The most common vaccines for a cat to receive are for Rabies, Distemper (FVRCP), and Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV). Read on for information about each individual vaccine.

Rabies Vaccine

What is Rabies?

Rabies is transmitted by a virus and is one of the most devastating diseases affecting mammals, including dogs and humans. The danger of a bite from a rabid dog was described in writings dated from the 23rd century BC. 

How is rabies transmitted?

The disease is usually transmitted by the bite of an infected animal.

How widespread is Rabies?

Rabies occurs in every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most countries are affected with the exception of a few island countries such as Great Britain, Ireland, Japan and Hawaii. Norway, Sweden and the Iberian Peninsula are also free of rabies.

How is the virus transmitted?

Rabies virus does not survive long outside a mammal’s body. The infection is transmitted when one infected animal bites another. In Europe, foxes are the main reservoir while in North America the skunk, fox, raccoon and bat are important sources of infection. In Asia, Africa and Latin America the main reservoir is not wildlife but stray dogs. In these areas, human infection and fatalities are more common.

How long is the incubation period?

The incubation period can vary from ten days to one year or longer. In dogs, the incubation period is typically two weeks to four months. The speed at which clinical signs develop depends upon:

The site of infection - the nearer the bite is to the brain and spinal cord, the quicker the virus reaches the nervous tissue

1.    The severity of the bite

2.    The amount of virus injected by the bite

What are the clinical signs?

Following a bite from a rabid animal, the disease progresses in stages. In the first or prodromal phase the dog undergoes a marked change in temperament. Quiet dogs become agitated and active pets become nervous or shy.

Following this stage, there are two recognized forms of the clinical disease:

Furious rabies occurs when the rabid dog becomes highly excitable and displays evidence of a depraved appetite, eating and chewing stones, earth and rubbish (pica). Paralysis eventually sets in and the rabid animal may be unable to eat and drink. Hydrophobia (fear of water) is not a sign of rabies in dogs. This is a feature of human rabies. The dog finally dies in a violent seizure.

Dumb rabies is the more common form in dogs. There is progressive paralysis involving the limbs, distortion of the face and a similar difficulty in swallowing. Owners will frequently think the dog has something stuck in the mouth or throat. Care should be taken in examination since rabies may be transmitted by saliva. Ultimately the dog becomes comatose and dies.

Is it possible to survive a bite from a rabid animal?

There are isolated and poorly documented reports of both dogs and people surviving. In some cases, there may have been very little rabies virus present in the saliva at the time the rabid animal bit its victim.  In this situation, the victim may not develop rabies. 

However, as Louis Pasteur was the first to show, it is possible to interrupt the progression from an infected bite to the onset of signs by the early post-bite use of anti-rabies serum. This antiserum contains specific immune antibodies to the virus. The most important method for preventing the progression of rabies is by administering a dose of rabies vaccine. The vaccine stimulates the bitten animal to develop its own neutralizing antibodies to the rabies virus. Without vaccination and rapid post-exposure treatment, the chances of survival are poor.

Is vaccination effective?

Vaccination promotes the production of antibodies but is only effective if given before the virus enters the nervous system. Modern rabies vaccines for dogs, cats, horses and ferrets are extremely safe and effective.

What is the treatment for rabies?

There is no treatment for a dog with rabies. If rabies is suspected, the dog has to be kept in isolation and prevented from escaping or injuring someone. Your veterinarian is required by law to notify the local and state or provincial animal disease regulatory authorities.  These authorities will determine the steps necessary to properly protect the public.

Can I catch rabies?

Yes, the disease is zoonotic or can be transmitted from an animal to man. It is only transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal. The virus is present in the saliva of the infected animal only for a limited time.

If any animal that may be suspicious for rabies bites you, immediately wash and flush the wound thoroughly with soap and water, -and seek immediate medical assistance.

Post exposure rabies treatment with serum or vaccine may be recommended and is very successful if begun quickly.

Is it possible to vaccinate my pet?

There are several rabies vaccines approved for dogs, cats, horses and ferrets. Dogs and cats between the ages of twelve and sixteen weeks should be vaccinated. Rabies revaccination is dependent on state or provincial law. Your veterinarian will advise you on the appropriate revaccination intervals and can assist you in obtaining any necessary licenses for your pet.

Distemper Vaccine

The FVRCP is a combination vaccination, which means that it protects against more than one disease—similar to the DA2PP vaccine for dogs.

Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis

The “FVR” refers to feline viral rhinotracheitis (feline herpesvirus 1 or FHV-1). This disease can lead to a severe upper respiratory tract disease (including rhinitis, sneezing and conjunctivitis). Other less common symptoms include oral ulceration and primary pneumonia.

Similar to people with cold sores, the virus can lay dormant in cats until they are stressed, which causes a flare-up of symptoms.

The real risk of FHV-1 is that it impairs a cat’s pulmonary defense mechanisms, which leaves them susceptible to secondary bacterial pneumonia or to a coinfection with feline calicivirus.

Feline Calicivirus

The “C” in FVRCP stands for calicivirus (feline calicivirus or FCV). Similar to FHV-1, feline calicivirus typically causes upper respiratory tract disease and oral ulceration. It can also cause chronic stomatitis, pneumonia, systemic disease or lameness.

Occasionally, a more severe strain—virulent systemic feline calicivirus (VS-FCV)—can travel through a population, which can result in more debilitating symptoms as well as infection of the internal organs. This more severe strain is frequently fatal.

Feline Panleukopenia

Finally, the “P” stands for panleukopenia (feline panleukopenia or feline distemper or FPV). FPV is highly contagious and has a high mortality rate. It causes anorexia, vomiting, fever and severe diarrhea.

The virus also attacks the bone marrow and lymph nodes, which leads to a very low white blood cell count and prevents the cat from being able to activate their immune system normally.

Feline Leukemia Vaccine

Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) was one of the leading causes of death in cats until the development of a vaccine in the mid-1980’s.

What is Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)?

Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is one of the most important viruses infecting cats. FeLV tends to become a persistent infection and depresses the immune system of cats. FeLV is an important cause of anemia in cats and can cause cancers of several types.

How common is FeLV?

FeLV infection is found worldwide. Because cats become persistently infected and may carry the virus for long periods before showing any clinical signs, your cat may be exposed to FeLV without you realizing it.

What diseases does the virus cause?

FeLV invades and replicates in various cells of the cat’s immune system and blood-forming tissues, as well as other cells. The immune system becomes suppressed, making the FeLV-infected cat more susceptible to chronic or recurrent infections. Death or dysfunction of infected cells may give rise to enteritis (inflammation of the intestine) or anemia (low red blood cell numbers). FeLV infection can also change the genetic code in infected cells. The genetic code programs the cell’s functions. Changes in genetic code as a result of FeLV infection may eventually give rise to cancers such as leukemia, lymphosarcoma or other tumors. These tumors may affect one or many tissues, organs or body sites.

FeLV is usually fatal. Studies have shown that 80-90% of FeLV-infected cats will die within three to four years of the initial diagnosis.

Is there any treatment for FeLV infection or disease?

There is currently no specific treatment for FeLV-infected cats. Treatment is usually aimed at easing the symptoms and treating secondary infections. Most FeLV-infected cats will eventually die of diseases related to their infection or require euthanasia.

Is there a test for FeLV infection?

Special blood tests have been developed. Most tests are designed to detect the presence of viral antigen in the cat’s blood. In general these tests are very reliable although rarely a false positive result occurs. In some situations it may be necessary to confirm infection with the virus through repeated blood testing.

Does my cat need to have a blood test before vaccination?

For the vast majority of cats, this is highly recommended. Remember not all FeLV-infected cats that test positive become sick. Approximately 30% of cats exposed to FeLV will eliminate the virus and will not contract the disease. Some FeLV-infected cats may not show signs of disease for months or even years.

How safe is the vaccine?

FeLV vaccines have been specially developed so that they do not contain any infective virus material. They are considered to be safe. You are unlikely to see any ill effect of the vaccine apart from some mild sluggish behavior a day or two after the vaccine is given. A very few cats may have a mild allergic reaction. Most vaccine reactions occur almost immediately and your veterinarian will provide appropriate treatment. If you are concerned that your cat is experiencing an abnormal reaction in the hours or days following any vaccination, please call us.

How effective is FeLV vaccination?

FeLV vaccines have now been available for many years and they have been continuously improved. They are helpful in preventing infection with FeLV and thus controlling FeLV-related disease. Unfortunately, no vaccine is 100% protective. Where possible do not allow your cat, particularly a kitten, to come into close contact with known FeLV-infected cats or cats of unknown vaccination history.

How often is revaccination necessary?

Revaccination is necessary in the initial course of vaccines to provide strong lasting immunity. Even so, immunity does decline over time and your veterinarian will advise you of the recommended revaccination schedule for your pet based on your cat’s lifestyle and needs.

This client information sheet is based on material written by Ernest Ward, DVM

© Copyright 2005 Lifelearn Inc. Used with permission under license. October 13, 2015


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