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The dreaded postcard just showed up in the mail—you know, the one from your veterinarian with all of the abbreviations of shots that your cat is due for.

It’s telling you that it’s time to load your cat up in the carrier, listen to 20 minutes of meowing in the car, endure waiting in the lobby with a large, panting German Shepard, and finally, be asked by the receptionist which vaccines your cat is here for today!

Veterinary visits don’t have to be that hard. There isn’t much I can do to help you with the meowing in the car, but I can demystify the abbreviations on the postcard and let you know which vaccines your outdoor kitty should be getting.

Vaccinating Outdoor Cats

Cats that venture outdoors are exposed to more diseases and parasites, and so it is even more important that they stay well protected.

The basics of preventative care for an outdoor kitty include:

  • Thorough physical examination

  • Vaccination against rabies, feline panleukopenia virus, feline rhinotracheitis virus, feline calicivirus and feline leukemia

  • Annual blood test for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus

  • Appropriate deworming/parasite therapy (usually done monthly in outdoor cats)

Here’s why you need these specific vaccines and annual tests for your outdoor cats.

Rabies Vaccine for Cats (Ra or Rab)

Rabies is a viral infection that can be transmitted to humans. The disease is uniformly fatal to any mammal it infects, and we do not have a reliable test for it in a live animal.

Veterinary professionals and state health departments take rabies very, very seriously, and most states have a legal requirement for all pets—dogs, cats and often ferrets—to be vaccinated against rabies.

In these states, all pets are required to be vaccinated whether they are allowed outdoors or not. The reasoning here is that it is not unusual for bats to make their way into houses, so even indoor pets can be at risk. There is also always the possibility that your kitty escapes and is unlucky enough to be exposed.

There are pros and cons to different rabies vaccines in cats. Most feline veterinarians are recommending “non-adjuvanted” vaccines for cats, which are thought to cause fewer reactions. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best option for your cat.

The frequency with which your cat will need to be vaccinated depends somewhat on the local regulations in combination with the brand of vaccines used by your veterinarian.

In most instance, the first rabies vaccine received by your pet will last for one year. Subsequent vaccines will be good for either one or three years. It is extremely important that this vaccine be given on time and exactly as required by your veterinarian.

In some states, if your pet lapses on their vaccine and the animal is exposed to rabies, the authorities can require that the animal be euthanized. Whatever you do, don’t miss a rabies vaccine for your pet.


The FVRCP vaccine is a combination vaccine that defends against a group of diseases. The diseases within this complex include feline rhinotracheitis virus (FVR, aka feline herpesvirus 1, FHV), feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline panleukopenia virus (FPV, aka feline distemper).

None of these are contagious to people, but they can spread rapidly through a population of cats, resulting in significant illness.

These diseases, which together are sometimes referred to as the “feline distemper complex,” actually vary in severity and symptoms depending on the strain of disease and the animal’s immunity and age when exposed.

Like the rabies vaccine, veterinarians do recommend that ALL cats be vaccinated against the feline distemper complex. Indoor cats should also be vaccinated because the viruses that cause the disease can “hitchhike” into the house on shoes and clothing.

The vaccine usually starts out with a series—vaccines given every three to four weeks until the cat is 16 weeks of age, and then again after one year. Thereafter, the vaccine is most commonly given every three years.

Some veterinarians will use a slightly different schedule, but in all cases, the initial vaccine will need a booster a few weeks later, followed by another booster at a year. There are also non-adjuvanted options available for this vaccine.

Feline Leukemia Vaccine (FeLV)

Feline leukemia is a viral disease that is spread when a cat comes into contact with an infected cat and is exposed to their saliva or blood—such as by sharing water bowls or fighting. In rare cases, the disease can be transmitted by hissing through screens.

There is no treatment for feline leukemia, and it is fatal to cats. However, it is not contagious to humans.

Cats can be born with feline leukemia, so it is recommended to test kittens at a young age for exposure.  Regardless of vaccine status, outdoor cats should be retested every year to determine if they have been exposed.

The current recommendations are to vaccinate ALL cats against feline leukemia until 1 year of age. After this age, only outdoor cats (or those exposed to the outdoors unsupervised) should continue to receive annual boosters.

The initial series is for the cat to receive two vaccines three to four weeks apart, and then another booster at 1 year of age. Again, veterinary schedules may vary slightly. A non-adjuvanted option is also available for this vaccine.

Testing for Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)

Both of these viruses can be transmitted to kittens by their mother, and it is very important to know if the young are infected prior to starting their vaccine series and settling them into their “forever homes.”

Therefore, most kittens are tested on, or near, their first visit to the veterinarian. Only three drops of blood are needed for the test. Some kittens will need to be retested a few weeks/months later, depending on their age at the first visit and the results of the blood test.

All cats should be tested for these viruses whenever they are sick, and outdoor cats should be tested annually (many veterinarians recommend testing ALL cats annually).

Exposure to both viruses is through saliva (sharing food/water bowls, grooming each other, hissing and fighting), and there is no treatment for either condition.

There is an effective vaccine for feline leukemia as discussed above. There is also a vaccine for feline immunodeficiency virus; however, it turns our screening tests positive and, therefore, is not recommended except for the highest risk cats.

Although often overlooked, these blood tests are a very important part of routine preventative care for outdoor—and really all—cats.

Anti-Parasitic Treatments (DEWORM, Strongid, Pyran, Rev and others)

Outdoor cats are exposed to an awful lot of parasites in the course of a day. Whenever they hunt and kill a rodent, they are exposed to everything on and in that animal, including fleas, ticks and intestinal parasites. 

Additionally, they are often exposed to other wildlife and all of the parasites they may carry (both internal and external). Some of these parasites can be contagious to people (known as zoonotic diseases), and others are just a plain nuisance to have in the house (such as fleas and ticks).  Others, such as heartworm disease, can be fatal to the cats themselves.

Many veterinarians recommend regular dewormings, particularly for cats that go out—in addition to fecal testing for parasites.

One of my favorite medications is Revolution, which treats many types of internal parasites as well as fleas, ear mites and heartworms. Your veterinarian likely has their own favorite medication they can recommend. Many of these are given monthly, year-round.

While it sounds like a lot of work, when you think of how many parasites that gets rid of, I’m sure you’ll be convinced that it’s worth it!

Next time your cat needs to go in for routine preventative care, you will be better prepared with a list, information and some questions for your veterinarian. However, I will leave it up to you to purchase the earplugs for the car ride!

By: Dr. Sandra Mitchell

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