Health Topics

Feline Vaccinations: Explained

(This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 Issue of Cat Basics and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

Vaccinations are important for your cat's health. How often should your kitten or cat get vaccinated? And for what diseases? Getting shots for your pets can be confusing.

Veterinarians today tailor vaccine schedules and protocols on a case-by-case basis according to the lifestyle of the pet (indoor versus outdoor), exposure to diseases, and the legal requirements of the area.

General Protocol

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommend the following general protocols (but advise that all cats should be evaluated individually by a veterinarian for general health risk of disease).

Core Vaccines

All cats should receive these core vaccinations.

  • Feline herpes virus (viral rhinotracheitis)
  • Feline calici virus
  • Feline panleukopenia virus (feline distemper)

These vaccines are usually found in a combination injection, often abbreviated as FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis + calici + panleukopenia). It can be given to kittens as young as 6 weeks of age and is repeated every three or four weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks old.

For kittens that are older than 16 weeks at the time of first vaccination, or for adult cats with unknown vaccine history, two vaccines are given, three to four weeks apart. The cat is given a booster one year later, and then revaccinated every three years.

Viral rhinotracheitis and calicivirus cause symptoms of the "cat cold" - runny nose and eyes, and fever. Infected cats can carry the virus which can reoccur, especially under times of stress. It is spread by direct contact, such as sneezing, but the virus can also stay alive in the environment, and be spread by contact with objects (clothing, hands). Feline distemper can be fatal and causes diarrhea (often severe), dehydration, lethargy and depletion of the white blood cells.


Cats generally are vaccinated against rabies at 12 weeks of age or older. A second dose is given one year later. Revaccination depends on the product used. A live canary pox vaccine is given annually, whereas a killed adjuvanted product can be given every three years. Of course, many municipalities have laws that require pets to be vaccinated more frequently.

Rabies is a fatal disease that can infect all mammals and is spread by bite wounds. There are different strains; for example, a cat can become infected by catching an infected bat.

Non-core vaccines

Feline Leukemia Virus (FelV):

The AAFP suggests that all kittens be vaccinated against FeLV and recommends that the cat be tested for FeLV first. Two vaccines are given, three to four weeks apart, starting after eight weeks of age. In the case of FeLV, annual booster vaccines are given only to cats that are at risk for the disease - such as those who go outside or have frequent exposure to new cats with unknown FeLV status (foster home).

Cats often have natural immunity to this disease by the time they are two years of age. Cats can be infected with FeLV and show no signs of illness for many years, which is why testing is important. The virus causes many symptoms, problems with the immune system and death. It is spread by contact such as grooming or sharing food dishes.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV):

Because this virus is spread through biting, the vaccine for FIV is only recommended for cats at high risk of the disease, such as outdoor cats who fight. The vaccine interferes with FIV testing, so it is important to have this bloodwork done before the vaccine is given. The vaccine is perhaps not always effective in preventing the disease.