Does My Indoor Cat Need Vaccines?

This question comes up weekly so we figured it was time to write a blog post about it.

The short answer is YES.  The long answer is more complicated.

Let’s start with what we are vaccinating against. We often refer to the ‘core’ vaccine or ‘upper respiratory’ vaccine or ‘FVRCP’.  This is all the same vaccine and it stands for Feline Rhinotracheitis-Calici-Panleukopenia Vaccine.

Most cats are exposed to Rhinotracheitis during their life time and it usually only causes a mild case of sneezing and runny eyes.  In really young cats who do not have immunity against it the effects can be more severe and occasionally result in permanent damage to the nasal cavity causing cats to have chronic nasal discharge or chronic low grade disease.  Older pets as well are more at risk as their immune system is less able to deal with minor infections and a ‘kitty cold’ in them can quickly become pneumonia or another serious issue.

Calici Virus is another pathogen that most often causes mild respiratory issues, but there are virulent strains out there that we see every year that can cause severe ulceration of the oral cavity, vasculitis and occasionally death.

Panleukopenia is sometimes referred to a feline distemper or feline parvo.  In young cats, it is highly contagious and it causes vomiting and diarrhea often resulting in death.    The FVRCP vaccine is given 3 times as a kitten and then again 1 year later and then every 3 years.  Continued vaccination means that if your cat is exposed to any of the upper respiratory virus’ they are more likely to only have a mild cold and not end up truly sick.  All of the virus’ are highly contagious and difficult to destroy, this means you can easily carry it home on your clothes or shoes after visiting a friends  new kitten, the neighbours outdoor cat or those cute kitties up for adoption at the adopt-a-thon.  Because they are so common if your cat does ever have to be boarded or come to the vet because they are sick there is a high chance they will be exposed to them despite our best efforts.  Once cats have received their final booster at one year of age we do recommend this vaccine is given every 3 years to maintain immunity and minimize the effects of any accidental exposure even in house cats.

The Rabies vaccine is usually given at the final kitten vaccine and again every year after.  While we do not see a lot of cases of Rabies there are a number in our province every year and in the past few years a bat was found with Rabies in downtown Calgary and a cat died of the disease in Red Deer.  Rabies is 100% fatal in affected animals and animals who have it can act in unpredictable ways.  That is why we recommend that even indoor cats are vaccinated.  The most common cause of Rabies in cats is because a bat got into the house.  It is also a common route of exposure for people here in North America.  While the Rabies vaccine is not required by law here in Alberta it is in a number of other provinces and is needed to cross the border with your pet. Dr. Kean saw a puppy with Rabies who had been rescued from the NWT and unfortunately, she had bitten another dog in the house so both pets had to be euthanized as the other pet was not up to date on his Rabies vaccine.  While there is a 3-year rabies vaccine on the market we choose to use the non-adjuvanted vaccines here as they are considered infinitely safer for protecting against injection site sarcomas.   Due to cost we do not yet carry the non-adjuvanted 3-year Rabies vaccine.  If this is something that interests you please let us know and we can look into it again.

The final vaccine that we recommend is the feline leukemia vaccine.  Kittens can be born with the leukemia virus or cats can get it by bite wounds or other saliva transfer from an infected cat.  As cats age (ie greater than 10 years of age) they seem to develop some degree of immunity to the leukemia virus.  Because of this we recommend the leukemia vaccine twice during the kitten series (especially if they are going to go outside) and again at the first year booster.  If your cat is exposed directly to other cats we recommend continuing the vaccine yearly until they are older and then we will often decrease to a every 2 year schedule or less based on how much exposure your individual cat is getting.

So that’s the long answer to why you should vaccinate even your indoor cat.  Not every cat is going to need every vaccine at each visit but let’s discuss what the risks and benefits are for your cat.

Dr. Tasha Kean