Do Cats Really Need Annual Vaccines? The Truth About Yearly Shots


Vaccinations are an important preventative health measure for cats. They help protect against infectious diseases that can pose serious health risks. Some diseases like rabies are fatal if a cat becomes infected. Other illnesses like feline distemper or upper respiratory infections are very common and easily spread between cats. Vaccinations prime a cat’s immune system to fight off these diseases if exposure occurs.

Due to how contagious and dangerous some feline diseases are, most vets recommend core vaccines be given routinely. However, there is debate around how often vaccines need to be boosted after the initial kitten series. Guidelines have evolved over time. It’s important for cat owners to understand current expert recommendations on what vaccines cats need and how often they should be given. This helps them make informed decisions with their vet on the optimal vaccination schedule for their cat.

Core vs Non-Core Vaccines

Vaccines for cats are divided into two categories: core and non-core vaccines. Core vaccines are those that are recommended for all cats, regardless of lifestyle or risk factors. These vaccines protect against diseases that are extremely contagious, potentially fatal, and pose a significant threat to all cats. Non-core vaccines are those that are only recommended for cats with specific risk factors, since the diseases pose a lower risk to the general cat population.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) guidelines, core vaccines for cats include:1

  • Rabies
  • Feline panleukopenia virus
  • Feline viral rhinotracheitis
  • Feline calicivirus

These vaccines protect against rabies, distemper, upper respiratory infections, and other highly contagious diseases. Non-core vaccines may be recommended by a veterinarian based on geographic location, lifestyle factors, or other risks. These include vaccines for feline leukemia virus (FeLV), Chlamydia, Bordetella, and more.

Guidelines on Core Vaccines

According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), there are two core vaccines that are recommended annually for cats:

The FVRCP vaccine protects against three major viruses:
– Feline viral rhinotracheitis (herpesvirus 1)
– Calicivirus
– Panleukopenia virus

The other core vaccine is the rabies vaccine, which is legally required annually or triennially in most jurisdictions. The killed virus rabies vaccine is considered very safe and effective for preventing the fatal zoonotic rabies virus infection.

The AAHA/AAFP guidelines state both the FVRCP and rabies vaccines should be administered to kittens every 3-4 weeks until 12-16 weeks of age, then again one year after the last kitten booster. Thereafter, the FVRCP and rabies vaccines are boostered annually in adult cats.

Guidelines on Non-Core Vaccines

Non-core vaccines are those that are recommended based on a cat’s individual risk factors, according to the 2020 AAHA/AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines. These include feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), Chlamydia felis, Bordetella bronchiseptica, and dermatophytosis vaccines.

For FeLV, the guidelines state the vaccine should be considered only for cats allowed outdoors unsupervised, those living with FeLV-infected cats, and kittens younger than 4 months if prevalence is high. FeLV vaccines are likely best administered at 8 and 12 weeks, with a booster at 16 weeks if needed. The guidelines note risks of vaccination like injection site sarcoma.

FIP vaccines are not generally recommended due to limited efficacy data, potential adverse effects, and interference with FeLV testing. They may be considered for cats at high risk like shelters. Cats should be tested for FeLV first. Guidelines recommend informing owners of potential risks.

Overall, the guidelines emphasize that non-core vaccines should be administered after assessing individual risk and benefit. Factors like the cat’s environment and lifestyle should help guide decisions.

Factors Impacting Recommendations

There are several key factors that impact recommended vaccination schedules and protocols for cats:

Age is an important consideration. Kittens have maternal antibodies from their mother’s milk that can interfere with vaccination effectiveness until around 12 weeks of age. Kittens need a series of vaccines starting as early as 6-8 weeks for core vaccines in order to overcome this interference. Adult cats who have been previously vaccinated may only need a single booster per year.[1]

Indoor versus outdoor lifestyle plays a role. Outdoor cats face higher risk of exposure to dangerous diseases like feline leukemia, so they require core vaccines like feline leukemia to protect them. Indoor cats may not necessarily require all core vaccines annually after the kitten series is complete.[2]

Health status can impact recommendations. Ill or immunocompromised cats may not mount as effective of an immune response, so their vaccination schedule and boosters may need to be tailored to their medical needs. Veterinarians consider any underlying conditions when making vaccine recommendations.[3]

Discussing your individual cat’s lifestyle and medical history with your veterinarian can help determine the most appropriate vaccine schedule.

Benefits of Annual Vaccines

According to the experts at Cornell Feline Health Center, annual vaccines help maintain your cat’s immunity against infectious diseases: link

The principle behind annual vaccination is that immunity against disease-causing agents wanes over time, so revaccination is necessary to maintain immunity against disease. Some researchers suggest vaccine immunity may last years longer than current guidelines recommend, while others provide evidence that annual vaccination provides superior disease protection compared to less frequent revaccination.

According to veterinarians, the main benefits of annual feline vaccination are: link

  • Maintaining optimum immunity against infectious diseases like panleukopenia, herpesvirus, calicivirus, rabies, leukemia, and more
  • Preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases that could harm the cat population
  • Providing peace of mind to owners that their cat is protected
  • Opportunity for annual wellness exam to check other aspects of health

While the ideal revaccination schedule is debated, most experts agree that annual vaccination provides the highest level of disease protection. For owners wanting maximum immunity for their cats, annual boosters are recommended.

Potential Risks of Over-vaccination

While core vaccines are important to protect cats against serious diseases, over-vaccination can pose risks. Adverse reactions may occur in some cats after vaccination including vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, fever and soreness at the injection site (AAFP). Research also shows repeated vaccination against core diseases provides no benefit and may increase the cat’s risk of adverse reactions (Pethealthandnutritioncenter).

There are also concerns that over-vaccination may trigger other health problems in cats. Some studies have linked over-vaccination to the development of fibrosarcomas (aggressive tumors) at the vaccine injection site, as well as autoimmune diseases and other chronic conditions (Catinfo, Pethealthandnutritioncenter). While more research is needed, limiting vaccines to only what is necessary based on guidelines can minimize potential risks.

Overall the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) stresses that we must be judicious in our approach and “first do no harm” with unnecessary vaccines (AAFP). Working with your veterinarian and following the latest core and non-core vaccine guidelines is important to protect your cat’s health while avoiding over-vaccination.

Vaccine Schedule Timeline

The standard timeline for kitten vaccinations according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) is as follows:

For adult cats, the AAFP recommends:

It’s important for cat owners to consult with their veterinarian to determine the optimal vaccine schedule and boosters based on the cat’s lifestyle and disease risks.

Owner Education

It is essential that owners discuss vaccine options with their veterinarian on an annual basis. Veterinarians play a key role in shaping owner decisions about vaccines for their pets. A study found that veterinary recommendations had significant influence on an owner’s choice to vaccinate their dog or not. Given the evolving guidelines and new research on vaccine protocols, owners should have an open dialogue with their vet each year to determine the ideal vaccination plan for their individual pet.

Owner education is crucial so that pet parents understand the benefits and risks of both core and non-core vaccines. Increased knowledge allows owners to make informed decisions aligned with their pet’s lifestyle and medical needs. Annual examinations also allow vets to properly assess the pet’s health status, vaccine history, and risk factors. With this information, vets can then provide evidence-based recommendations tailored to each pet. Ongoing communication empowers owners to be active partners in their pet’s preventative healthcare.


When it comes to vaccinating cats, there are core vaccines recommended for all cats as well as non-core vaccines depending on lifestyle and risk factors. Core vaccines like rabies, panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus are vital to protect cats from serious and potentially fatal illnesses. These core vaccines are recommended annually by major veterinary guidelines. Non-core vaccines may be given annually or every three years depending on the specific vaccine and the cat’s risk factors. Things like indoor/outdoor access, underlying health conditions, and regional disease prevalence can all impact the ideal vaccine schedule. While some argue against over-vaccination, the benefits of protection from harmful viruses and bacteria seem to outweigh potential vaccine reactions in most cases. By staying up-to-date on vaccines and tailoring them to your cat’s needs, you can help keep your feline healthy and give them their best chance at a long and happy life.

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