By Karen Cornish

August is National Immunisation Awareness Month which aims to highlight the importance of routine vaccinations for people of all ages. Vaccines teach the body’s immune system how to create antibodies that protect it from certain diseases and they are as important for our pets as they are for us.

Vaccinations are an easy way of protecting the animals in our care from serious illness. Ensuring a cat gets the jabs they need is part of being a responsible pet owner and will help a cat to live a long and healthy life.

Before a kitten is born, its mother’s antibodies cross the placenta and enter the kitten’s circulation. After birth, a mother produces the first milk (colostrum) which is rich in maternal antibodies and will protect her young from diseases to which she is immune.

Once a kitten has been weaned off milk, the level of immunity decreases so it will need to receive vaccinations. A kitten needs to start its primary vaccine course at around eight weeks of age and will need to have two injections three or four weeks apart. A kitten will be fully protected three to four weeks after its final injection but will require regular booster jabs throughout its life to maintain an effective level of immunity.

Until a cat is fully vaccinated you should keep them indoors and make sure you wash your hands if you have been outside – especially if you have touched any other cats.

Adult cats that have had a significant gap since their last booster may need to repeat the primary course to ensure they are adequately protected. Cats rehomed from rescue centres will have been vaccinated if their history is unknown to make sure that they are protected before going to their new homes.

These are the core vaccinations that are recommended for all cats in the UK:

Cat flu

Cat flu can be caused by a number of different viruses and strains, like human flu. The cat flu vaccine protects against the two most common viruses – feline herpesvirus and feline calicivirus.

Flu can be life-threatening for cats that are very young, very old or have weakened immune systems but even for fit, healthy cats, flu can cause bacterial infections that often make the illness worse.

Symptoms of cat flu are very similar to those of human flu. They include sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes, dribbling, loss of appetite, fever, mouth ulcers, sleeping more than usual and coughing.

The cat flu vaccination will not stop a cat from getting flu but will greatly reduce the likelihood of them becoming seriously ill if they do.

Feline parvovirus (FPV) – sometimes referred to as feline panleukopenia or feline infectious enteritis

Feline parvovirus is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in unvaccinated cats. It can be particularly deadly for kittens, and if a pregnant cat catches it her kittens may be born with brain damage. FPV attacks the cells in a cat’s intestines, as well as the bone marrow, causing shortages of red and white blood cells.

Not all cats that are infected with FPV will show symptoms but signs you should look out for include vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, lack of appetite, lethargy, and stomach pain. If your cat is unvaccinated and showing any of these signs you should seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. Due to the highly contagious nature of FPV, your vet may ask you to wait outside the waiting room to prevent the risk of passing on the disease to other patients.

A cat with a mild case of FPV could make a recovery with the help of a fluid drip to support the body while it is fighting the virus. Antibiotics may be necessary to protect a cat from infections during their recovery.

Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV)

FeLV can be fatal as it attacks the immune system and can cause a cat to be vulnerable to other infections and anaemia, and cancers such as lymphoma and leukaemia. The virus is passed on through the saliva of infected cats and there is an incubation period of months – sometimes years – before visible signs of the virus appear. Symptoms include respiratory infections, sore gums and digestive problems. Enlarged lymph nodes and severe anaemia are also signs.

If you think your unvaccinated cat might have FeLV, seek veterinary attention as soon as possible. There is a blood test that can be performed to find out if a cat has the virus but unfortunately, as there is no cure, the outlook is unlikely to be good and an owner may need to consider having their cat put to sleep to prevent further suffering.

Other vaccines available

Chlamydia felis is a bacterial infection that results in conjunctivitis in cats. Treatment will depend on how serious an infection is but it will generally involve eye drops. There is a vaccination available for Chlamydia felis but it may not be necessary for all cats so speak to your vet to see if it is appropriate for your pet to receive it. As Chlamydia felis is spread easily between cats who are in close contact, the vaccine is usually recommended for those living in multi-cat households or who encounter lots of different cats.

Bordetella bronchiseptica is the bacteria that can cause kennel cough in dogs but it can also affect cats, resulting in flu-like symptoms. Infection in cats usually results in mild symptoms such as sneezing and coughing but in some cases – particularly in young kittens or those in poor general health – it can lead to life-threatening pneumonia. A vaccination may be required by boarding catteries and could be beneficial in multi-cat households so speak to your vet for advice.

It is not necessary for a cat to have a rabies vaccination unless they are travelling in and out of the UK, and then it is a legal requirement. If you are planning to take your cat abroad, speak to your vet about what vaccines and paperwork are required to avoid quarantine.

Do I need to vaccinate my indoor cat?

All cats in the UK should be vaccinated against cat flu and feline parvovirus – regardless of whether they spend time outdoors or not. This is because the viruses involved are highly contagious and do not need direct contact with an infected cat to be passed on. The viruses can easily be brought in to the home on an owner’s shoes, hands or clothing.

If you have a cat that never goes outdoors then you may not need to have them vaccinated for FeLV. However, even if your cat only goes into your own garden there is a slim chance they could pick up the virus from the bodily fluids of other cats that might have popped by. As the prognosis for a cat with FeLV is usually poor – sadly, most cats die within a few years of catching it – it’s advisable that all cats are protected via immunisation.

Getting your cat vaccinated

To get your kitten or adult cat vaccinated you will need to make a vaccination appointment with your vet. Prior to vaccinating, your vet will give your pet a full check-up and ask you some questions about their general health so that they can be sure your cat is fit and well enough to receive it.

Vaccinations are delivered to cats as an injection to the back of their necks. This is because they have lots of extra skin to the scruff of their necks so it can be easily lifted to insert a needle without risk of penetrating other tissues. They are not usually painful but may sting a little or feel cold. The procedure is so quick that before a cat realises what is happening, it’s all over. A treat or two can help you distract your cat and praise them once the injection has been given.

Side effects from vaccinations are rare but they can happen. It is not uncommon for a cat to have a mild fever, low energy and a reduced appetite after a vaccination but this should pass within 24-48 hours. However, if your cat develops signs of an allergic reaction following an injection, such as itchy skin, a swollen face, breathing difficulties, pounding heartbeat, vomiting or diarrhoea, you should contact your vet immediately.

Are annual booster vaccinations necessary?

The length of time that a cat is protected following a vaccination depends on the disease, type of vaccine and the individual’s immune system. Speak to your vet about what would be the most appropriate vaccine regime for your pet.

As a rule, protection from a FeLV vaccine lasts for about a year while cat flu and FPV protection tends to last longer – up to three years. Speak to your vet about when booster jabs would be most appropriate for your pet.

What are the costs?

The costs of vaccinations and veterinary appointments vary between individual practices, so you should check your vet’s current prices before booking. However, the cost of treating a seriously sick cat with one of these preventable diseases will be vastly more expensive and there are no guarantees that your pet would pull through.

Pet insurance policies do not cover the cost of preventative pet care such as vaccinations and will not generally pay out for illnesses that could have been prevented by vaccination.

Having an annual check-up with your vet at the same time as a vaccine booster is a good way to ensure your pet is in good overall health. Any issues can be spotted early and treated before they become a problem - such as things like weight management, oral hygiene or growths.

Annual visits to a vet when your cat is not feeling poorly will help to make trips more familiar and less stressful. Most vets will have a treat or two for brave visitors and it is a good opportunity for an owner to ask any questions or seek advice about any aspect of their pet’s health.