What Shots Do Kittens Need?

Kitten shots, or vaccinations, are an important part in keeping your kitty healthy.  Vaccinations help prevent sickness from different viral and bacterial diseases by strengthening the kitten’s immune system. Like any good cat parent, you only want what’s best for your new kitten.  At the top of the list should be getting your kitten the needed shots to protect your kitten’s nine lives.  But, where do you even begin?  We’ll outline the basics of kitten shots, and when they should be given to provide the utmost protection for your new little one.

What Shots Do Kittens Need?

Generally, kittens will need core vaccinations such as the FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calcivirus, panleukopenia) shot, and the rabies shot.  However, depending on your kitten’s lifestyle, non-core vaccinations may be necessary.

Let’s explore the two categories of kitten vaccinations in detail: core and non-core.

Core Vaccinations 

Core vaccines should be given to every kitten no matter their lifestyle.  These vaccines protect against common diseases found in every cat population that can be very serious. Vaccination against these common diseases is most commonly done through a combination shot called FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calcivirus, panleukopenia) that can be given as young as six weeks old.

Here are the core vaccinations for kittens:

  • Rhinotracheitis

Rhinotracheitis in cats is caused by a herpes virus.  The virus creates an upper respiratory infection meaning in the nose, eyes, and throat. The symptoms will result in coughing and sneezing in conjuction with discharge from the nose and eyes.  Some cats may act as carriers and never show symptoms, but still spread the virus to others.  Therefore, vaccinating becomes even more important as you may not know if a cat is infected or not.  This makes up the ‘FVR’ in the FVRCP shot.

  • Calicivirus

Similar to rhinotracheitis, the calcivirus infects the upper respiratory system.  Additionally, infection can cause ulcers in the mouth and on the nose.  These ulcers can be very painful and cause your kitten to stop eating.  This virus is easily spread from cat to cat, but can also live in the environment for long periods of time. So your kitten can potentially get the virus without any cat to cat contact.  This makes vaccinating extremely important, and makes up the ‘C’ in the FVRCP shot.

  • Panleukopenia

Often referred to as ‘feline distemper’, panleukopenia is actually closely related to parvo seen in our dog friends.  This virus kills rapidly dividing cells such as those in the intestines and bone marrow.  Young kittens are especially susceptible and intensive treatment and nursing care is usually required for recovery.  Vaccination is crucial for prevention and is the ‘P’ in the FVRCP shot.

  • Rabies

While this isn’t part of the FVRCP combination shot, it is definitely part of the core vaccinations.  The rabies virus can infect all mammals, including humans.  Some cities require pets to be rabies vaccinated in order to be licensed, and yes, some cities require cats to be licensed.  The virus is also 100% fatal and can be transmitted through contact with infected animals, especially wildlife like bats and skunks.  Rabies vaccinations can be given at 12 weeks of age by a licensed veterinarian only.

Non-core Vaccinations 

Giving non-core vaccinations should be discussed with your veterinarian.  To determine if your kitten needs additional protection besides the FVRCP and rabies shots, you need to examine your kitten’s lifestyle.  Will your kitten eventually be an indoor cat, outdoor cat, or both?  Will your kitten come in contact with a lot of other cats, especially strays?  Is your kitten a healthy baby from a healthy mama? 

Here are some of the non-core vaccinations that are available for kittens:

  • Chlamydia

Chlamydiosis is a bacterial version of the upper respiratory infections seen with rhinotracheitis and calcivirus.  The infection is often less severe, but still requires antibiotics and supportive care to get rid of.  Chlamydia can come in combination with the core vaccines or as an individual shot.  Vaccination with the individual shot is recommended for all cats in a household with a known Chlamydia infection.  Vaccinations can start at 8 weeks old with a booster three to four weeks later.

  • Feline Leukemia

A leading cause of death in kitties is feline leukemia.  Feline leukemia suppresses the immune system, allowing other viral or bacterial infections to manifest that wouldn’t normally be a problem.  Leukemia is spread through contact with mainly infected saliva and blood, but also urine and feces.  Vaccinations are recommended for all outdoor kitties or those strictly indoor cats that have exposure to cats that do go outside.  Leukemia can be in combination with the core vaccinations or as a separate shot.  Vaccinations can be started at eight weeks of age with a booster given three to four weeks later.

  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)

FIV causes a slow onset weakening of the immune system, similar to feline leukemia.  It is transmitted mainly through bite wounds, and infected cats might not show any symptoms for years.  This means that any cat could potentially be infected with FIV and you wouldn’t know it until years later.  Vaccination is important for kittens at high risk, so those that go outside or in multi-cat households where some go outside, especially in areas where FIV is known.  Vaccinations can begin at eight weeks of age with two follow up boosters given two to three weeks apart.    

Kitten Vaccination Schedule

Kittens can start their vaccination schedule as early as six weeks of age.  However, it’s important to know that maternal antibodies that were passed on from mother to kitten are active until around eight weeks of age.  Those maternal antibodies actually overpower any vaccination making it ineffective.  Therefore, in healthy, low risk kittens vaccinating should wait until eight weeks of age. 

However, if your kitten has a questionable background, such as a stray, weaned early, or at high risk in a multi-cat household with exposure to outdoor strays, starting shots at six weeks old is advised.  Boosters are required at three to four week intervals until 16 weeks, equaling a total of three successive shots.

Rabies shots can be given at 12 weeks old, but most veterinarians will wait until 16 weeks so that rabies and other vaccines are on the same schedule.  After the initial kitten shots, boosters are given in one year and then every one to three years depending on the vaccine and exposure of your kitty. 

Let’s take a look at a sample vaccination schedule:

Age Core Vaccinations (Required)  Non-core Vaccinations (Dependent on Lifestyle/Health of Kitten) Drugs (Dependent on Health of Kitten)
8 Weeks FVRCP Leukemia, Chlamydia, FIV Deworming
12 Weeks FVRCP  Leukemia, Chlamydia, FIV Deworming
16 Weeks FVRCP, Rabies FIV
16 Months FVRCP, Rabies Leukemia, Chlamydia, FIV Deworming

Is My Kitten Over Vaccinated?

Fortunately, kitten vaccines these days are very safe and rarely cause any negative reactions.  Even if you were to repeat boosters the next day, most kitties wouldn’t have a problem.  That being said, some kitties can be over vaccinated mostly due to exposure, or lack thereof.  For example, a single indoor only kitten would be sufficiently covered with the core vaccinations only, this includes rabies.  If the kitten is never coming into contact with other cats, and the cat parents aren’t in contact with other cats outside of the home, the kitten is at very low risk.  A kitten with this lifestyle would be considered over vaccinated if he received the non-core vaccinations as well or was given boosters every year.  Be sure to discuss with your veterinarian any vaccination protocol factoring in lifestyle. 

Outdoor versus Indoor Kitten Vaccinations

We’ve briefly alluded to the difference between vaccinations necessary for indoor versus outdoor kittens already, but let’s take this opportunity to dive really deep. 

  • Indoor-only kittens

These kitties require the core FVRCP and rabies.  Yes, rabies even though he or she is never going outside.  If your sweet baby were to bite anyone, then having an up to date rabies vaccination saves a lot of time and trouble.  With these shots, your kitten should be sufficiently protected if your kitty is the only cat in the household and you’re not around other cats outside the home.

  • Indoor-outdoor kittens

In this category, include indoor only cats that have other cat family members that go outside part time.  These kitties are going to need the core FVRCP, rabies, and feline leukemia vaccinations at least.  After that, adding Chlamydia and FIV if there are known infections or a high risk for these diseases in your area is a good idea.

  • Outdoor kittens

Outdoor cats should get the works.  Definitely the core FVRCP, rabies, leukemia, and Chlamydia.  FIV should be given if there are known infections in your area as well.

Vaccinations as Your Kitten Matures into Adulthood

If your kitten was properly vaccinated as a baby, then your kitten won’t require any new shots once he or she reaches adulthood.  However, your adult cat should still get booster shots from the ones he or she received as a kitten on a regular schedule.  The schedule will be determined by you and your veterinarian.  Depending on the type of vaccine used and your cat’s exposure, these boosters will occur every one to three years.

The addition of new vaccinations to your kitten’s adult protocol would be required if something were to change in his or her lifestyle.  For example, you may have been planning to keep her as an indoor only cat while she was growing up. But her rambunctiousness has made her more comfortable as an indoor outdoor adult.  If she didn’t receive vaccinations to protect her against leukemia or Chlamydia when she was a baby, now would be the time to add those in.  FIV shots can be added anytime there is a known infection as well.  Also, you might need to add or change vaccinations if you decided to bring another feline friend into the household.  Remember to discuss all possible changes with your veterinarian. 

Conclusion

Getting your new kitten his or her shots is an important part of being a cat parent.  Please don’t postpone vaccinations because you’re afraid the shots will hurt him or her.  Your kitten will thank you for it later as a healthy, happy adult cat.  It’s also important to remember that vaccinations don’t take the place of cleanliness and common sense.  Don’t let your kitty mingle with other sick or stray cats or mingle with other cats when he or she is feeling ill.  Discuss your kitty’s lifelong vaccination plan with your veterinarian so that you can rest easy knowing that he or she is protected against many dangerous illnesses. In the end, this will leave you more time to cuddle and play with your cat for years to come.

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