Cat vaccines have been developed to protect your cat against a variety of serious and life threatening diseases. They are a crucial part of a proper preventative health care program.
The vaccines we use in cats at the Ark Veterinary Centre are Purevax Vaccines. Unlike other vaccines these do not need to use any adjuvants (chemicals which improve the effectiveness of the vaccine but often cause reactions at the injection site) and so minimise the risk of your cat having a reaction to the vaccination. When a vaccine is given, the body will then respond to it by producing an immune response. Your cat gets a full health check before we administer any vaccination. This is because if your cat is unwell, it’s ability to respond to the vaccine may be affected. At best, this means that the vaccine will not be fully effective, and at worst the vaccine could make your cat feel even worse. Hence it is crucial that vaccines should only be given to healthy individuals.
Kittens receive their first vaccination at 8-9 weeks of age, and then a second one 3-4 weeks later. The first vaccination primes the immune response and then the second boosts it to a level that will last for the next year. This is why it is crucial that the time gap between the 2 vaccines is correct.
Annual boosters are recommended, however certain parts of the vaccine now last up to 3 years, so depending on your cat’s health status and contact with other cats, a vaccine protocol can be tailored to your cat’s individual requirements. Even if your cat is not requiring an annual vaccination, we still recommend they come and visit for their annual health check.
Some people may mention or recommend “homeopathic vaccines” as an alternative to conventional vaccinations. There is absolutely no scientific basis for these “vaccines”. They do not produce any specific immune response and convey no protection against infection, or reduction in clinical signs of disease.
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There are many different types of vaccination, covering a range of diseases. Some of these are called core vaccinations, meaning that it is recommended that all cats (including indoor cats) are vaccinated against these. Others are called non core, and these are recommended where there is a risk of exposure to the disease.
The different types of vaccines include live and killed (attenuated). The terminology can be confusing, but the principle is that live vaccines use a small amount of the infection, which has been modified so it can replicate within the body for a short time. This allows the body’s immune system to develop a response without the animal developing the disease. With killed vaccines, the infection is dead and so cannot replicate. This results in a less marked immune response, to make the response stronger, they often have chemicals added (adjuvants) which magnify the immune response. Unfortunately these chemicals can also result in other side effects.
This virus causes a severe and frequently fatal haemorrhagic gastro-enteritis (bloody vomiting and diarrhoea). It is highly contagious and can survive for long periods (even years) in the environment. It is also resistant to many disinfectants. It is spread by direct contact with infectious faeces or by contamination of the environment. The virus is shed by infected cats for at least 6 weeks following infection, it can also be transmitted by dogs.
Clinical signs of the disease in adult cats and kittens over 4 weeks are a very acute onset vomiting and diarrhoea (often cats will die at this stage). Those that survive this will have infection of the bone marrow leading to a lack of white blood cells (the cells that fight infection) and chronic scarring of the intestines, leading to chronic digestive problems. If cats become infected while pregnant, the virus will travel across the placenta and infect the developing kittens, interfering with the development of their brains and causing a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia. Kittens infected before 4 weeks old can also develop this.
There is no specific treatment for this condition. As infected animals often die from dehydration or bacterial infection (due to the effect on the immune system), intravenous fluids, anti nausea drugs and antibiotics are central to treatment along with nursing care. All this care has to be done in an isolation environment as the disease is highly contagious. Therefore, feline panleukopenia virus is much better prevented than treated. Highly effective vaccines are available and all cats and kittens, including indoor only ones should be vaccinated.
This is one of the main causes of upper respiratory tract infections in cats (cat flu). It causes a highly contagious respiratory infection characterised by discharge from eyes and nose, sneezing conjunctivitis and mouth ulcers, along with lethargy, lack of appetite and fever. In some cats the signs can be quite mild, in others it can be very severe. Once a cat becomes infected the virus lives permanently in the nerve cells (a bit like the human cold sore virus which is also a type of herpesvirus) and can reactivate periodically, generally at times of stress or when the immune system is suppressed. At these times, the clinical signs will recur and the animal will shed virus again. Some cats can also develop keratitis (an inflammation of the cornea – clear membrane of the eye) which can cause discomfort and lead to blindness. On occasion cats can also develop skin ulceration, most commonly on the face. Transmission is via close direct contact with an infected cat, infected drops from sneezing/grooming, and the virus can survive for short periods in the environment.
Most of the treatment for feline herpesvirus infection is supportive and against the secondary bacterial infections that occur. However direct antiviral drugs (e.g. famciclovir) can be used in cats with poor immune systems and those suffering from keratitis and skin problems. Like with panleukopenia virus the best course of action if to vaccinate and protect your cat against this disease.
This is the other main cause of upper respiratory tract infections in cats (cat flu). There are 3 main syndromes seen with calicivirus infection:
- Acute upper respiratory tract infection with symptoms similar to herpesvirus.
- Gingivitis/stomatitis – a severe ulceration of the gums, generally unresponsive to treatment.
- Limping syndrome – occasionally, usually in younger cats, the virus can lead to inflammation of the joint (arthritis). This usually only lasts for a few days and is usually seen along with upper respiratory signs.
Occasionally the calicivirus can mutate this allows the virus to infect different organs including the cells that line blood vessels. This can result in severe disease including pneumonia, hepatitis (liver inflammation), pancreatitis, skin swelling and ulceration, and bleeding from the nose and intestine. Fortunately these outbreaks are very rare, but when they occur up to 50% or more of affected cats may die.
Transmission is similar to herpesvirus, but calicivirus can survive for longer periods in the environment, up to 1 month.
Vaccinations against feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus do not necessarily prevent infection with the viruses but will greatly reduce the symptoms of disease. The vaccine we use at Ark Veterinary Centre combines these 2 viruses along with panleukopenia virus. Kittens should be vaccinated initially at 8-9 weeks of ago and then again 3 weeks later. A booster vaccination should be given at 1 year of age and then repeated every 1-3 years depending on an individual risk assessment. We will discuss your cat’s vaccination requirement with you at their annual health check.
Non- core vaccines
Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) is a very important viral infection of cats occurring worldwide. FeLV belongs to a group of viruses known as ‘oncornaviruses’ and these viruses have the ability to cause the development of tumours (cancer) in infected individuals. Cats infected with FeLV can develop lymphoma (a solid tumour of one of the white blood cells), leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow) and some other tumours. However, other major effects of FeLV infection are severe immunosuppression and development of anaemia, and more cats die of these complications than from development of tumours.
In an infected cat, large quantities of virus are shed in the saliva, and potentially the faeces, urine and milk. The virus is fragile and does not survive in the environment for any length of time. It is thought that infection is perhaps spread most commonly through prolonged social contact (mutual grooming, sharing of food bowls, litter trays etc.). However, the virus can also be transmitted through biting.
Once a cat becomes infected with the leukaemia virus several outcomes are possible:
- Cats may mount an effective immune response that can completely eliminate the virus soon after exposure. These cats that have recovered fully from infection are immune, but this may be relatively uncommon.
- Cats may mount a good immune response and contain infection effectively, resulting in a ‘regressive infection’ – the virus may still be present in some cells, but an effective immune response stops widespread replication of the virus. These cats rarely develop any FeLV-related disease and rarely shed the virus.
- Cats may be unable to control replication of the virus within the bone marrow. Cells in the bone marrow used to form new blood cells may be infected and the virus will be present in these cells, in circulating blood cells and other sites such as the bladder, intestinal tract, salivary glands etc. These cats are highly likely to develop FeLV-related disease.
- On rare occasions, cats may develop atypical or localised infections, where a partially effective immune response largely prevents productive infection with the virus, but active replication may take place within certain tissues (such as the bladder or mammary glands).
The clinical signs of FeLV are wide and varied most often result from the suppressive effect the virus has on the immune system, leading to chronic and recurring infections, with accompanying weight loss, fever and lethargy. On top of this however, it can also lead to the development of anaemia and a marked increase in the chances of developing cancer. These cancers also tend to be less responsive to treatment compared with those in non FeLV infected cats.
There is no treatment for FeLV and all therapies are aimed at reducing the clinical signs.
FeLV vaccination has been proven to be successful. Several vaccines are available and these generally appear to provide a valuable level of protection against infection. Kittens tend to be more susceptible to FeLV infection, and as the environment a kitten will end up in is usually uncertain, we recommend routinely vaccinating all kittens against FeLV (ideally with a booster at a year of age). Subsequent vaccinations should be based on risk of exposure (e.g. a single housed indoor cat is at no appreciable risk of exposure to FeLV so vaccination against it may not be warranted, whereas it will be important in an outdoor cat).
As with the core vaccines, an initial course of 2 injections is given starting at 8-9 weeks of age (this can be given at the same time as the core vaccine). However annual vaccinations are required to ensure protection against FeLV in cats that may be exposed.
At the Ark Veterinary Centre we recommend vaccination against FeLV in all cats in multicat households and those who have access to outdoors where they can potentially meet infected cats.
Chalmydophilia felis (C felis) is a very fragile bacterium which infects cats. It cannot survive for any significant time in the environment, so the infection is mainly through direct contact between animals.
The main clinical signs are conjunctivitis (with a marked swelling of the pink membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids). At first only one eye may be involved, but within a few days the disease invariably affects both eyes. Pain and discomfort means affected cats may hold their eyelids partially closed. Occasionally there is also a mild fever which can result in lethargy and lack of appetite but most cats usually remain bright and eat well.
As the organism requires direct contact between cats to spread, the disease is much more common where large groups of cats are kept together (multi-cat households, breeding households, catteries and shelters). Being a bacterium, it does respond to appropriate antibiotics, but all cats in the household must be treated for 3-4 weeks to eradicate.
A vaccine is available to protect cats against chlamydophila conjunctivitis. This does not always prevent infection, but is helpful in preventing severe clinical disease. Although not generally required for the majority of pet cats, we do recommend it in high risk situations such as breeding colonies or households with many cats. Again we can discuss with you at your cat’s annual health check, whether your cat would benefit from this vaccination.