Written by Peter Lark DVM
Having been in practice for over 25 years and experiencing first hand the sadness and frustration of watching our feline friends suffer and ultimately die from distemper, leukemia and other respiratory diseases; the advent of new and improved vaccines and vaccination programs has taken us to a new level of care possible for our treasured friends.
Instead of watching patients dying weekly, and often times daily, from these devastating diseases, we now see fewer and fewer cases of them.
Credit must be given to the manufacturers as well as the veterinary profession for developing programs responsible for reducing the incidence of these diseases.
It has been a truly remarkable turn of events.
The apparent hysteria associated with current vaccine programs, in my opinion, is deserving of our attention.
As stated in the article to follow, we are seeing some adverse reactions in the form of sarcoma cancer developing at the rabies, as well as leukemia, vaccination sites in a small number of cases.
This is obviously a serious reaction and a cause for major concern for all of us, doctors and owners alike.
We now must reconsider both the timing and need for some vaccination.
The article states that cats do not need yearly distemper vaccines and that the duration of their immunity may last for up to three years.
There is now a test to scientifically measure blood levels (titers) for feline distemper as an alternative to yearly vaccines.
We are offering this option in our practices and recommending testing yearly.
We have found over the last several years a small percentage of cats do not have the proper immunity to feline distemper and do require re-vaccination.
My concern is both for you and your pet. I hope and pray that we do not see a return to the outbreaks of disease so prominent in the late sixties and early seventies, especially since the technology exists for its prevention.
Again, as of this writing, we do not have the diagnostic tools necessary and are playing a guessing game as to when to vaccinate.
As a pet owner and practitioner, I would feel much more comfortable knowing that my pet is protected until there is a titer developed to prove otherwise.
Now allow me to supply you with the latest information of the newer views on vaccinating your cat as developed by the American Association of feline Practitioners and explain to you what a vaccine does for your pet.
Vaccination is an important constituent to your cat’s health care program.
Vaccines are modified or killed versions of viruses and bacteria that help your cat fight off diseases by preparing the immune system to fend off a particular pathogens it may encounter in the future.
During this time of vaccination the immune system analyzes the vaccine organisms and develops a response by the bodies immune system to rapidly neutralize the invaders.
If your cat later comes into contact with the organisms vaccinated against, the immune system will likely emerge victorious.
If, after a period of time, the immune system doesn’t encounter this particular pathogen, it may lose or forget the ability to recognize what the pathogen looks like.
So veterinarians generally recommend periodical vaccine boosters to keep the immune system stimulated so it can retain its ability to recognize and fight these particular infections.
As vaccines have become more effective and more cats are routinely vaccinated, the incidence of feline infectious diseases has significantly declined.
We have seen the incidence of feline distemper, feline leukemia, and rabies dramatically reduce due to the effectiveness of vaccination. I remember seeing some of our feline patients die of both distemper and leukemia and feeling helpless.
Current vaccines have dramatically improved the health of the feline population.
Recently, however, veterinarians began to suspect that their traditional feline vaccination protocol possibly was in need of fine tuning.
Some veterinarians began collecting evidence indicating that the duration of immunity of particular vaccines may be longer than previously thought.
I would, as a practitioner, recommend yearly blood titers (tests to analyze the level of protection) to determine the duration of immunity as a safe guard to assure proper protection for your cat.
And some veterinarians were also noticing a slight increase in the incidence of feline fibrosarcomas (a type of soft-tissue tumor) at common vaccination sites.
In 1997, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the Academy of Feline Medicine (AFM) (both composed primarily of veterinarians in private practice) formed an advisory panel to study the risks and benefits of feline vaccines.
This panel recently announced new feline vaccination recommendations for practitioners. They are as follows:
Core Versus Noncore Cat Vaccines
The advisory panel is placing all vaccines into one of two categories: core (recommended for all cats) or noncore (recommended only for some cats). Core vaccines are those that protect against rabies, panleukopenia (feline distemper), and the respiratory viruses herpesvirus (which causes rhinotracheitis) and calicivirus.
These four vaccines are in the core category because they are safe, highly effective, and the diseases they protect against are severe (rabies and panleukopenia) or easily transmitted (the respiratory viruses).
The core vaccines, minus rabies, are often combined into one vaccine referred to as FVRCP.
The panel recommends noncore vaccines only for those cats with a significant risk of exposure to the particular infectious disease the vaccine protects against.
The feline leukemia virus (FeLV) vaccine is noncore because only outdoor cats and cats living with a FeLV-positive cat are exposed to the virus.
However, some panel members recommend vaccinating all kittens against the leukemia virus. Our practice also recommends that all multiple cat households and cats going outdoors be vaccinated.
We also recommend that all cats be tested for leukemia virus.
The panel considers the feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) vaccine noncore because only cats that come into close contact with other cats have a significant risk of exposure to the virus.
Most of the panelists recommend the FIP vaccine only for cats living in a specific high-risk situation – such as cats in a multicat household, cattery, or shelter.
Again, our practice recommends vaccination of cats that go outside. The dermatophytosis (ringworm) vaccine is considered noncore primarily because it doesn’t appear to be highly effective against the disease.
But the vaccine may benefit cats living in multicat households where ringworm has been a problem. The vaccine against chlamydia psittaci – a bacterial respiratory pathogen – is considered noncore by the panel because this pathogen is probably responsible for only about 5 percent of feline respiratory disease.
Plus, the disease itself is usually not severe, and the vaccine has a relatively high incidence of side effects.
Feline Vaccination Schedules
Veterinarians have traditionally given cats yearly boosters to ensure that their immune system stays primed against disease. But a recent study by scientists at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, New York, found that cats retain antibodies to some diseases for several years after vaccination.
Therefore, the panel recommends that most cats get core vaccine boosters only once every 3 years. (Some state laws, however, require more frequent rabies vaccination.)
Cats at higher risk of exposure – cats in shelter, for example – may need to get boosters more often.
Cats that get non-core vaccines will likely need yearly boostering of the noncores since veterinarians know less about the duration of immunity that these vaccines provide.
Your Cat’s Personal Program
When you take your cat for her annual physical, discuss your pet’s general health and level of nutrition, which affect the strength of her immune system – and her lifestyle – to determine her risk of exposure to various diseases. Make sure that even if your cat only rarely ventures outdoors, you tell your veterinarian about her occasional travels. And remember: no matter what vaccination schedule your cat is on, it’s imperative that you take her in for a yearly checkup.
Feline Wellness Program
An annual physical examination is critical to any feline wellness program. During this exam you veterinarian can:
1. screen your cat for early signs of ailments. A yearly physical is vital for early detection. This will give both you and your veterinarian a better ability at successfully treating an illness.
2. examine your cat for oral disease. With regular dental cleanings and products to help fight dental disease your cat can avoid serious tooth and gum disease and the general health problems that can follow.
3. monitor your cat’s weight. Weight gain or loss – which you can easily miss since you see your cat every day – can alert your veterinarian to some underlying disease. Examples of these diseases are diabetes, thyroid tumors, kidney disease, liver disease etc.
4. advise you on the newest information in feline nutrition. New information may help you choose a diet that’s better suited to your cat.
5. go over the latest developments in internal and external parasite control. For example, such as the new flea treatments that are more effective and safer for your cat and heart worm prevention.
6. consult with you on any behavior problems your cat may be having. Your veterinarian can even refer you to someone who specializes in treating the behavior problem your cat is suffering from.
7. review your cat’s vaccination program. If your cat’s lifestyle has changed, her vaccination needs may also have changed. As you now understand protocols are continually changing and will be reviewed by peers every 2-3 years.