Annual Cat Vaccines. Are They Really Necessary?


An annual vet visit is extremely important for cats, even if they seem perfectly healthy. At the annual exam, the vet will perform a comprehensive physical exam, checking everything from eyes, ears, mouth, skin, coat, weight, temperature, heart, lungs, abdomen, muscles, joints, paws, nails, and neurological function. This allows them to identify any early signs of illness or age-related changes. Bloodwork, urinalysis, and other screening tests may be recommended based on the cat’s age and risk factors. Vaccines are updated as needed to maintain immunity against infectious diseases. The vet can also discuss any behavior issues or changes in the home environment. Overall, the annual visit provides an invaluable opportunity to monitor your cat’s health, prevent issues from developing, and catch problems early when they are most treatable. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, annual exams can increase a cat’s lifespan by nearly 2 years ( By making this investment in preventative care, pet parents can help their cats live longer, healthier lives.

Core Cat Vaccines

There are two main core vaccines recommended for cats by veterinary organizations like the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP):

FVRCP vaccine protects against three different viruses: feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus, and feline panleukopenia virus. Feline herpesvirus can cause upper respiratory infections, eye infections, and mortality in kittens. Feline calicivirus leads to oral ulcers and upper respiratory infections. Feline panleukopenia virus is highly contagious and can be deadly, causing fever, low white blood cell count, vomiting, diarrhea, and death, especially in unvaccinated kittens.

Rabies vaccine protects cats against the rabies virus, which is transmitted through the saliva of wildlife reservoirs like raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes. Rabies is nearly always fatal once clinical signs develop, so vaccination is crucial for preventing this disease in cats who go outdoors.

Non-core Cat Vaccines

In addition to the core vaccines, there are some other non-core vaccines that may be recommended for cats in certain situations. These include:

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) – FeLV is a retrovirus that suppresses the cat’s immune system and can lead to cancer and other diseases. Kittens are routinely vaccinated against FeLV, but for adult cats the vaccine is considered non-core. It may be recommended for outdoor cats at risk of exposure or cats living with FeLV positive cats. (Source)

Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP) – FIP is caused by a type of coronavirus and can cause fatal illness in cats. There is an experimental vaccine available but currently no fully protective vaccine against FIP. Discuss with your vet if it may be appropriate for a high risk cat.

Ringworm – Ringworm is a fungal infection of the skin. An inactivated vaccine may help reduce risk in shelter/rescue kittens and cats in households with active infection. It does not provide complete protection so other precautions are still needed.

How Often Do Cat Vaccines Need to Be Given

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), most veterinarians recommend core vaccines for cats every three years. The core vaccines protect against panleukopenia virus, calicivirus, rhinotracheitis virus, and rabies.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) also released updated guidelines in 2020 recommending core vaccines every three years for adult cats with some exceptions. More frequent rabies vaccination may be mandated by law in some states.

For kittens, a series of vaccines is given starting at 6-8 weeks of age, with boosters every 2-4 weeks until 16-20 weeks of age. Then the first adult boosters are given at one year old.

Overall, the leading veterinary associations agree that adult cats in most lifestyle situations require core vaccines just every three years. Only in high risk situations are more frequent vaccines advised, like shelters or multi-cat households.

Cite: AAHA, AAFP release new feline vaccination guidelines

Cite: Vaccinations

Kitten Vaccination Schedule

The typical schedule for initial kitten vaccinations and boosters is as follows:

At 6-8 weeks of age, kittens receive their first round of core vaccines. According to PetMD, these initial vaccines include panleukopenia (feline distemper), rhinotracheitis (herpesvirus), and calicivirus. Some veterinarians may also administer the first FeLV vaccine at this age.

The initial core vaccines are repeated every 3-4 weeks until the kitten reaches 16 weeks of age. Each repeat vaccination is called a booster shot. Boosters help strengthen the kitten’s immunity against these dangerous diseases (1).

According to VCA Hospitals, the full series of initial vaccines and boosters is extremely important for kittens. Waiting longer than 4 weeks between boosters leaves the kitten vulnerable. Kittens should complete their vaccine series by 4 months of age (2).

Once the vaccine series is complete at around 4 months, kittens can receive their rabies vaccine. This is also considered a core vaccine. The rabies vaccine is then boostered one year later.




Adult Cat Vaccination Schedule

The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends that adult cats receive the FVRCP vaccine every 3 years after the initial kitten series and 1 year booster are given (1). Most vets follow the AAFP guidelines and recommend the 3 year FVRCP vaccine schedule for adult cats who received a full kitten vaccination series and 1 year booster. The label on FVRCP vaccines states it should be given annually, but research shows immunity lasts longer than 1 year (1).

For the rabies vaccine, the AAFP recommends it is boostered according to local laws (1). Many regions require annual rabies vaccination, but some allow the 3 year rabies vaccine. Adult cats with an unknown vaccine history will need at least 2 FVRCP vaccines 3-4 weeks apart, and 1 rabies vaccine. Then they can follow the standard 3 year booster schedule.

Indoor only adult cats can generally follow this standard schedule. Outdoor cats or cats in shelters may need more frequent FVRCP vaccines, as they are at higher risk of exposure. Adult cats with medical conditions or weakened immune systems may also need more frequent core vaccines (2).

Overall the AAFP guidelines represent the standard vaccine schedule for a healthy adult cat in a typical home environment after completing their kitten series. This helps prevent over-vaccination while still protecting adult cats from dangerous infectious diseases (3).




Lifestyle Factors That Influence Vaccines

A cat’s lifestyle and other factors like health status and age can influence which vaccines are recommended by veterinarians. One major consideration is whether a cat lives indoors versus outdoors.

Indoor cats have a much lower risk of being exposed to infectious diseases than outdoor cats who roam and come into contact with other animals. For this reason, indoor cats may not need every yearly vaccine such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV) (1).

Outdoor cats face higher risks of picking up diseases through interactions with other cats and wildlife. Annual vaccines are important for maintaining robust immunity against threats like rabies, FeLV, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and upper respiratory infections (2).

A cat’s health status can also impact vaccine guidelines. Very young kittens, senior cats, and cats with compromised immune systems may not be able to handle strong vaccine responses. Modified schedules are often recommended, like avoiding multiple vaccines at once (3).

In summary, factors like lifestyle, age, and health guide which vaccine protocols vets recommend for individual cats. Annual exams allow determining which vaccines are essential each year to protect cats based on their unique needs.



Possible Vaccine Reactions

Like any medication, vaccines can sometimes cause side effects. Most are mild and resolve on their own, but some can be more serious and require veterinary attention. According to PetMD, the most common vaccine reactions in cats include:

  • Mild soreness or tenderness at the injection site
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Slight fever

These mild reactions may start within hours after vaccination and can last for a day or two. Swelling at the injection site may also occur. More concerning reactions like facial swelling, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, pale gums, and collapse warrant an immediate vet visit, as per Argyle Veterinary Group. These signs of anaphylaxis usually occur within minutes to hours after vaccination.

Owners should monitor their cat closely for the first 24 hours after vaccines are administered. Lethargy, reduced appetite, and mild fever often resolve on their own, but if signs persist beyond 48 hours or any severe symptoms appear, veterinary examination is recommended. Calling the vet promptly when adverse reactions occur allows for timely supportive care and medication to help alleviate symptoms.

Making Vaccine Decisions

There are several factors to consider when deciding which vaccines to give your cat and how often:

Lifestyle – Indoor cats generally need fewer vaccines than outdoor cats who are at higher risk of exposure. Core vaccines are still recommended for indoor cats, but some non-core vaccines may not be needed. According to PetMD, the FVRCP and rabies vaccines are highly recommended even for indoor cats.

Cost – Vaccines range in cost depending on the type. Rabies vaccines tend to be less expensive, while some non-core vaccines can be pricier. Discuss options with your vet to find a vaccination schedule that fits within your budget. PetMD provides general vaccine costs to help guide decisions.

Risks – While most cats tolerate vaccines well, some experience mild side effects like lethargy or local reactions. More severe reactions are possible but very rare. Your vet can advise you on potential risks based on your cat’s health profile.

Effectiveness – Some vaccines provide longer duration of immunity than others, ranging from 1 to 7 years. Your vet can tailor the vaccination schedule according to your cat’s immunity levels and risk factors.

Your vet’s recommendations – Your vet knows your cat best and will make vaccine recommendations based on their health, age, and lifestyle factors. Discuss any concerns with your vet when making vaccine decisions for your cat.


In summary, there are core vaccines like rabies, panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus that are recommended annually for most adult cats to ensure continued immunity. Vaccination guidelines have moved away from automatic yearly boosters towards a more customized approach based on the cat’s age, health, environment, and lifestyle factors. Kittens need an initial series of vaccines and boosters to build up immunity, while adult cats may only need certain shots boosted every 3 years. Lifestyle factors like being indoors versus outdoors, exposure to other cats, and regional disease risks play a role in vaccine types and frequency. While vaccines provide important protection, some cats may experience mild reactions, so discuss any concerns with your vet. Work together to make the best vaccine decisions for your individual cat based on a complete health evaluation and risk assessment. But the key point is that core vaccines should not simply be skipped yearly without an informed discussion with your vet first.

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