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University of Illinois Extension

Core Vaccinations to Protect Your Kitten

May 10, 2013

Your adorable kitten gets a good start in life with natural immunity to disease transferred from its mother's milk. But that natural protection decreases over time and is completely gone by 16 weeks of age. That's why your kitten needs vaccinations on a schedule designed to prevent gaps in immunity against diseases.

Dr. Kandice Norrell, primary care veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, advises owners to follow the recommendations on core vaccinations for kittens put forward by the American Association for Feline Practitioners (AAFP), the nation's experts on cat health. Following are the diseases and the recommended vaccination schedules.

FPV. Feline panleukopenia, a potentially deadly disease caused by feline parvovirus, is especially fatal among kittens with their immature immune system. Signs of this disease include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and sudden death. According to the AAFP, a kitten can be vaccinated against FPV as early as 6 weeks of age, and then every 3 to 4 weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks old.

FHV-1. According to the AAFP, feline herpesvirus-1 is so common that most cats will be exposed to this disease at some point during their life. This disease usually causes an upper respiratory tract infection in cats and is also linked to eye diseases and skin lesions. Vaccination is recommended because of the high prevalence of the disease and how easily it is passed between animals. The AAFP recommends vaccinating against FHV-1 as early as 6 weeks and repeating every 3 to 4 weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks old. Cats should be revaccinated at one year of age and every three years thereafter.

FCV. Similar to FHV-1, feline calicivirus can lead to upper respiratory tract disease in cats, with common signs being sneezing, runny eyes and nose, lethargy, and a fever. Feline calicivirus can also lead to lesions forming on the tongue or hard palate in the animal's mouth. This virus is also very common, and it is likely that all cats will be exposed to this disease at some point, but kittens will likely have more severe cases. The AAFP states that kittens should be vaccinated against FCV as early as 6 weeks and then repeated every 3 to 4 weeks until the kitten is 16 weeks of age. Cats should be revaccinated at one year and then again every three years. Although this vaccination is generally safe, the AAFP notes that the modified-live FCV virus injection in combination with the FHV-1 vaccinations has led to some mild cases of upper respiratory disease and sometimes lameness.

Generally, a vaccination that offers protection against all three viruses listed above is combined into a single injection.

Rabies. Rabies is a potentially fatal disease that can be transmitted from animals to people. It poses a major public health risk because it claims 45,000 to 60,000 human lives annually worldwide. Although rabies can be spread from a bite from an infected cat or dog, bats are the animals most likely to transmit rabies. Every suspected or known case of rabies in a companion animal must be reported to the health department.

Rabies is a core vaccination for cats. The age at which the rabies vaccination is administered is determined by the county in which the pet lives. Generally, the vaccination is administered between 12 and 16 weeks of age.

Both a one-year and a three-year rabies vaccination are available for use in cats. However, the veterinarian must vaccinate in accordance with state and local laws, and some states and counties do not to recognize a three-year vaccination. Dr. Norrell, in accordance with AAFP guidelines, recommends against the use of a three-year product in cats because currently, all three-year rabies vaccinations contain adjuvants.

"An adjuvant is a substance added to a vaccination to induce a stronger immune response. Cats are very sensitive to adjuvants. Adjuvants increase the risk of vaccination reaction and have been linked with vaccine-induced cancer," says Dr. Norrell.

According to Dr. Norrell, it is not uncommon to see a little bit of lethargy, decreased appetite, and even a low-grade fever following any vaccination. These issues should be mild and go away on their own. Hives, facial swelling, vomiting, or diarrhea, as well as a lump at the injection site, should be reported to your veterinarian or emergency clinic as soon as possible.

For more information about vaccinations for kittens, speak with your local veterinarian.

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