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     As a cat owner, it is useful to have some basic knowledge about the diseases you protect your cat from with vaccines. You may be surprised to find out that vaccines are not as protective as you have been led to believe, and that annual vaccines may not be in your cat’s best interest. The purpose of vaccinating is to “teach” the cat’s immune system to fight specific infectious agents. Does the system need to be reminded every year?

How do vaccines work?

     Antibodies obtained from their mothers protect newborn kittens from many diseases. This maternal immunity decreases between 8 and 12 weeks of age, and the kitten then needs other protection. The purpose of vaccinating is to “teach” the kitten’s immune system to fight specific infectious agents. In almost all cases, vaccinating at 8 and then again at 12 weeks of age is adequate. Vaccination at these times provides protective immunity to the disease agents in the vaccine. This immunity protects against most symptoms connected with the disease agents but may not fully prevent infection. It can take up to 14 days after the vaccination for full immune function to develop. It is not known for sure how long the protective immunity lasts after that.
     Annual vaccinations for cats have long been veterinary standard practice, and owners have been taught to vaccinate their pets each year. However, in the 1990s the veterinary profession began to question the need for annual vaccinations. This comes in light of new information regarding the duration of immunity derived from vaccines, and adverse vaccine reactions, including tumors, that may be associated with sites of vaccination.
     The vaccine manufacturers have recommended annual re vaccination based on studying the duration of immunity for a few weeks to months. They have not been required by the USDA to determine longer durations of immunity, except in the case of the rabies vaccine. Although rules have changed for establishing minimums, maximum duration of immunity studies are not required, so we do not know exactly how long a vaccine will protect a cat.

Evaluating Risk

When making a decision about vaccination, risk factors to consider are:

• Age of the cat
• Number of cats in the household
• Exposure to outdoor or free-roaming cats
• Whether the cat will be at a boarding facility
• Where the cat lives (cattery, shelter or private home)
• Whether the cat is shown or routinely goes out for other types of activities

     Because they have immature immune systems, young kittens are more susceptible to disease than adult cats. Initially, kittens are protected by antibodies they receive through their mother’s milk. The first milk a queen produces is called colostrum, and it is rich in protective antibodies. These antibodies provide maternal immunity and are absorbed into a kitten’s system during her first 24 hours of life. Maternal immunity wears off by 12 weeks of age, and kittens must then develop antibodies on their own. Antibodies are developed after vaccination or after exposure to infectious diseases. The number of cats in the home and the chance of exposure to other cats also play major roles in assessing risk. The chance of exposure to infectious agents in a household with one or two cats is significantly less than in a larger multicat household. Cats who go outdoors and come in contact with free roaming or other indoor/outdoor cats face a higher risk of disease exposure. 
     Cats who are housed in boarding facilities, catteries, or shelters have a greater opportunity of being exposed to infectious agents. This is due to stress, crowding, and simply the number of cats in the facility. Cats who regularly go out to shows or on visits also are at greater risk. That’s because cats who come from different environments can bring different infectious agents with them. It can take up to 14 days post vaccination for the full immune response to develop. So if you vaccinate your cat for the first time today, she will not have protective immunity until at least 14 days after the initial vaccine series has been completed. The decision to vaccinate against a particular infectious disease agent should be based on reviewing the patient’s risk assessment. Currently, vaccines exist to protect against 11 different infectious diseases in cats, and several manufacturers produce vaccines. The infectious diseases are:

• Rhinotracheitis virus (feline herpes)
• Calici virus
• Panleukopenia virus
• Chlamydia (pneumonitis)
• Feline leukemia virus
• Rabies virus
• Feline infectious peritonitis virus
• Bordetella
• Ringworm fungus
• Feline immunodeficiency virus
• Giardia



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