How Often Do Cats Need Shots and Other Preventative Treatments?

How often do cats need shots, or other preventative measures like flea and heartworm treatments? We turned to a vet for the best advice.

A cat at the vet about to get a vaccine.
A cat at the vet about to get a vaccine. Photography ©Maica | Getty Images.

I received an interesting question in the comments section on a Catster post I wrote about Advantage II flea medication: Do indoor-only cats need to be as heavily medicated or vaccinated as indoor/outdoor cats? I understand that I may bring fleas … into my house, so I am okay with using something like Revolution, … but do [cats] really need to be vaccinated for rabies every year or get booster shots? I can’t wrap my head around this. I don’t think I can bring rabies home, and there is a lot of conflicting information out there about booster shots. This question is a very good one. And it touches upon the ultimate unanswered million-dollar question of veterinary medicine: How often do cats need shots and other preventative treatments?

How often do cats need shots and other preventative treatments? First, the basics

An orange cat getting a shot or injection.
An orange cat getting a shot or injection. Photography ©krblokhin | Getty Images.

In fact, there are answers to the question, “How often do cats need shots?” but they’re not very satisfying. Some plausible answers to the question, “How often do cats need shots?” are … It depends. Nobody knows.

The correct answer to, “How often do cats need shots?” is it varies depending upon life stage, lifestyle, geographic location and immune system function.

People who seek a simple answer no doubt will be put off at this point. Although there is no straightforward, simple answer to, “How often do cats need shots?” there are some guidelines that can help to make sense of cats and vaccines, as well as cats and preventative measures.

1. How often do cats need flea prevention?

The question, “How often do cats need shots?” arose out of the context of flea prevention. Do all cats require flea preventatives, or are they more important for outdoor cats? Many people believe that fleas are contagious and are transmitted from pet to pet. Although a flea-infested cat may spread the infestation to any cat with whom he comes into contact, remember that fleas, although thoroughly detestable, have a remarkable capacity for spreading and surviving. Fleas can roam freely and can make their way into houses under their own steam. Therefore, indoor-only cats are at risk of flea infestation even if they do not come into contact with any other animals.

This does not necessarily mean that every cat requires a monthly flea preventative. Cats with no skin problems and no visible flea infestation can often get by with only occasional applications of flea preventatives. So, in short, flea prevention can be considered optional for all cats, but especially for indoor cats.

Be aware, however, that fleas are insidious, and it is not uncommon for cat owners to be unaware of significant infestations on their pets. Modern flea preventatives generally are safe, and fleas can cause all sorts of health problems. Therefore, unless you really know how to monitor for fleas, it’s better to err on the side of using flea preventatives rather than risking an infestation.

2. How often do cats need shot heartworm prevention?

How about heartworm prevention? Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitoes, which are perfectly capable of making their way indoors. Although outdoor cats are more likely to be bitten, indoor-only cats have the potential to be infected with these serious parasites. The American Heartworm Society recommends heartworm prevention in all cats. And remember that most heartworm preventatives also protect against intestinal worms, which can spread to humans.

However, heartworm is more common in some areas than in others. Many cat owners elect against heartworm prevention, especially for indoor-only pets. The simplest answer is that there is no simple answer.

3. How often do cats need vaccine booster shots?

Although there also is no simple answer to the question, “How often do cats need shots?” I am happy to report that there is an easy answer to the related question of whether indoor cats need booster shots every year. That answer is no.

The importance of feline vaccination is roughly inversely proportional to age. Kitten shots are phenomenally important, and unvaccinated kittens succumb to feline panleukopenia at high rates. I therefore recommend that all cat owners diligently have their cats vaccinated (with the so-called FVRCP) at 6-8 weeks, 10-12 weeks, and 14-16 weeks. A booster should occur at one year of age. I do not recommend that any cat receive subsequent boosters any more often than every three years; many owners of indoor cats elect a 5-7 year period.

The FVRCP is the most important vaccine kittens receive. There are two other vaccines that are in common use. One protects against feline leukemia, or FeLV. Indoor cats are not at risk of contracting FeLV. Therefore, as long as there is no chance of escape, indoor cats don’t need the vaccine for FeLV at all.

4. How often do cats need shots to protect against rabies?

The final common vaccine in cats protects against rabies. I have written many times that rabies is the most deadly infectious disease of both cats and humans. Truly, there is no disease that should be more dreaded. Rabies is spread through direct contact with infected (rabid) mammals. Could an indoor cat be exposed to rabies? It is not likely but it is theoretically possible — I have heard of rabid bats flying down chimneys or through open windows.

Should the owner of an indoor cat vaccinate his pet against rabies? That depends upon a number of factors, including your tolerance for risk, local laws (which sometimes mandate rabies vaccination in cats), and a cat’s likelihood of biting people (if your cat bites someone, your life — and your cat’s life — will be much easier if your cat is vaccinated against rabies).

Some final things to consider when thinking, “How often do cats need shots”?

Finally, one must consider the risk of adverse vaccination events in cats. Cats are at risk of cancers called injection site sarcomas. Although vaccines have saved countless feline lives, they also have a non-negligible potential to cause harm.

So, what is a concerned cat owner to do? No honest person can offer a clearly defined thesis on the matter of vaccines and regular parasite preventatives in cats. But I have been very consistent over the years with the following recommendation. Here it is: Find a good vet and talk it over. A good vet will recognize the complexities of every cat’s situation, and will take the time to help you tailor a protocol to your and your cat’s individual needs. Beware of any person who makes the subject sound simple — in truth, it is anything but.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Maica | Getty Images.

This piece was originally published in 2015.

About the author:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!

Read more on feline vaccines:

19 thoughts on “How Often Do Cats Need Shots and Other Preventative Treatments?”

  1. Unless a cat is a feral or a stray, there should be no such thing as an outdoor cat. If you want your own kitty (or kitties) to experience "The Great Outdoors," then train them to walk on a harness and leash. Heartworm prevention for cats isn't quite as big a deal as it is for dogs, unless you live in an area with LOTS of mosquitoes, that's what a vet told me, anyway.

  2. I treat my Burmese cat once in a month with preventive shots like Frontline Plus, do you think she should be still be vaccinated? He is keeping well with his health with no health conditions. Please share your views.

  3. I have a 1 1/2 year old cat that has not yet had vaccinations (other than rabies).
    Should he get the FVRCP booster only?

  4. It’s great that you mention that vaccinations are an important part of keeping your cat healthy. I want to make sure my new cat doesn’t catch any dangerous diseases, so I’m thinking about taking him to a vet to get vaccinated. I’m going to look for a good veterinarian in my area that does pet vaccinations.

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  9. The guidelines for vaccinations is every 3 yr. Go on line to Dr LISA PIERSON and read what she writes. She’s right on the mark!!!

  10. I’ve always leaned towards the side of not vaccinating my indoor cats. Other than the obviously important beginning vaccines of FVRCP and FeLV for my cats, I do not do them. Recently I came upon the issue of my pet insurance refusing to cover my cat if I did not vaccinate her with the required vaccines at the required times. After talking with my Vet (who agreed with me that for my cats and their lifestyle, i.e. indoors, vaccines were not necessary) I advised my insurance carrier that I would not be giving vaccines. They said they only way I could continue coverage was to get a letter from my Veterinarian stating their agreement with me and explaining their opinion as to why the vaccines were not necessary. After that the insurance company was fine. Of course should my feline come down with any illness due to the absence of receiving those ‘required’ vaccines I would not be covered by my insurance. I am fine with taking that ‘chance’.

  11. We are doing titres. Checking to see whether our kitties’ immune responses are strong. If they aren’t we would then re-vaccinate. So far they have demonstrated adequate immunity.

    Although the risk of injection site sarcomas is considered rare, having had a kitty that succumbed to it a couple of years after rabies vaccine we won’t take any chances again. Both cats are indoor only.

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  14. I was surprised to read that rabies is the most deadly infectious disease of both cats and humans. I’ll look into finding a vet near me so that I can get my cat vaccinated for this. She plays outside a lot, and I don’t want her to die from being bitten one day!

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