The Complete Guide to Kitten Shots. How Many Vaccines Does Your Cat Really Need?


Vaccines are very important for cats to help prevent disease. Core vaccines are considered vital for all cats and protect against serious diseases like feline panleukopenia (panleuk), feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and rabies. Non-core vaccines are optional and protect against less common diseases like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Vaccinating cats can save their lives by preventing illness and helping them live longer. Most vaccines for cats require an initial dose, or series of doses, followed by regular boosters to maintain immunity.

Kitten Vaccines

Kittens require a series of vaccines starting as early as 6 weeks old to protect them against dangerous diseases. The main vaccines administered to kittens include:

  • Distemper – Also called panleukopenia, this viral disease attacks a cat’s gastrointestinal system and white blood cells. Kittens need a distemper vaccine starting as early as 6-8 weeks old, with boosters every 3-4 weeks until they reach 16-20 weeks old. (
  • Calicivirus – This common virus causes oral and upper respiratory issues. The vaccine is typically first given to kittens around 8 weeks old, with repeat boosters every 3-4 weeks until 16-20 weeks of age. (
  • Rabies – While less common in cats, rabies is fatal. Kittens receive their first rabies shot at 12-16 weeks, with a booster 1 year later.
  • FVRCP – This 3-in-1 vaccine protects against feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia viruses. It is administered on the same schedule as the individual distemper and calicivirus vaccines above.

Vaccinating kittens properly and on schedule is crucial to protecting them against deadly diseases while their immune systems mature.

Adult Cat Vaccines

The core vaccines recommended for adult cats over 1 year old are:

  • Rabies – Rabies vaccines are considered core for all cats. Rabies is fatal once symptoms appear, so vaccination is critical. Rabies vaccines are legally required in most regions (VCA Animal Hospitals).
  • Panleukopenia (FPV) – Panleukopenia is a highly contagious and deadly virus, so the panleukopenia vaccine is vital for adult cats (AAHA Feline Vaccination Guidelines).
  • Rhinotracheitis (FHV-1) – The rhinotracheitis vaccine protects against the feline herpesvirus, which causes upper respiratory infections (All Pets Vet Hospital).
  • Calicivirus (FCV) – Calicivirus causes respiratory illness and oral ulcers in cats. The vaccine is recommended as core (AAHA Feline Vaccination Guidelines).

Non-core vaccines for adult cats that may be recommended based on risk include feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and Chlamydophila felis.

How Often Cats Need Vaccines

The core vaccines for cats include feline distemper, feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus, and rabies. According to veterinary guidelines, these core vaccines should be administered in a series of at least 2 boosters when a kitten is around 8-12 weeks old, with a booster 1 year later. After the kitten series and 1 year booster are completed, core vaccines are generally boosted every 3 years for adult cats.

Non-core vaccines, like feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus, are recommended annually for cats at risk of exposure. Cats with outdoor access or living in shelters are at higher risk. For indoor cats in low risk households, vets may recommend skipping the non-core vaccines or administering them every 2-3 years.

Vaccine schedules can vary based on your cat’s risk factors, so it’s important to consult your veterinarian. They will make vaccine recommendations based on your cat’s lifestyle, environment, travel plans, and medical history. Your vet may also recommend antibody titer tests instead of automatic boosters to determine if existing immunity levels are sufficient. (

Importance of Rabies Vaccine

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals, including cats. Once clinical signs appear, rabies is virtually 100% fatal. There is no treatment for rabies once clinical illness begins. For this reason, vaccination against rabies is critically important for cats.

Rabies vaccines are required by law for all cats in most states, including New York, usually by 4-6 months of age. Laws vary by state, but rabies vaccination is compulsory as rabies poses a major public health risk. Rabies is transmissible to humans, so vaccinating cats is important for public safety.

The rabies vaccine provides protection by exposing the immune system to an inactivated form of the virus. This primes the immune system to mount a response if exposed to rabid animals. Studies show the rabies vaccine provides effective immunity in cats for at least 3 years when given properly by a veterinarian.

Some risks exist with the rabies vaccine, like injection site reactions, but the benefits far outweigh the risks. Vaccinating cats against this fatal disease provides individual and public health protection.

Vaccine Side Effects

Although most cats tolerate vaccines well, some potential side effects can occur. These are usually mild but it’s important to monitor your cat after vaccination and contact your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual.

Common mild side effects include soreness, swelling or tenderness at the injection site, decreased appetite, lethargy and low grade fever. These typically resolve within 24-48 hours. More severe reactions like facial swelling, hives, vomiting, diarrhea or difficulty breathing may indicate a vaccine allergy and require prompt veterinary care. Anaphylactic shock is rare but can be life-threatening.

Treatment depends on the symptoms shown but may include antihistamines, steroids, fluids, oxygen therapy and epinephrine in severe reactions. Most cats recover fully but your vet may recommend pre-treating with antihistamines before future vaccines or avoiding certain vaccine components if a specific allergy is identified.

While concerning, it’s important to weigh the risks against the many diseases vaccines protect cats against. Overall they are very safe and side effects are uncommon. Monitoring post-vaccination and staying up to date on your cat’s shots can help prevent serious contagious illnesses.

Exemptions from Vaccines

There are some situations where a cat may be exempt from receiving certain vaccines. The most common exemption is for medical reasons if a cat has had an adverse reaction to a vaccine in the past
[1]. Signs of an adverse reaction can include facial swelling, hives, difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, collapse, or even death. If a cat has experienced a severe reaction, a veterinarian may recommend exempting the cat from future doses of that vaccine.

However, rabies vaccines in particular have very few exemptions in most states. Rabies vaccines are required by law, so exemptions are only granted in special circumstances. According to Virginia state laws, the state public health veterinarian must approve any rabies vaccine exemption for a cat
[2]. Exemptions are limited to situations where the vaccine is contraindicated for medical reasons documented by a veterinarian. So while cats can potentially be exempted from other non-core vaccines, rabies vaccine exemptions are very rare.

Cost of Cat Vaccines

The cost of core cat vaccines can range from $15-45 per vaccine depending on your location and veterinary clinic. Kittens generally receive a series of vaccines starting around 6-8 weeks of age, with boosters administered every 2-4 weeks until 16-20 weeks of age, which can cost $100-200 for the full series. Adult cats require booster vaccines 1-3 years after the initial kitten series. Core vaccines for adult cats include rabies, distemper, and rhinotracheitis, with an average cost of $30-60 per vaccine every 1-3 years.

Wellness exams are required to administer vaccines, which cost an additional $50-100 per visit. With exam fees, the first year of kitten vaccinations may total $150-300 depending on the specific vaccines. Adult cats should receive an annual wellness exam and booster vaccine, with average costs of $80-160 per year.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, core vaccines for cats include panleukopenia virus, calicivirus, herpesvirus, and rabies. Non-core vaccines may also be recommended based on lifestyle and risk factors. Due to the potential severity of these illnesses, core vaccines are considered essential preventative care for cats.

There are options to reduce vaccination costs, such as low-cost clinics or vaccine clinics. But it’s important to maintain annual exams and adhere to your veterinarian’s recommended vaccine schedule to fully protect your cat’s health.

Importance of Vet Visits

Regular vet visits are critical for cats to get their necessary vaccines and overall wellness checks. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, annual or biannual exams help identify emerging health issues early on and are key to pets living a long, healthy life.

At annual wellness exams, the vet will check your cat’s vitals, weight, teeth, skin, coat, ears, and eyes to look for any problems. Bloodwork and other tests may be done to screen for issues like kidney disease or hyperthyroidism. Your vet will also make sure your cat is up to date on core vaccines like rabies, distemper, and feline leukemia.

Cats are very good at hiding illness, so their health can deteriorate quickly between yearly checkups. Annual exams allow vets to detect concerns like dental disease, kidney failure, diabetes, cancer, hyperthyroidism, and more in the early stages when treatment is most effective. Preventative care from a vet is much cheaper and has better outcomes than emergency treatment.

According to the Benefits of Routine Vet Visits for your Cat article, “Veterinary care is crucial because a lot can happen in four ‘cat years,’ which is why yearly visits are so important.” Regular vet visits can add years to your cat’s life and ensure their quality of life remains high even into their senior years.


Overall, the total number of vaccines a cat needs in its lifetime is around 16-17. Kittens need a series of 3-4 core vaccines including distemper, upper respiratory viruses, and rabies starting at 6-8 weeks of age. These initial vaccines are followed by boosters 3-4 weeks later. Adult cats need annual boosters for these core vaccines, with the rabies vaccine given every 1-3 years depending on local laws. Some vets may also recommend additional non-core vaccines like feline leukemia virus depending on the cat’s risk factors and lifestyle.

Getting all the recommended vaccines is absolutely critical for protecting cats against dangerous and often fatal infectious diseases. Kittens are especially vulnerable when their immune systems are still developing. Annual vet visits give the opportunity to administer needed vaccines and perform wellness exams to catch any health issues early. Responsible cat owners must prioritize following the vaccine schedule to ensure their cats live a healthy, happy life. There are almost no scenarios where cats should go completely without vaccines.

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