One of the best things you can do to give your cat a long and healthy life is to vaccinate him or her against serious feline infectious diseases. Cats pass immunity from disease to their kittens by providing disease-fighting antibodies within their milk. This provides immunity for the first few weeks of life, however after this point your cat relies on you to protect them from disease.
Vaccines contain small quantities of altered or “killed” viruses, bacteria or other disease-causing organisms. When given by injection, the cat’s immune system is stimulated to produce disease-fighting cells and proteins, known as antibodies. If the cat then comes into contact with the disease, the immune system has antibodies already formed to fight the virus/bacteria and prevent clinical disease.
The immunity that a kitten has at birth only lasts for a few weeks; most kittens are therefore vaccinated after rehoming. The first vaccination is usually given in two doses; the first dose at 9 weeks of age and the second about 3 weeks later. All cats then require an annual “booster” vaccination for the rest of their life to maintain protection.
Your cat should be protected against diseases which are common, highly contagious and/or can cause serious illness or death. In the UK this includes feline panleucopaenia, feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus (which cause “cat flu”) and feline leukaemia. Other vaccinations are occasionally recommended; your veterinary surgeon will evaluate the risks posed by such factors as your cat’s age, environment and lifestyle.
Similar to the common cold, the virus that causes this upper respiratory tract infection (“cat flu”) is easily transmitted from one cat to another. Vaccination is imperative if your pet may come in contact with other cats, either outdoors or within the household. Symptoms of herpesvirus include fever, loss of appetite, sneezing, occular and nasal discharges, and coughing. Kittens are often affected, but herpesvirus can infect any unprotected cat, and effective treatment is limited. If the cat recovers it will remain a carrier and may have recurrent health problems (particularly affecting the eyes) for life.
This virus is another major cause of upper respiratory-tract infection (“cat flu”) in cats. Common and highly contagious, symptoms are variable but can include conjunctivitis, sneezing, fever, ulcers on the tongue and sometimes lameness. Illness can vary from mild to severe, depending on the strain of virus present. Once again, treatment of this disease can be difficult. Even if recovery does occur, a cat who carries calicivirus can continue to infect other animals for weeks or months, sometimes lifelong, as well as experience chronic sneezing and runny eyes. Chronic gum disease has also been linked to calicivirus.
Feline panleucopenia is caused by a virus so resistant it can survive for over a year in the environment. The virus is very similar to that which causes canine parvovirus. It is now thought that some strains of parvovirus can cause disease in susceptible cats, so it is essential that cats are adequately protected. Symptoms include listlessness, diarrhoea, vomiting, severe dehydration and fever, and can be fatal. Treatment is very difficult and recovery, if possible, is very slow. A recovered cat can still spread the disease to other, unvaccinated animals. Thankfully, the panleucopenia vaccine is very effective in preventing disease.
Infection with Feline Leukaemia Virus can result in a several serious health problems; from cancerous conditions such as lymphoma, serious anaemia, to a wide range of secondary infections caused by an impaired immune system. After initial exposure to the virus, a cat may show no signs of infection for months or years. During this time they are infectious to others. Blood testing can determine the FeLV status of your cat. If he or she has not yet been infected, but is likely to come into contact with cats that are, vaccination against this potentially fatal disease is highly recommended.
Vaccinations cannot be 100% guaranteed to protect against disease as they rely on a sufficient response from the cat’s immune system. However, used in conjunction with proper nutrition and hygienic conditions, vaccination is your cat’s best defence against serious and common infectious disease.