Calling the Shots…Does your cat really need all those vaccines?

Next time you get a reminder from your vet’s office telling you it’s time for your cat’s yearly booster shots, ask yourself the following question: does my cat really need another set of vaccinations? You need to provide ongoing preventive health care for your feline friend, but annual vaccines are not necessarily a part of that. I’m going to share with you a more natural alternative to the standard annual vaccine recommendation.

When vaccines are needed

Used properly, vaccines can save your cat’s life. Many infectious diseases are not seen as frequently as they were because most cats are vaccinated against them. In fact, it’s vital that kittens receive the core vaccines (see sidebar) since these particular diseases are highly contagious and can spread rapidly through feline populations, sometimes causing severe illness and even death in young animals.

The dangers of over-vaccination

Vaccines can also work in an inappropriate or harmful fashion.

  • Repeated and unnecessary exposure to a vaccine may affect the immune system so it doesn’t work properly. The white blood cells that are activated by the infectious organisms in a vaccine might accidentally attack normal tissue in the cat’s body, causing what is called an autoimmune disease like lupus or pemphigus.
  • Acute vaccine reactions can also occur. While more common in dogs, kittens and cats can also develop an acute allergic response to any vaccine. Within minutes to hours following a vaccine, they may develop itching, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and even cardiovascular failure followed by death.
  • Vaccines may also be linked to cancer in animals, through an abnormal reaction of the immune system. In cats, a certain kind of cancer called injection site sarcoma can develop at the site of a vaccine. It is not known exactly why some cats develop these tumors. However, the pathology of the tumor suggests that some cats are genetically predisposed to developing chronic inflammation at the site of the vaccine. Since chronic inflammation can lead to cancer, it is thought that cats genetically predisposed to this condition develop the tumor following excessive inflammation at the site of the vaccine.

In cats, a certain kind of cancer called injection site sarcoma can develop at the site of a vaccine.

Take the titer tack

Experts tell us annual vaccinations are not needed for most if any cats. All vaccines are capable of producing long-lasting immunity. This means most cats will only require a few vaccines in their entire lifetimes. Since the maximum duration of immunity to any given vaccine in your cat is unknown, we can’t make a standard recommendation on how often your cat should be vaccinated. While many experts, including schools of veterinary medicine, recommend vaccinations every three years, we know that for many cats even this frequency is excessive.

Fortunately, there is a simple and inexpensive way to determine your cat’s immunity and allow your vet to make a recommendation on how often your cat might require a vaccination. The test is called a blood antibody test, or more simply a titer test. It measures one part of your pet’s immune system, the humoral immunity which measures antibodies.

  • In our office, we measure a cat’s antibody or titer level against feline panleukopenia, feline calicivirus and feline rhinotracheitis.
  • The test to measure the titers against these three diseases costs about $60.
  • Results are received from the diagnostic laboratory within two to three weeks following the client’s office visit.
  • Based on the results, it is been my experience that most cats only require vaccination a few times in their lives.

Unfortunately, the titer test is not perfect. It is, however, the only test that inexpensively allows us to look at an important part of your cat’s immune system. Without the information, no veterinarian can accurately recommend a safe and effective vaccination interval.

While titer tests are used every day in doctors’ offices for diagnosing diseases, many conventional veterinarians are still opposed to using them in place of annual vaccination. The main complaint I hear from veterinarians is that they do not know how to interpret the results of a titer test. There are no agreed upon results for this test. In general, the presence of any titer indicates your cat is capable of defending himself against infectious disease. Therefore, most veterinarians do not recommend vaccinating a cat that has any measurable titer. Other doctors like to see a titer of at least 1:4 or 1:20 or higher. If they do not, the veterinarian may vaccinate your cat.

While not perfect, using titer tests as a guide for vaccinating your cat is much better than vaccinating every year, every three years, or based on some other arbitrary recommendation.

Titer testing has proven itself in my practice and in the practices of many of my holistic colleagues around the world.

It is inexpensive and an easy way to look at an important part of your cat’s immune system. I recommend discussing this test with your veterinarian in an attempt to decrease the frequency of vaccinations, avoid unnecessary expense, and minimize the risk of problems that can result from excessive vaccination.

The Four Cores

The following four vaccines are considered core and should be given to kittens. However, annual boosters in adulthood are usually not necessary. Ask about titer testing for the first three; unfortunately, regular rabies vaccines are required by law.

  1. Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV)
  2. Feline calicivirus (FCV)
  3. Feline rhinotracheitis virus or feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV-1)
  4. Rabies