What Cat Vaccines Does a New Kitten Need?


I have great admiration for anyone who rescues or adopts a kitten. My admiration is much greater still for those who responsibly take care of their new feline companions.

A lot of people wonder: What exactly is involved in being a responsible cat owner, anyway? How do we do right by our new kitten? And how should we prepare for the kitten’s first vet visit?

Adopting a pet means more than just feeding it. All kittens and cats require nutrition, hydration, shelter, a litter area, and training. That’s right: I said kittens should be trained, although not to sit, shake, or roll over. They should be trained not to scratch the sofa, not to urinate outside of the litter box, and to play in an appropriate fashion. You should give them a stable and mentally stimulating environment and lots of love. I’m guessing that most people who frequent Catster aren’t at risk of neglecting these basic needs.

But what about medical needs?

There are several things that adopters of kittens should prepare to discuss during their pet’s first few veterinary visits.

The topic of vaccines inevitably arises during kitten checkups. There is really only one vaccine that is super important for all kittens: panleukopenia. Also known as feline distemper, panleukopenia is a devastating disease with an astronomically high mortality rate. The vaccine for it is highly effective, and it’s usually combined with two other components (calicivirus and rhinotracheitis) into the FVRCP. The FVRCP is considered to be a “core” vaccine — meaning that virtually all kittens will benefit from it.

There are two other common kitten vaccines. Rabies vaccines are required by law in some areas because they help to prevent human exposure to the deadly virus. Feline leukemia vaccines are recommended for cats that go outside (or that will be exposed to outdoor cats). Both rabies and leukemia vaccines have been linked, rarely, to tumors in cats. Kitten owners should absolutely be sure to discuss these tumors with the vet before any vaccines are given, and the kitten’s anticipated lifestyle should be considered before deciding upon a vaccination protocol.

There is quite a bit of concern in the veterinary community about lifetime over-vaccination of cats, and this should be discussed with the vet as well. One simple recommendation to cut down on vaccination is to keep kittens and cats indoors, thereby reducing or eliminating the need for leukemia vaccination.

While we’re on the topic of leukemia, let’s discuss the ways that kittens come into the world. There are two. A small portion of kittens are purposefully bred and then sold. A much larger number come from sketchier circumstances. Most foundlings and shelter kittens are the result of cats doing their thing in the great outdoors.

Many stray litters are born to feral mothers. Others are born to cats that are owned, but whose owners didn’t have them spayed (and who also allowed them outdoors). Cats that engage in activities that produce these litters are prone to the feline leukemia virus and the feline AIDS virus (FIV). These viruses may pass from mother to kitten. Therefore, adopters of kittens should plan on discussing testing for the viruses with the vet during the initial series of checkups. They also should keep new kittens separated from other cats in the house until the kittens have received clean bills of health.

Due to a quirk of the roundworm life cycle, almost all kittens will be infested with worms when they are adopted. Roundworm infestation is not only a problem for the kitten. The worms can spred to people, especially children, and cause serious illness. Plan on discussing a deworming protocol with the vet.

Kittens with sketchy backgrounds also are highly likely to have fleas. Talk to the vet about this as well.

While you’re there, the vet should perform a comprehensive physical exam and will likely want to run stool tests. This will help to check for some other common kitten problems such as ear mites, ringworm, tapeworms, and coccidia. I recommend that you take a fresh stool sample to the first vet visit.

Cats in some areas are at significant risk of heartworm disease; ask the vet whether your cat needs a preventative.

Finally, be prepared to talk about spaying and neutering. Although I don’t generally buy into the “you’re part of the problem if you’re not part of the solution” clich├®, I will say that when it comes to feline overpopulation, it is accurate. What’s more, intact cats generally don’t make good pets. Intact females go through heat cycles relentlessly until they become pregnant — and they almost always find a way to become pregnant. Intact males smell bad (if you’ve never experienced tomcat odor, consider yourself lucky), they tend to spray urine all over the house, and most dedicate their lives to trying to escape from the house in order to fight and engage in trysts.

As you can see, there will be a lot of ground to cover on a kitten’s first few veterinary visits. However, a good vet will have plenty of experience in these matters, and will be happy to work with an owner to determine what steps are necessary to ensure the best for the kitten.

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!)

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