Do Indoor Cats Need Vaccination?

You probably already know that vaccines prevent a number of deadly and contagious diseases. These vaccines have saved countless numbers of lives; humans and animals alike.

But if your cat never leaves the house, is it really at risk of catching these diseases? What does the law say about vaccines for your indoor cats?

Simply put, your cat still needs some vaccinations. Deadly diseases can be brought into the home through our clothes and shoes. There are also legal requirements for the rabies vaccine.

cat walking

Vaccination Is a Choice… Or Is It?

When it comes to the rabies vaccine, it is required by law almost everywhere in the United States. This is because rabies can be transmitted to humans and has no cure.

Having a cat that is unvaccinated for rabies is a public health risk. Even if your state doesn’t require a rabies vaccination, many counties and cities do.

At best, you could be fined for owning a cat that is not up to date on rabies vaccination. At worst, your cat could be confiscated and euthanized by animal control.

If your unvaccinated cat bites someone, it will be required to have a lengthy quarantine or be euthanized to be tested for rabies. You will also likely be responsible for any costs this incurs.

Indoor vs Outdoor Cats

Cats by nature are playful and curious but the degree of their penchant for the outdoors may vary from kitty to kitty. Each personality also comes with advantages and risks.

For outdoor felines, enjoying their predatory instincts to the fullest will give them plenty of exercise and less hassle for us pet parents to clean their mess in the litter box.

The downside to this, however, is an increased risk in getting involved with rabid and wild creatures that could give them parasites and all forms of kitty illnesses. In addition, they’re at high risk of getting involved in accidents like falling from high places and vehicle-related dangers.

Additionally, we pet parents would not be able to easily detect injuries, poisons, and illnesses, as well as their causes.

Because of the number of high risks in raising outdoor cats, a lot of pet parents and kitty specialists recommend raising indoor kitties. This is because indoor felines are usually content to just stare outside while lounging by the window; far from the risk of any neighborhood catfights and vehicular accidents.

It is also easier to identify health problems and monitor them should there be any that will occur.

The downside to this, however, is that homebody cats can be such couch potatoes if not given enough toys and playthings. Excessive laziness and lack of exercise can lead to obesity and even feline diabetes, so you need to consider your kitty’s play and exercise if you wish to raise indoor cats.

That’s a Lot to Take In! Just Tell Me What to Do!

Ok! Here is a quick guide:

  • Indoor-Only Kittens (Under One Year Old)

Vaccination guidelines recommend rabies, feline distemper, and feline leukemia vaccines. Kittens have a weaker immune system than adult cats and will need extra protection. Vaccines should never be skipped in kittens.

  • Indoor-Only Young Adult Cats (One to Five Years Old)

In almost all cases, these cats do not need the feline leukemia vaccine. They also don’t need the chlamydia vaccine.

However, professionals almost unanimously recommend the feline distemper vaccine and the rabies vaccine for these cats. Once the initial booster series is completed, most manufacturer’s vaccines can be given every three years.

  • Indoor-Only Adult and Senior Cats (Five Years Old and Up)

Again, in almost all cases, these type of indoor cats do not need leukemia or chlamydia vaccinations.

If you interact with cats outside your home or have outdoor cats in your neighborhood, you can easily bring feline distemper and calicivirus home to your cat. It is probably a good idea to continue getting the distemper vaccine every three years.

On the other hand, if up until this point, your cat has been properly vaccinated throughout its life, it will likely have long-term immunity to feline distemper. If there aren’t any cats around your neighborhood and you don’t interact with any cats besides your own, it might be okay to skip the distemper vaccine.

A titer test can help make this determination, but will not give a definitive answer.

As mentioned, in most areas, rabies vaccination is going to be required by law and your cat should remain up-to-date on rabies vaccination. If it is not required by law in your area, you can ask your veterinarian if rabies is common in wildlife in your area.

Similar to distemper, a cat that has been properly vaccinated for its entire life will likely continue to have immunity without additional boosters. Again, a titer test may help indicate if a rabies vaccine is needed, but there’s no guarantee.

veterinarian giving vaccination injection to red cat

Types of Vaccine

There are two types of cat vaccines you can ask from the vet. These are core vaccinations and non-core vaccinations.

Core Vaccines The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) identifies two major vaccines that are considered core and should be given to all felines – the FVRCP Vaccine and the Anti-Rabies Vaccine.

  • Feline Distemper (aka FVRCP)

This vaccine includes protection from three diseases. These are rhinotracheitis (feline herpesvirus), calicivirus, and panleukopenia (feline distemper).

Rhinotracheitis or Feline Herpes is the feline equivalent to our flu. Only that, the virus can never be removed once a kitty acquires it – whether as a kitten from a mama cat or from any sick cat within the neighborhood.

Feline herpesvirus causes chronic life-long respiratory and eye issues. Luckily, it is not known to survive in the environment and is only transmitted when cats live in close proximity.

Typically, veterinarians recommend that every cat stays up-to-date on the distemper vaccine because calicivirus and feline distemper are so highly contagious. This is especially important for kittens that do not yet have a developed immune system.

Kittens should receive this vaccine at 8 weeks old, 12 weeks old, 16 weeks old, and then one year later. After this initial series of vaccines, boosters should be given every three years to maintain immunity.

Calicivirus is also another illness similar to flu. Additionally, it can give mouth ulcers to your kitty and can escalate to pneumonia if left as is.

Panleukopenia, also known as distemper, is a fatal disease for cats. If untreated, death ensues within 12 hours of contracting the disease which has symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and vomiting.

Because kitties are highly susceptible to these diseases especially when they have been weaned from their mama cat, it is recommended that they should acquire their first shot within the first 6-8 weeks.

This will have to be followed by two more shots during their 10th-12th week and 14th-16thweek. They will then have their first booster shots a year after.

AAFP recommends the renewal of booster shots every three years after the first booster shot, but a lot of indoor cat parents renew their kitty’s boosters within 3-7 years.

Calicivirus and feline distemper can live in the environment for a significant length of time. This means that these viruses can be found in the soil or be brought home on your clothes.

In the past, feline distemper was a leading cause of death in cats. Calicivirus is not usually deadly but can make your cat very sick with an upper respiratory infection.

  • Anti-Rabies Vaccine

The anti-rabies vaccine is another core vaccine for your feline friend. It is a must, regardless of whether your cat is an indoor or an outdoor type since it is dangerous not just for your cat but also for humans.

The vaccine is available both as an annual and 3-year shot, although you will have to check with your vet whichever is available in your locality.

Rabies occurs in wildlife throughout the continental United States and is especially common in the eastern US. Rabies is transmitted through animal bites. Bats, skunks, and raccoons are common carriers of rabies.

Although unlikely, it is entirely possible for an indoor-only cat to get rabies. Cats can escape the home and encounter wildlife. On the other hand, rabid animals, especially bats, are known for entering homes.

Non-Core Vaccines Non-core vaccines include those that protect against Feline Chlamydia and Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP); both of which affect the respiratory tract in different areas. Also included in the list are medicines against Bordetella, Feline FIV, Feline Leukemia, and ringworm.

One problem among non-core vaccines is that not all of them have been confirmed to be effective like in the case of Bordetella, FIV, and ringworm (hence, not discussed here). Other non-core vaccines also need not be administered because there is almost no possibility for your kitty to contract diseases such as FIP.

  • Chlamydia

The type of chlamydia that cats get actually infects the eyes. The infection is very painful and difficult to fight off. 

Protection from this bacteria is sometimes included in the feline distemper vaccine at no extra cost. However, the immunity from the vaccine does not last over one year.

If your veterinarian is recommending a feline distemper vaccine every year instead of every three years, protection from chlamydia is the reason.

Chlamydia does not survive in the environment very well. Infection is spread only by close contact with a sick cat. If your cat only stays indoors with no contact with other cats, it does not need this vaccine.

  • Feline Leukemia (aka FeLV)

This vaccine for Feline Leukemia greatly affects a kitty’s immune system to the point that it can increase the effect of various infections and blood disorders and even cancer. Some indoor cat owners, however, would discontinue the vaccination of FeLV after one shot since their cats are less prone to this disease.

If you have both outdoor and indoor tabbies, however, it is recommended to continue FeLV because your indoor kitty may still contract the virus through its house sibling.

This terrible disease is the second leading cause of death in cats. It is transmitted primarily through saliva and blood but luckily doesn’t live outside the body more than a few hours.

Cats can carry and spread this disease several years before showing symptoms. So make sure any cats you add to your household are tested.

The current American Animal Hospital Association guidelines recommend that all kittens be vaccinated for feline leukemia. This is because kittens are especially susceptible to the disease.

Having the vaccine as a kitten will provide a low level of lifetime protection in case the kitten ever escapes or becomes an outdoor cat.

If your cat is an adult, indoor-only cat, they do not need this vaccine.

Are There Alternatives to Booster Vaccinations?

The short answer is no. Only vaccination ensures immunity.

However, titer tests are the closest thing to seeing if your cat needs a vaccination. This blood test measures the antibodies present for a specific disease.

Antibody titers are also a good way to save all the trouble of revaccination and increasing your kitty’s chance to develop Sarcomas through reducing the frequency of your indoor cat getting vaccinated.

Getting antibody titers is equivalent to sending blood samples to check if the vaccine is still taking effect. The only downside, however, is its cost to your budget.

Rabies titers are routinely required for transporting dogs and cats internationally, but they are falling out of favor. This is because the level of antibodies in the blood does not actually represent if an animal is immune to a disease. It is only a rough guess.

This type of titer test cannot replace the legal requirement of a rabies vaccine. There is no established value as to what level of antibodies actually protects against rabies. However, studies suggest that 1.0 IU/ml is a decent indicator of immunity to rabies.

The only other titer that has any reliability at predicting immunity is the feline distemper titer. Luckily, this is the most deadly and contagious disease, thus, the most important immunity that your cat needs to have that the titer can determine at a decent level.

The feline distemper titer test has an 11% chance of saying that your cat is immune when it is not protected against the disease. Relative to the low risks of vaccines, 11% is a fairly high chance.s

The feline distemper titer test shouldn’t give false a belief that your cat is protected, but must be considered an educated guess.

Are There Risks to Vaccination?

Most people who don’t vaccinate their cats are simply looking to save a trip to the veterinarian. An annual checkup is always a good idea, even if vaccines aren’t due. It is much better to have your vet catch diseases earlier than later.

You can always ask your veterinarian about the risks of vaccination. They can discuss any concerns you have.

Vaccines are extremely safe but every vaccine does bring two very rare risks with it: a sarcoma or a reaction.

  • Sarcoma

There is about a 1 in 10,000 chance that an aggressive cancerous tumor called sarcoma will occur in the area where your cat was vaccinated. To put that in perspective, you are about as likely to die in a household accident this year.

Sarcomas are so rare that many veterinarians will spend their whole career treating various diseases of animals without seeing one with sarcoma.

However, sarcomas are the primary reason that vaccine recommendations are more conservative for cats than dogs. Still, the chance of developing sarcoma is much lower than the chance of an indoor-only cat getting feline distemper.

  • Reaction

Vaccines are designed to trigger an immune response and teach the body what a certain deadly disease “looks like”. Swelling or slight pain at the injection site, a mildly elevated body temperature or just feeling down for a day or so is normal. In fact, these sorts of responses show that the vaccine is working.

A full-on allergic reaction to the vaccine is very rare and more commonly seen in small dogs than in cats. These reactions can be reversed by your veterinarian using antihistamines and other drugs.

Final Advice

Typically, the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks for indoor cats. It is much better to ensure that your cat is protected from deadly diseases than to take a chance.

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