Vaccinating Indoor Cats. Is the Jab Worth It?


While indoor cats live safely inside and have less risk of exposure to infectious diseases, vaccinations are still recommended by veterinarians. Indoor cats can still pick up illnesses if an infected animal gets into the home or if they manage to sneak outside. Core vaccines help prevent common feline viruses that could make a cat severely ill. Kittens and cats also need protection in case they accidentally escape and encounter disease outside. Vaccines prime the immune system to mount an immediate response if exposed to a pathogen down the road. Even for a strictly indoor cat, vaccines provide protection from potential illness and add assurance if the cat unintentionally gets outside.

There are a number of viral diseases that vaccines can protect cats from. The primary ones are panleukopenia, calicivirus, rhinotracheitis, rabies, feline leukemia virus, and feline immunodeficiency virus. Not every cat needs to be vaccinated for all of these but a veterinarian will advise on the recommended schedule for an individual cat based on health status, age, and risk factors. Core vaccines for indoor cats typically include panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus. Rabies may also be mandated by law. Additional viral vaccines may be recommended depending on the cat’s unique circumstances.

Diseases Kittens Are Vaccinated For

Kittens are routinely vaccinated against three key diseases: panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calicivirus.

Panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper) is a severe viral disease that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and death in cats. According to the 2020 AAHA/AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines, panleukopenia is highly contagious and difficult to treat once contracted. Vaccination provides nearly 100% protection and is considered a core vaccine for all kittens.

Rhinotracheitis is an upper respiratory infection caused by the feline herpesvirus (FHV-1). It can lead to symptoms like sneezing, discharge from the nose/eyes, fever, and loss of appetite. According to the AAHA/AAFP Guidelines, over 80% of cats have been exposed to FHV-1, so vaccination is critical. The vaccine prevents disease but may not prevent infection.

Calicivirus is another major cause of upper respiratory illness in cats. It causes oral ulcers and flu-like symptoms. Per the AAHA/AAFP Guidelines, the calicivirus vaccine significantly reduces disease severity and viral shedding. Vaccination is recommended for all kittens.

Diseases Adult Cats Are Vaccinated For

There are three main diseases adult cats are routinely vaccinated for: rabies, feline leukemia, and feline immunodeficiency virus.

Rabies is a fatal viral disease that attacks the central nervous system. Rabies is transmitted through saliva, typically via a bite from an infected animal. According to the CDC, cats are the domestic animal most frequently reported rabid in the United States. All cats should be vaccinated against rabies as it is often required by law. The rabies vaccine is considered a core vaccine for cats.

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) are retroviruses that suppress the immune system, making cats more susceptible to other diseases. FeLV is spread through saliva, urine, feces, milk from an infected mother cat, or from a bite wound. FIV is primarily spread through bite wounds from an infected cat. Both viruses can be fatal, so vaccination is recommended for cats at risk of exposure. The FeLV vaccine is considered a core vaccine for kittens, while the FIV vaccine is a non-core vaccine reserved for cats at higher risk.

Are Vaccines Safe for Cats?

Like any medication or treatment, vaccines do carry potential risks and side effects. However, severe reactions are very rare in cats. According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, most side effects from vaccines are minor and temporary, such as soreness at the injection site or a mild fever for a day or two. Severe allergic reactions are possible but not common.

One large 2017 safety study on over 1 million cat vaccine doses found that only 28 cats had suspected allergic reactions – that’s 0.000025% of vaccinated cats. The vast majority of cats tolerate routine vaccination without any problems. However, kittens, geriatric cats, and cats with immune system issues may be at slightly higher risk of reactions. Discuss any concerns with your veterinarian.

Overall, experts agree the benefits of protection from dangerous infectious diseases far outweigh the small risks. Vaccines are highly tested and regulated for safety and effectiveness. By vaccinating indoor cats, you’re not only protecting them as individuals but also preventing diseases from spreading between pets.

Cost of Vaccinating Indoor Cats

Vaccinating indoor cats can cost anywhere from $15 to $45 per vaccine, with the average being around $30 per vaccine according to sources like Daily Paws and the LA Times. Kittens require a series of vaccinations in their first year of life, including core vaccines like rabies, panleukopenia, herpesvirus and calicivirus which can cost $100 to over $200 for the full series. Adult cats typically just need boosters of these core vaccines every 1-3 years which cost around $60-$120 per visit.

The total cost for fully vaccinating an indoor cat throughout its lifetime usually ranges from $400-$800 on average. However, this depends on the specific vaccines recommended by your vet, how often your cat needs boosters, and clinic pricing in your area. Regular vaccinations are important for indoor cats as well since they can still be exposed to contagious diseases from humans, other household pets, boarding facilities, the outdoors and more.

Risks of Not Vaccinating Indoor Cats

While keeping a cat indoors reduces their risk of being exposed to infectious diseases, it does not eliminate the risk completely. Diseases can still spread between indoor cats through direct contact or exposure to contaminated objects. For example, the feline calicivirus is extremely hardy and can survive for weeks to months in the environment. An infected outdoor cat could contaminate the owner’s clothing or shoes which then carries the virus indoors. In this way, even 100% indoor cats are still at risk of contracting infectious diseases if not vaccinated (Source 1).

Outbreaks of diseases like panleukopenia and calicivirus can occur in populations of unvaccinated cats who never go outdoors. Overcrowded shelters and hoarding situations with poor sanitation often experience outbreaks that can be fatal in unvaccinated cats. Kittens are especially vulnerable as they lack maternal antibodies from their mother’s milk after 12 weeks of age. For community cats in group living settings, widespread vaccination is critical to prevent outbreaks that could devastate the colony (Source 2).

Expert Recommendations for Indoor Cats

Expert organizations like the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) regularly publish vaccination guidelines to help vets determine the best vaccine protocols for indoor cats.

The 2020 AAHA/AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines recommend the following core vaccines for all cats with indoor lifestyles:

  • Rabies – every 1-3 years depending on local laws
  • FVRCP – every 3 years

Non-core vaccines like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) are not routinely recommended for indoor cats with limited outdoor access and exposure to other cats. Controversial vaccines like FIV are also not recommended for indoor cats due to lack of effectiveness and potential risks.

Vets may tailor vaccine recommendations for indoor cats based on lifestyle factors like age, health status, indoor/outdoor access, and risk of exposure. But in general, following the expert core vaccine guidelines is considered sufficient for protecting most indoor cats from common infectious diseases.

Lifestyle Factors to Consider

The likelihood of an indoor cat needing vaccines greatly increases if they ever go outside, even just occasionally. Any exposure to other cats or the outdoors can put them at risk of disease (East Valley Animal).[cite][/cite]

Indoor cats that live in multi-cat households are also at a higher risk of contracting an illness. With more cats using the same space and resources, diseases can spread rapidly between housemates. Vaccines provide crucial protection in group living environments (PetMD).[cite][/cite]

So while it’s possible for a strictly indoor solo cat to go without vaccines, any outdoor access or cohabitation with other cats makes vaccination highly advisable. Their lifestyle determines the level of risk and need for immunization.

Making a Vaccine Schedule

When making a vaccination schedule for your indoor cat, there are core vaccines that should be prioritized as well as optional vaccines that can be given on a different schedule.

The core vaccines include rabies, FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia), and FeLV (feline leukemia virus) for kittens. Rabies is required by law. FVRCP helps prevent common upper respiratory infections and panleukopenia which can be deadly. FeLV is recommended for all kittens since the virus is spread through casual contact with infected cats.

For indoor adult cats, vets typically recommend getting the FVRCP vaccine every 3 years and rabies vaccine every 1-3 years depending on local laws. FeLV is considered optional after the initial kitten series.

Non-core optional vaccines like feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) may be recommended on a different schedule, such as annually, for cats at higher risk. Your vet will help determine the appropriate vaccine schedule for your cat based on lifestyle factors.

The Bottom Line

To summarize, while indoor cats may seem protected, it’s still important to keep up with core vaccines like panleukopenia, calicivirus, herpesvirus, and rabies. Kittens need an initial series of vaccinations starting as early as 6 weeks old. Adult cats typically just need rabies vaccines every 1-3 years depending on the vaccine type and laws. Vaccines help prevent serious and potentially fatal diseases in cats and are considered safe for most cats with minimal side effects. Not vaccinating leaves cats vulnerable to highly contagious illnesses that could require extensive treatment. Work with your vet to make an appropriate vaccine schedule based on your cat’s age, medical history, lifestyle factors, and local laws. While the decision depends on each cat, experts overwhelmingly recommend vaccinating indoor cats. The minimal risks associated with vaccines far outweigh the consequences of leaving cats unprotected.

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