Can You Keep an Unvaccinated Cat? The Risks You Need to Know


Vaccinations play an important role in protecting cats from dangerous infectious diseases. While some owners wonder if vaccines are necessary for indoor cats or cats who get limited outdoor access, most experts recommend core vaccines even for cats with minimal risk. This article will cover the core and non-core vaccines for cats, the risks of skipping vaccines altogether, legal vaccination requirements, considerations around indoor vs outdoor cats, the importance of vet visits and regular preventive care, and provide information to help cat owners make informed decisions about vaccinating their pets.

Core Vaccines

Certain vaccines for cats are considered core, meaning they are considered vital to all cats regardless of lifestyle or risk factors. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, the core vaccines for cats include:

  • Rabies – Rabies is a fatal viral disease that can spread between animals and people. Rabies vaccination is required by law for all cats in most jurisdictions.
  • Panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper) – A highly contagious and life-threatening disease of cats caused by the panleukopenia virus, a parvovirus that replicates in and kills dividing cells.
  • Rhinotracheitis – A highly contagious upper respiratory infection caused by feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1).
  • Calicivirus – A common and highly contagious respiratory virus that causes oral ulcers and upper respiratory infection.

These core vaccines are recommended for essentially all cats, starting as kittens. Kittens receive a series of vaccines, then typically get boosters for these core vaccines one year later, then every three years thereafter. These vaccines protect cats from extremely dangerous and contagious illnesses that could be life threatening without proper prevention through vaccination.

Non-core Vaccines

Non-core or optional vaccines help protect cats from other diseases they may be exposed to. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), some of the main non-core vaccines for cats include:

  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) – Protects against a retrovirus that suppresses the immune system. Recommended for cats going outdoors and cats in shelters where FeLV is prevalent. (AAHA)
  • Chlamydia felis – Protects against an intracellular bacterium that causes upper respiratory infection and conjunctivitis. May be recommended for cats going outdoors or living in multicat environments.
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica – Protects against a highly contagious bacterium that causes kennel cough. Recommended for cats living with dogs or going to boarding facilities.

Veterinarians will assess your cat’s risk and make recommendations on non-core vaccines that may be appropriate. While these help protect against diseases cats may encounter, the risks tend to be lower compared to core vaccine-preventable diseases. Non-core vaccines involve an added cost as well. Discuss options with your vet to decide what’s right for your cat.

Risks of Skipping Vaccines

Skipping vaccines exposes cats to many dangerous infectious diseases. Vaccines help prevent common feline viruses like panleukopenia virus, calicivirus, herpesvirus, and rabies. Unvaccinated cats are at higher risk for contracting these diseases and suffering severe illness or even death.

These viruses can spread between unvaccinated cats through saliva, nasal discharge, urine, feces, and fleas. Outdoor unvaccinated cats are especially prone to picking up viruses from other cats in the neighborhood or environment. Even indoor cats can catch airborne viruses from outdoor cats entering the home on people’s clothes and shoes. So skipping vaccines puts other cats in the household at risk too.

Some feline viruses like rabies can infect humans in rare cases, becoming a dangerous zoonotic disease. Rabies is almost always fatal once symptoms appear. Vaccination is critical for minimizing this risk to humans.

Feline leukemia virus is another serious infectious disease prevented by vaccination. It suppresses the immune system, allowing secondary infections to develop. Unvaccinated cats are also at higher risk for debilitating chronic diseases later in life.

In summary, skipping vaccines puts cats at risk for contracting infectious diseases, transmitting them to other pets, and in rare cases even infecting humans. Vaccination is the safest and most effective way to minimize these dangers.

Legal Requirements

Rabies vaccination is mandated by law in most areas of the United States. According to Table of State Rabies Laws Concerning Cats, rabies vaccination is required for all cats by 4 months of age in almost every state. Only Hawaii and Pennsylvania do not have a rabies vaccination requirement for cats.

The main purpose of rabies vaccination laws is to control the spread of the deadly rabies virus, which is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. Rabies has a nearly 100% fatality rate if left untreated. Mandatory vaccination of pets, especially those that go outdoors, is critical to public health and safety.

In most states, not vaccinating your cat against rabies is illegal. According to Rabies Laws by State, violations can result in fines and other penalties. For example, in Texas it is a criminal offense with a fine up to $100 per unvaccinated animal. Some areas may even have the authority to impound unvaccinated pets.

While rabies laws focus on dogs, many states include cats, especially those with outdoor access where they could encounter rabid wildlife. Overall, rabies vaccination is not only recommended for cats, but required by law in most states.

Indoor vs Outdoor Cats

When it comes to deciding whether to keep an unvaccinated cat indoors or allow them outdoors, there are some important risks to consider for both situations:

Indoor cats have a lower risk of:
– Being hit by vehicles, attacked by dogs/wildlife, or getting into fights with other cats (Indoor vs. Outdoor Cats: Should You Let Your Cat Outside?)

However, indoor cats may face increased risks of:

– Obesity and associated health problems if not provided enough exercise and enrichment (Pros and cons: Indoor vs. outdoor cats)
– Increased stress and anxiety from lack of environmental stimulation

Outdoor access provides more opportunity for exercise and environmental enrichment, but unvaccinated outdoor cats are at higher risk for:
– Contracting deadly infectious diseases like panleukopenia, FeLV, FIV (Outdoor and Indoor Cat Vaccination Schedules)
– Encountering parasites like ticks, fleas, worms

Overall, unvaccinated cats allowed outdoor access face significantly higher risks of injury, disease, and shortened lifespan compared to strictly indoor cats. Veterinary experts recommend keeping unvaccinated cats indoors until they can receive core vaccines.

Vet Visits

Even if you decide not to vaccinate your cat, it is still important to take them for regular vet checkups. According to Clintonville Animal Hospital, yearly vet visits are crucial for indoor cats, as they can still catch dangerous viruses like feline leukemia at any age and at any time of year. Being indoors does not protect them from these viruses, but being examined and tested yearly by a vet does.

At a vet visit, your unvaccinated cat can be checked for signs of illness, tested for diseases, treated for parasites, and monitored for any developing health issues. Skipping these visits increases the risk of disease and illness going undetected and worsening over time. Additionally, establishing a relationship with a vet provides peace of mind that you have somewhere to turn if your cat does get sick.

Many vets will agree to see unvaccinated pets, but some may require cats to be current on core vaccines like rabies before treating them. Check with your local vets about their policies, and be prepared that they may recommend getting your cat properly vaccinated. While the annual cost of vet visits for an indoor cat typically ranges from $100-$300 depending on your location, the price is reasonable for protecting their long-term health.

Preventive Care

There are steps cat owners can take to help prevent illness in unvaccinated cats through preventive care at home. According to the Veterinary Centers of America (, good sanitation is crucial. This includes daily litter box cleaning and frequent washing of food bowls, bedding, and toys with soap and hot water to remove germs. Cats should also be regularly checked for fleas and ticks and given parasite preventative medication monthly. Veterinarians recommend using broad spectrum dewormers 1-4 times per year for both indoor and outdoor cats as parasites are easily transmitted. Limiting exposure to other unknown cats can help reduce the spread of viruses. Providing healthy, balanced nutrition tailored to your cat’s needs boosts their immune system. Annual wellness exams allow vets to check for problems and discuss preventive care options to keep unvaccinated cats as healthy as possible. Though preventive care is important, vaccines remain the best defense against dangerous contagious feline illnesses.

Making a Decision

Deciding whether or not to vaccinate your cat requires carefully weighing the pros and cons. On one hand, vaccines protect against potentially fatal diseases like feline distemper, feline leukemia, and rabies. According to Cornell University, the benefits of an appropriate vaccination program far outweigh the risks for most cats.

On the other hand, there are some risks associated with vaccines, including potential side effects like lethargy, fever, and local inflammation. More severe side effects like aggression, seizures, and paralysis are possible but quite rare (

If your cat is strictly indoors, the risks of skipping certain non-core vaccines may be low. However, the core vaccines are still recommended to protect against highly contagious and potentially fatal diseases. Outdoor cats or cats exposed to other animals absolutely require core vaccines like rabies, according to veterinarians (

When making your decision, be sure to discuss your individual cat’s lifestyle and risks with your veterinarian. They can help you determine the optimal vaccination schedule to protect your cat’s health while minimizing risks.


In summary, while it is possible to keep a cat without vaccinations, especially if they are strictly indoors, there are significant risks involved. Core vaccines like rabies and distemper are critical for all cats to prevent deadly diseases. Additional non-core vaccines may provide protection from common illnesses like feline leukemia. Legally, rabies vaccines are mandated in most states for all owned cats. Though indoor cats have lower risks, vaccines are still recommended to protect their health and that of humans or other pets they encounter. Working with a vet to maintain a customized preventive care plan is ideal to balance risks versus lifestyle for each cat. Though skipping shots may seem convenient or safe, the dangers posed to unvaccinated cats and humans make routine vaccinations an important part of responsible pet ownership.

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