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A Guide to Pet Vaccinations, According to the Vet

What does your cat or dog need, and when do they need it?

dog at the veterinarian's office
Photography by: Getty

When I brought in the family of cats that I found in the backyard, the first thing I needed to do was take them to the veterinary clinic for checkups and vaccines. The mother cat had been outdoors for an unknown length of time, and she had given birth to her four kittens underneath my patio. They were thin, malnourished, full of worms, and overall very sickly. The vet treated them for all of their obvious ailments and gave them all of the required vaccines for cats, as well as a few optional ones that were necessary because of their original living circumstances. It took a few months for them to become healthy. All of the struggle and financial investment was worth it. My cats are happy, healthy, and indoor-only now.

 

"We vaccinate our pets because we want to protect them," says Dr. Heather Brausa, Staff Doctor at NYC's Animal Medical Center. "Vaccines protect them from a multitude of infectious diseases and helps to keep them healthy." The type and schedule of vaccinations depends on the type of pet. Some vaccines may be dependent on the lifestyle and location of the animal, explains Dr. Brausa, while other vaccines are considered core vaccines and generally required by law or strongly recommended by veterinarians.

 

RELATED: Why It's Important to Clean Your Dog or Cat's Teeth

 

Dog Vaccinations

"Your core dog vaccines are rabies and a combination vaccine commonly referred to as the distemper vaccine," Dr. Brausa says. "This vaccine contains protection against distemper, adenovirus, leptospirosis, parvo, and most of them contain protection against parainfluenza as well. These are generally given to puppies between six and eight weeks old, and given at intervals of every three to four weeks until they are 16 weeks old."

 

Adenovirus is also known as canine hepatitis. According to PetMD, this virus causes severe respiratory infection and affects the liver, kidneys and eyes. Leptospirosis can infect humans and animals. The CDC says that leptospirosis causes high fever, headache, chills, jaundice, abdominal pain and more in humans. For pets, the infection causes stiffness and severe muscle pain, as well as fever, vomiting, and refusal to eat.

 

Canine parvovirus is a potentially deadly illness that affects the gastrointestinal tract. It spreads very quickly among dogs, who often are around other dogs when they go out for walks or stay in kennels. Parainfluenza, also known as the dog flu, affects both dogs and cats. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the dog flu presents itself with symptoms like what we are familiar with in humans: coughs, fever, respiratory distress.

 

Cat Vaccinations

Like dogs, cats also have a list of core vaccines that they should receive as kittens, or as soon as you adopt a family of cats from your backyard like I did. "Your core cat vaccines are going to be FVRCP vaccines, which is protective against calicivirus, panleukopenia and rhinotracheitis. It's given at six to eight weeks and in three to four-week intervals until the cat is 16 weeks old," says Dr. Brausa. "Rabies is also considered a core vaccine for cats."

 

A herpes virus causes the feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), and it affects the upper respiratory system. The virus can stay dormant in cats once they're infected. According to PetMD, FVR is often referred to as a head cold. Calicivirus causes similar infection in cats but also presents oral ulcers. And you want to protect your cat against panleukopenia because it refers to destruction of white blood cells. Feline parvovirus, which causes panleukopenia, can leave your cat vulnerable to more illnesses and infections.

 

Rabies in both cats and dogs attacks the nervous system. It can also spread to humans. Getting vaccinated and avoiding wild animals that exhibit rabid behavior is the best way to avoid becoming infected by the virus. Aggressive behavior, excessive drooling, fearfulness and seizures are some of the warning signs of a rabies infection.

 

Optional Vaccinations

"For dogs, the non-core vaccines are going to be lifestyle dependent," Dr. Brausa says. "Those would include things like bordetella, which is commonly referred to as kennel cough vaccine. That's one organism that can cause an infectious respiratory disease in dogs." Other optional vaccines include vaccinations against leptospira and lyme disease. Leptospira is transmitted by rodent urine and lyme disease comes from infected tick bites. Dogs that live near wooded areas where ticks are abundant and rodents like raccoons and mice make a regular appearance would benefit from the optional vaccines.

 

Cats also have a series of vaccines that are not given unless necessary. "For cats, the vaccines that would typically be considered non-core, or optional, is the feline leukemia vaccine. That vaccine is given to cats that are typically in contact with other cats of unknown vaccine status—cats that go outdoors," Dr. Brausa says. "There are also a handful of other kitty cat vaccines that are not commonly given; those are pretty special circumstances like cats that are in cattery or shelter situations." Vaccines for ringworm and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) exist but tend to not be as effective The FIV vaccine, for example, may not fully protect cats from FIV, and veterinarians recommend limiting potential exposure to the virus as much as possible instead.

 

Vaccination boosters for rabies and other core vaccines, for both cats and dogs, should be given every one to three years. Animals that are primarily indoors, like cats, and who aren't exposed to outside animals can skip some vaccines as far as maintenance, Dr. Brausa says, but it's still recommended to keep your companion animals on a one to three-year maintenance schedule for their core vaccinations.