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How Often Do Cats Need Rabies Shots?

Rabies is a growing threat to cats and kittens; these guidelines will help you and your vet find your cat's optimal rabies vaccination schedule.

Melvin Pena  |  Mar 22nd 2016


As a practice, inoculation has existed for less than 150 years. In that time, vaccines have made a massive impact on both humans and their pets. It’s easy to forget that a couple hundred years ago, cats were considered disease-carrying pests, not beloved household companions. There is an important difference, though, between asking if cats need shots at all — they do — and maintaining immunity through cat booster shots. Rabies presents a growing threat to cats and kittens, and keeping their vaccinations current should be a priority.

Rabies is a deadly viral disease, which has experienced an unfortunate renaissance in American cats over the last decade. Why is that? Some cat owners whose fluffy pals spend the vast majority of their lives indoors may simply decide that their cats do not require shots. It only takes one Caturday in the yard for a cat to be exposed. According to the CDC, in 2008-2009 alone, “three times more rabid cats were reported than rabid dogs.” Let’s take a closer look at cat vaccinations, particularly rabies shots for cats.

how often do cats need rabies shots

The three-year rabies vaccine means fewer trips to the vet. (Photo by Myfuture.com on flickr)

What shots do kittens need?

If you are adopting a kitten, a common question is when to get her vaccinated and which shots constitute the bare minimum. As with dogs, there are certain core vaccines for cats that can provide immunity against a combination of preventable health issues. The ASPCA’s recommendation is that essential cat vaccinations include two causes of respiratory disease — namely feline herpesvirus and calicivirus — along with distemper and rabies.

Catster’s resident veterinarian suggests the FVRCP combo vaccine for kittens be administered three times in total during their first 16 weeks of life, along with a booster at 1 year of age. The FVRCP injection offers protection against three of the ASPCA’s core cat health issues:

  • FVR: feline rhinotracheitis, which is another name for the herpes virus
  • C: feline calicivirus
  • P: feline panleukopenia, another name for distemper

That leaves rabies. Dr. Barchas is adamant that “there is no disease that should be more dreaded,” a dictum he applies to cats across the board. Do indoor cats need shots? Unless you live in an impregnable compound sealed off hermetically from all contact with the outside world, yes. A previously vaccinated cat who is infected with rabies may be subjected to six-month quarantine. For unvaccinated cats, rabies, once diagnosed, is fatal. Why risk your cat’s life?

How is rabies transmitted?

We’ve too long underestimated the threat that rabies poses to cats. There are more laws governing the need for rabies in dogs, the domestic animals most often associated with the virus. Cats seem more innocuous, perhaps due to their size, and are thus given freer reign in outdoor situations. Both of these are risk factors. A single bite from infected wildlife can transmit the disease.

The animals that pose the greatest threat for infecting a cat with rabies are bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks. Rabies transmission is achieved when the saliva of an infected creature enters the bloodstream. This typically happens in altercations when a cat is bitten. Given the self-grooming habits of all animals, it is less likely but possible for rabies to be transmitted through a particularly violent scratch wound. The incubation period of a rabies infection — whether it is furious or paralytic in nature — is very fast.

how often do cats need rabies shots

Rabid animals transmit the deadly neurological disease through saliva. (Photo via Pixabay)

Depending on the distance from the bite site to the brain, where it is free to wreak havoc on the nervous system, symptoms and signs of rabies in cats can take as little as a week to manifest. No matter how unlikely your cat is to encounter a woodland or urban carrier, a cat with an up-to-date rabies vaccination stands the best chance of survival.

How long does a rabies shot last?

This is the central question. When should kittens get shots? On average, a kitten can receive his first rabies shot as early as 8-12 weeks of age, although the standard is between 4 and 6 months, and will need a booster to insure immunity a year later. Since reputable cat shelters and animal rescues will vaccinate cats prior to adoption regardless of age, their initial vaccination is less of an issue than maintenance. Scientific understanding of vaccination continues to develop and become more sophisticated.

Even in just the last couple of decades, we’ve gone from a traditional wisdom that domestic pets should be vaccinated against rabies once a year to a more detailed understanding of the inoculation’s staying power. Dr. Barchas asserts that rabies boosters can reliably provide immunity for up to three years. Three-year rabies vaccines are common now, and their effectiveness gives owners of exclusively indoor cats a bit more leeway.

If you cat spends any amount of time outdoors, there is no doubt about the necessity of keeping their core vaccines up to date. If your cat’s motions are restricted to the interior dimensions of your apartment or house, and there are no state or local laws in your area mandating regular vaccination for cats, then the frequency of boosters should be a topic you discuss with your cat’s veterinarian.

Is your cat’s rabies vaccination current?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but for unvaccinated cats and kittens, a rabies infection is a death sentence. Even an initial rabies vaccination, whether during kittenhood or prior to adoption in older cats, is a better guarantor than none at all. For the long-term health of your cat, it is worth having a serious conversation with your cat’s vet about rabies shots.

how often do cats need rabies shots

Exactly how often cats need rabies shots depends on local laws and veterinary guidance. (Photo via Shutterstock)

People have known about and feared rabies for thousands of years. Only a couple of people in the United States die from rabies infections each year, which may lead us to assume that it poses limited danger or none at all. This is a fallacy; the relative rarity of rabies in America is precisely because of the accessibility and dependability of vaccines.

Indoor cats have an approximate lifespan of 15-plus years. If you follow a strict three-year vaccination schedule or determine along with your veterinarian that there is some room for negotiation, that’s a total of three to five visits over the course of your cat’s life. That should not be considered an undue commitment or investment for any cat owner.

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a two-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Baby, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.