunized against some illnesses, especially the ones that most commonly afflict felines. Not every cat needs to be vaccinated against every disease, however. You and your vet can decide which vaccines your cat needs, taking into consideration such factors as these:

  • Risk of exposure. Is your pet a strictly indoor cat, or does she venture outside? Is she the only animal in the household, or is she in contact with other pets?
  • Your cat's age and health status. Kittens, for example, need extra protection from some diseases.
  • Your pet's reaction to previous vaccines. Has your cat ever experienced a reaction, mild or severe, after being vaccinated?
  • The effects of the disease. Some feline illnesses are mild and pose little long-term risk, especially to adult cats; others are life-threatening or debilitating.
  • The threat the disease presents to humans. Some diseases, such as rabies, pose a serious threat to the health of humans and to other animals, as well as to the animal who contracts it. For this reason, rabies vaccinations are generally required by local law.
  • The effectiveness of the vaccine. What's the track record of this particular vaccine for preventing the disease, or reducing its severity if contracted?

When Is Vaccine Time?

Your cat will receive the majority of her vaccines during kittenhood, then get regular booster shots as an adult.

Kittens generally get two rounds of vaccines against the major diseases (upper respiratory diseases, FeLV, and panleukopenia); one at 6 to 8 weeks of age and another at 12 weeks. They also receive a rabies vaccine at their 12-week checkup. A third FeLV vaccine is administered between 2 and 4 months of age.

All adult cats need booster shots for different diseases at different intervals. Some vaccines must be given annually. Others confer protection for much longer periods, and may be given once every three years. Vaccines available on a three-year booster cycle include those for panleukopenia, herpesvirus, and calicivirus, and certain feline rabies vaccines (only those that are approved for triennial use).

If you adopt a stray adult, or any fully grown cat whose health history is unknown, chances are your vet will give her the regular roster of adult booster shots.

Watch for Reactions

There is always a small chance that your cat may have a reaction to a particular vaccine. When reactions do occur, they are usually mild. Occasionally, however, a severe reaction takes place, presenting a serious risk to the cat's life or health.

Whenever your cat receives a vaccine, whether kitten shots or boosters, keep an eye on your pet afterward to make sure it doesn't have a reaction. Reactions can appear anywhere from hours to several days after vaccination. If you notice any signs of them, report them to your vet.

Here's what to keep an eye out for:

Mild Reactions:

  • A decrease in appetite and activity
  • Low fever
  • Discomfort, or a small, firm, painless swelling in the area where the shot was given
  • Temporary sore joints and lameness (following calicivirus vaccination)
  • Sneezing (several days after intranasally administered vaccine)

Severe Reactions:

(Remember, these are rare!)

  • A severe, life-threatening allergic reaction (such as an innability to breathe) occurring within several minutes to an hour after the vaccination
  • Development of a tumor (sarcoma) in the area where the shot was given (weeks, months, or longer after vaccination)

Comments (1)

Better Homes & Gardens Member
July 7, 2021
My cat just died from FIP. It is almost always fatal and there is no widely accepted vaccine to prevent it. It is also very hard to detect. You need to change this article to include that because of the way it is written it looks like there is a common way to prevent this horrible fatal disease. There is not. Rest in peace sweet Nilla. March 20, 2017 - June 28, 2021.