Outbreak! Another great reason to vaccinate your indoor, 'unexposed' cat

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: November 02, 2008
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Over the last few weeks I’ve seen about a dozen cases of cats with a deadly infection that looks like panleukopenia. (That’s feline distemper, otherwise known as the “P” in the FVRCP vaccine most well-tended cats receive.)

Their families bring them in to our hospital in carriers with perforated sides. Waiting their turn to be seen, they’ve sat in their carriers in the lobby alongside the similarly-perforated carriers of healthy cats.

The receptionists may tell our clients to mind one-another’s carriers and keep them well apart. If we know one of the pets waiting his turn is sick in a potentially infectious kind of a way we’ll usually have them wait in the hall outside where chairs are available to make this an easier option. But big bad infectious diseases are not always obvious to the owners.

The risk is obvious: Even bringing your healthy cat to the vet can prove fatal when a virus as deadly as panleukopenia is making the rounds in your community—that is, if your cat is unvaccinated.

In this case, most of our clients’ affected cats are outdoor cats. If they’ve seen a vaccine at all it’s because they’ve been to the local shelter where they received a rabies shot—but nothing against any of the other standard kitty viruses (i.e., panleukopenia).

Because of this rash of transmissible disease we’ve had to call clients and cancel kitten appointments. We’ve had to make sure any feline patients were fully vaccinated before giving them the choice to keep their appointment or come back at a safer time. Absolutely NO unvaccinated cats were allowed to cross the threshold into the hospital’s airspace.

But what about the cats who were in the hospital before the outbreak made itself known? What about the unsuspecting cats in carriers waiting to get their three-year vaccines and the kittens that might have come in and out alongside the carriers of the pre-diagnosis panleukopenia cases?

We’ve been very lucky. Only the unvaccinated animals who arrived with their disease in full flower have succumbed. None of our clients’ other felines were affected.

Infectious events like these are inevitable in every community where outdoor cats are maintained and incomplete vaccination protocols applied. For me, they help maintain my personal perspective on why vaccinating ALL cats is a necessity.

Even if your cat never goes anywhere outside your home she runs the risk of having to see the vet, right? For my clients who refuse all vaccines on the grounds that disease transmission is impossible within their small household of cats, it’s often hard to convince them otherwise, even when I mention the “veterinary risk.” They fear the vaccine more than they do the disease.

I guess the possibility of disease transmission after a freak encounter with an unvaccinated cat at the vet’s seems like a far-fetched notion compared to the more statistically investigated risk of suffering a vaccine reaction, but do we really know which condition—vaccinated or unvaccinated—imperils the average cat more?

It seems to me that with safer vaccines and smarter protocols the risks are minimal. Why risk a poor outcome at the vet’s if yours happens to be one of those carriers perched three chairs down from a panleukopenia case your vet doesn’t know about yet?