There are three core cat vaccinations that every single cat should get. We call the core vaccinations the F3. They cover feline herpes virus, feline calicivirus, and a condition called feline panleukopaenia. If you tested every cat to see if they had been exposed to these viruses, it would be around 85 to 90 per cent have seen them at some point in their life. But there’s a catch with vaccinations—not all cats can get them, and they have to be tailored to every individual cat.
The feline herpes virus and feline calicivirus are responsible for most cases of cat flu. Feline panleukopaenia is very similar to parvovirus that dogs catch. But with cats, they get an extreme reaction in their bone marrow. Their white blood cell count goes extremely low.
The cat can catch these viruses from a mucus spray. That could be another cat sneezing on them. It could be a cat grooming another cat or sharing food and water bowls.
They can also be transmitted via humans. The virus gets into households on your clothes, your hands, or your shoes. You touch something that the cat then touches, the cat grooms itself and that’s how it picks up the virus.
When cats can’t be vaccinated
Some cats can’t be vaccinated. A classic example is kittens under six weeks old. There are very few indications to vaccinate a kitten under that age. We usually recommend starting at six to eight weeks.
The other problems are the cats with very damaged immune systems. They may have already caught viruses that attack their immune systems, or they’re on chemotherapy, or they have some other reason not to get vaccinated.
If we encounter an owner that can’t vaccinate for some reason, then we recommend they take other measures to protect their cat—and those measures are pretty extreme. We’re talking about hand-washing when they come into their house, changing their outer clothing, and removing their shoes when they enter the house. It’s not an easy thing; that’s why vaccination is much simpler.
Cat vaccinations that are tailored to lifestyle
Apart from the core F3 vaccinations, there are a few others we can add if there is a high risk of the cat picking up another disease. It really depends on the cat’s lifestyle—if it lives in a multi-cat household, or spends a lot of time outside, for example. What your vet is doing in each case is weighing up the risks of the disease with the risks of a bad response to the vaccine.
For example, there’s a bacterial disease called chlamydia. It can cause a really nasty conjunctivitis, and occasionally some upper respiratory problems too. We don’t recommend vaccinating with it, usually, unless the cat is at high risk.
The reason we don’t is they are much more likely to get a vaccine reaction. Examples include swelling at the back of their neck, or being sick for two or three days and having a temperature after vaccination. The chlamydia part of the vaccine seems to be very prone to causing that.
If the cat does catch chlamydia, it’s treatable with antibiotics. But that treatment is a pain for you because you have to treat everybody in contact. So if you have lots of cats living together, you might choose to vaccinate them because it’s going to be extremely expensive and almost impossible to treat everybody if they catch chlamydia.
But if you only have one cat, or maybe two cats, the chances of them having a vaccine reaction is probably higher than the chance of catching chlamydia. So we choose not to vaccinate unless we have to.
If your cat’s a lover or a fighter
If a client’s cat is either a lover or a fighter, we look at vaccinating against feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). The only way a cat can catch FIV is by fighting or during sex. You need the infected cat’s saliva to go into your cat’s bloodstream for the virus to be passed on. That happens during a fight, but also, cats often bite each other during sex.
In the Muswellbrook and Denman area, we’ve checked the feral cat population. And unfortunately, FIV is quite prevalent in the feral cats.
So if your cat’s going outside, there is a risk of it fighting—therefore there’s a risk of it catching the FIV. And we would recommend that cat getting vaccinated.
If your cat’s part of a big cat family
The last one we can do is feline leukaemia virus. This is another blood-borne virus, but it’s a little bit different because it is passed by close contact. That is, by grooming, sharing food and water bowls, or feeding in close proximity to another cat who has the virus. It can pass from the mother to the kittens in the early stage of their life.
The virus can actually act in a few different ways. Some cats will clear it from their system. But in other cats, it’s taken up by the bone marrow and the white blood cells. At that point it causes horrible tumours, and the cats die very young (two or three years old).
There have been some recommendations from research scientists that we should vaccinate all kittens against feline leukaemia in the first year of life. That’s the period when they are most likely to be exposed to the virus.
The sting in the tail with cat vaccinations
There is a sting in the tail with cat vaccinations though. It’s why we don’t just give everybody everything, and we’re very careful to tailor it to each individual cat. That is because cats are prone to a condition called feline sarcoma.
If you over-vaccinate a cat, they can develop a tumour (feline sarcoma) later on in life. Unfortunately, it’s a very aggressive tumour. It massively shortens their life because it doesn’t just invade local tissues, but it seeds elsewhere in the body, and has catastrophic consequences.
It’s not that common but we always take it into consideration. That’s why we vaccinate cats as little as possible, and we’re so careful with our tailoring. We take a bit of time to make sure we’re doing what’s necessary—not just vaccinating everybody with every single product that’s available on the market.