What Vaccines does My Kitten Need?

What Vaccines does My Kitten Need?

So you took a big step. You brought a new kitten home. Some kittens are obtained from rescue adoption groups; some are adopted as strays who are foundlings; some are obtained from private individuals whose cat had a litter and some are obtained from breeders of pure bred cats. From the kitten’s perspective it really doesn’t matter since all kittens have similar health needs and vaccination requirements.

It is important to discuss vaccination recommendations with your veterinarian since the timing of intervals between vaccinations may vary depending on the age of the kitten. Most kitten vaccination recommendations are the same regardless of the kitten’s origin but there may be some variables depending on whether or not the kitten will live a strictly indoor life (I highly recommend that your cat remain indoors).

The first steps for a new kitten
There are a few things you should do right away to be sure your new kitten is free of parasites and viruses:

  • First, request that your veterinarian perform a complete and thorough physical examination.
  • Second, be sure the kitten is tested for intestinal worms and treated if necessary. Some of these worms are potentially dangerous to people.
  • Third, test the kitten for “retrovirus” infections like Feline AIDS (FIV) and Feline Leukemia virus (FeLV).

New kittens and vaccinations
Once these steps have been taken and the kitten is healthy you should start thinking about vaccinating her to make sure she stays healthy. I recommend starting vaccinations at about 8 weeks of age, continuing until the kitten is 4 months old.

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), the core vaccines (those that are recommended for ALL cats) are feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV-1), and feline calicivirus (FCV) as well as Rabies.

Feline Rhinotracheitis, like Feline Calicivirus is a respiratory infection and can become chronic if a kitten gets sick, so this vaccine may also be recommended by your veterinarian.

Additionally, your veterinarian may recommend the Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) vaccination. Granted, indoor cats are not at a lot of risk for this disease, but you can never be 100% certain that the kitten will never go outside or be introduced to a new kitten at a later date.

If you and your veterinarian decide that these vaccines are right, your veterinarian will set up a schedule for the first 4 months. Then, 12 months later, the kitten should be revaccinated against all of these diseases (boosters).

In the past, veterinarians recommended yearly re-vaccination against these diseases but studies and experience have proven that yearly boosters are not necessarily needed. Your veterinarian will be able to advise you on the proper vaccination intervals, but a chart of recommendations is also available from the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

Do vaccinations have risks?
As with any medical procedure there are some risks associated with vaccines. Those risks range from minor to extremely serious and have the potential to include side-effects like:

  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Fever
  • Regional lymphadenomegaly
  • Soreness
  • Abortion
  • Encephalitis
  • Polyneuritis
  • Arthritis
  • Seizures
  • Behavioral changes
  • Hair loss or color change at the injection site
  • Respiratory disease

Allergic (hypersensitivity) and immune-mediated reactions may include:

  • Failure to immunize fully
  • Tumorigenesis (vaccine-associated sarcoma or other tumors)
  • Multisystemic infectious/inflammatory disorder of young
  • Vaccine-induced immunosuppression
  • Reactions caused by the incorrect or inappropriate administration of vaccines

This list should not scare you away from vaccines, but I encourage you to discuss these risks with your veterinarian.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

Frequency of Cat Vaccines

Kittens below 6 months are most vulnerable to contagious diseases and are hence the primary recipients of vaccinations. The first core kitten vaccinations happen at three to four-week intermissions until your cat becomes 16-20 weeks old.

Core vaccines should be done annually after the initial dose.

Non-core vaccines can be given when your veterinarian recommends it or sees it as a preventive need.

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Vaccination myths vs reality

Myth: Once I’ve had my kitten vaccinated they’re immune for life.

Reality: Unfortunately, this isn’t true. It’s important to have your cat vaccinated every year to maintain his or her immunity against disease. While most brands of vaccines don’t need to include all the viruses every year, your kitten will need an annual booster against at least one of the viruses every year.

Myth: Feline leukaemia is rare, so my cat won’t need that injection.

Reality: Sadly, feline leukaemia is still a common cause of early death in young cats in the UK. It’s especially prevalent in urban areas and among unneutered animals. What I often see in my surgery is that kittens living in multi-cat households are also at risk.

Myth: Vaccinations make my pet feel poorly.

Reality: In my view, this is extremely unlikely. All feline vaccines are a modified form of the disease that they protect against and adverse reactions are very rare. Some kittens may be a little quiet and off food for 24-48 hours, but this is a fairly normal reaction to a vaccination – very similar to how we might feel after routine jabs. Anything more severe should always be reported to your vet.

Myth: My kitten is never in contact with other pets, so it won’t need to be vaccinated.

Reality: Many of the diseases your cat will be vaccinated against aren’t spread directly from pet to pet, meaning your furry friend could still catch an illness from something as simple as venturing outside! And your pet can also be at risk from viruses transmitted via your hands or clothes from cats you may come into contact with. Even if your cat goes out only rarely, or goes to a cattery (even very occasionally), they are at risk of contracting these diseases.

Myth: Pets are given boosters too often.

Reality: Your vet will never prescribe vaccinations unnecessarily. Instead, we assess your kitten’s needs on an individual basis and discuss what cover needs to be given. Your vet will also determine the right amount of time to leave between vaccines according to your pet’s age, their potential exposure to diseases and the type of vaccine to be given.

Myth: I missed giving my pet a booster last year, but I can just give him/her one this year instead.

Reality: This depends on the injection that’s been missed but, if more than 15 months passes between boosters, it’s likely that your vet will recommend restarting your pet’s vaccination programme from the beginning.

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Vaccines are preparations that resemble infectious agents like bacteria or viruses but are not pathogenic (disease causing). When administered to an animal, they “train” the immune system to protect against these infectious agents.


After vaccination, the immune system is “trained” to recognize infectious agents by producing proteins called antibodies or activating specific cells to kill the agents. When a vaccinated cat encounters these agents in the future, it rapidly generates antibodies and activates the cells that recognize the agents, producing an “immune response” that results in the elimination of the invading agent.

While vaccines represent one of the greatest achievements in preventive medicine, no vaccine is 100 percent effective and they don’t induce the same degree of protection in every cat. For this reason, exposure of even vaccinated cats to other cats or environments in which infectious agents may be found should still be minimized.

Vaccinating Kittens
Kittens are susceptible to a variety of infections due to their immature immune systems. Vaccination at the appropriate time and minimizing exposure to infectious agents are thus very important, particularly in kittens for which the history of adequate nursing from the mother is unknown. Kittens receive a series of vaccines over a 12 to 16-week period beginning at between 6 and 8 weeks of age. Earlier vaccinations are not effective because kittens ingest beneficial protective antibodies in their mother’s milk during the first few hours after birth, but these antibodies also interfere with their responses to vaccines. The antibodies ingested by a kitten while nursing last only a few weeks, so it is critical to vaccinate kittens at the appropriate time to ensure that they are still protected after the maternal antibodies wane.

Vaccinating Adult Cats
Decisions regarding which vaccines to give adult cats and how often they should be administered are based upon multiple factors, including the risk of a cat’s exposure to various infectious agents, the duration of protection of a given vaccine, the risk of cats passing diseases to humans, and the rather minimal risks inherent to vaccination (see below). Adult cats with unknown vaccination status should be treated as unvaccinated, and should receive the full series of vaccines outlined for kittens. Adult cats that are overdue for vaccinations should receive booster vaccines, regardless of the interval since the previous vaccination.

Risks of Vaccination
As with any medical intervention, there are always some inherent risks associated with vaccinating cats. Mild reactions, including a slight fever, lethargy, decreased appetite, and localized swelling at the vaccination site may start within hours after vaccination and usually subside within a few days. If they do not subside within this time frame, call your veterinarian.

In very rare cases (1-10 of every 10,000 vaccines administered), cats can have allergic reactions to vaccines. In mild cases, which constitute the majority of allergic reactions to vaccines, cats may develop hives, itchiness, redness and swelling of the eyes, lips, and neck, and mild fever. Severe allergic reactions may cause breathing difficulties, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea, pale gums, and collapse. If a cat shows any signs of allergic reaction after vaccination, contact a veterinarian immediately.

If a swelling near a vaccination site persists for more than three weeks or begins to grow, contact a veterinarian immediately. Such persistent reaction could be a sign of a type of cancer called feline injection site sarcoma (FISS). These rare tumors are believed to result from inflammation associated with vaccination, and can occur up to 10 years after vaccination in some cats. Treatment requires aggressive surgical removal of the tumor with wide borders of normal surrounding tissue. With this in mind, cats should receive vaccines in places where large amounts of tissue can be removed, such as the limbs or tail, which can be amputated in the event of FISS. Cats generally do very well after amputation of either a tail or a limb.

Keep in mind that for the average cat, the benefits of an appropriate vaccination program (protection against the serious/lethal diseases discussed above) far outweigh the potential risks associated with vaccination.


The American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccination Advisory Panel recommends that all household cats kept indoors at all times receive the following vaccines:

Panleukopenia (feline distemper): This highly contagious and potentially lethal virus causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and in some cases, sudden death. Kittens are particularly susceptible.

Feline herpesvirus (viral rhinotracheitis): This virus causes upper respiratory infection with fever, sneezing, eye and nasal discharge, conjunctivitis (inflammation of the inner eyelids and mucous membranes around the eyes), inflammation of the cornea (keratitis), and lethargy. Kittens have an increased risk of infection.

Calicivirus: This highly contagious and ubiquitous virus is one of the major causes of upper respiratory infection in cats. Affected cats may experience sneezing, eye and nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, lethargy, loss of appetite, sores on the gums and soft tissues of the oral cavity, and lameness. In some cases, affected kittens may develop pneumonia. In rare cases, a much more virulent strain of this virus can cause inflammation of the liver, intestines, pancreas, and cells that line the blood vessels. This severe form of calicivirus can be deadly in up to half of affected cats.

Rabies virus: This deadly viral infection most commonly spreads through bite wounds, but can also be transmitted to any mammal by exposure of an open wound to the saliva of an infected animal. Skunks, raccoons, coyotes, foxes, and bats are the most common wild carriers in North America. Humans are at risk of infection if bitten by an infected animal or if the saliva of an infected animal comes into contact with an open wound. Rabies is routinely fatal once symptoms develop.


The decision to vaccinate a cat with a specific non-core vaccine involves a careful assessment of the cat’s lifestyle, age, health status, exposure to other cats (and the health of these cats), vaccine history, and, in some cases medications that the cat is being treated with. With the understanding that all treatment is associated with some risk, the vaccine-specific risk must be weighed against the potential benefit that is unique to each cat’s situation.

A cat may need additional vaccines depending on its risk of exposure to infectious organisms due to outdoor access, living in a shelter, or being housed in a home with infected cats. Consult your veterinarian to determine if any of these may be appropriate for your cats.

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV): The leading cause of virus-associated deaths in cats, FeLV spreads through the saliva, nasal secretions, feces, urine, and milk of infected cats. Casual contact, bite wounds, and nursing can all transmit the infection. Roughly 50 percent of cats diagnosed with FeLV succumb to the disease within two and a half years. Infected cats may suffer from anemia, immune suppression, and cancer. All kittens should be vaccinated against FeLV during their first year of life. Afterward, any adult cat that may be exposed to outdoor cats or FeLV-infected cats should continue to receive this vaccine.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV): This viral disease can compromise the immune system, predisposing cats to a variety of other infectious diseases. It is spread primarily via the saliva of infected cats through bite wounds, so transmission among socially compatible cats is rare. Cats that venture outside, where aggression among cats is more likely to occur, are at risk. FIV vaccines are generally not as effective as most other vaccines, and it is difficult to distinguish between a new infection and previous vaccination.

Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough): This highly prevalent bacterium is a common cause of upper respiratory infections, which can cause sneezing, discharge from the eyes and nose, and sometimes a cough. Cats can be infected by direct contact with nasal and oral secretions of infected cats or dogs. B. bronchiseptica thrives when cats are densely housed, such as in shelters and multiple cat households, and this vaccine is a tool to help control the spread of infection in these situations.

Chlamydia felis: This bacterium can cause conjunctivitis and upper respiratory infections in cats. Vaccination can help control the spread of the bacterium in multiple cat environments where verified infections have occurred.

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP): This almost universally fatal viral disease stems from a mutant form of the relatively benign feline coronavirus. The mutation occurs within the individual cat and there is scant evidence that the deadly FIP form of the virus spreads efficiently between cats, although recent shelter outbreaks suggest that transmission of the lethal FIP form can occur under certain conditions. Most studies indicate that vaccination against FIP is not effective, so FIP vaccination is not usually recommended.

Dermatophytosis (ringworm): These fungal infections, which cause hair loss and inflammation of the skin, spread to both dogs and humans through direct contact. Vaccines against the fungal species that cause ringworm are ineffective in cats, and are not recommended.

single dose with yearly booster

Core cat vaccine. Rabies is 100% fatal to cats, with no treatment available. Prevention is key.

Feline Distemper (Panleukopenia)

Core cat vaccine. Feline distemper is a severe contagious disease that most commonly strikes kittens and can cause death.

Core cat vaccine. Feline herpesvirus causes feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), a very contagious upper respiratory condition.


American Animal Hospital Association: "Canine Vaccine Guidelines Revised."

Humane Society of Southern Arizona: "Animal Services: Vaccinations."

Veterinary Partner: "Canine Influenza (H3N8)," "Kennel Cough," "Leptospirosis."

Colorado Veterinary Medical Association: "Dog And Cat Vaccine Antigen Selection Guidelines."

American Association of Feline Practitioners: "Vaccine Summary."

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: "Feline Vaccines: Benefits and Risks." "Canine Adenovirus Type 2." "Nobivac® Canine 1-DAPPv+L4." "Nobivac® Feline-Bb."

Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. "2013 AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel Report," 2013, Vol. 15, pp. 785-808.

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