Updated - Jun 17th, 2022
Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM.
Congratulations on your new kitten! All of the snuggles, playtime, and endless joys of having a feline friend in your life are finally here.
As you cross off items on your new kitten checklist, one of the most important things you can do for your new family member is to take them to the veterinarian for their kitten examinations and vaccinations.
Vaccinations are essential for protecting your kitten from certain illnesses and preventing the spread of disease. In this article, we’ll walk you through kitten vaccine basics, tell you what to expect at your first check-up, and give you a sample cat vaccination schedule to follow.
How do kitten vaccines work?
When kittens are born, they receive temporary immunity from infectious diseases from their mothers. Mother cats pass on protective antibodies through their milk, which kittens absorb into their bloodstream immediately after they’re born. This immunity lasts for several weeks and then declines.
As their immune systems mature, kittens need to remain protected against disease – this is where vaccines come in. Vaccines teach a kitten’s immune system to build antibodies against infectious diseases and help prevent future infections.
The timing of kitten vaccines is extremely important. It should be after the antibodies from their mother start to fade (because these can interfere with vaccine response) but not after they’re completely gone. Getting this timing right is vital to successful immunization. Kittens generally begin receiving immunizations starting at six to eight weeks old, with boosters at three to four-week intervals, completing the regiment when they’re around four months old.
Recommended vaccines for kittens
Kitten vaccines are typically broken down into two categories: Core vaccines and non-core vaccines. Let’s dive into the aspects of each type and which are recommended for kittens.
Core vaccines are recommended for all cats and will protect your kitten from the most common diseases. According to the most recent guidelines for feline vaccinations from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), recommended core vaccines include:
- Feline herpesvirus (FHV-1): Feline herpesvirus causes a serious and highly contagious upper respiratory infection, also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR). Kittens and older cats are more likely to be infected.
- Feline calicivirus (FCV): Feline calicivirus is another very contagious virus that causes severe upper respiratory infections, and in some cases, pneumonia. Similar to FVR, kittens and older adult cats are more likely to have serious symptoms.
- Feline panleukopenia (FPV): Also known as feline distemper or feline parvovirus, this virus is highly contagious and can cause a range of symptoms – fever, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea – and is sometimes fatal.
- Rabies: Rabies is usually transmitted through saliva from the bite of an infected animal. Rabies is fatal in cats, dogs, and most other mammals. The disease can be transmitted to humans if bitten by an animal with the disease, and is fatal without treatment. Because of this, rabies vaccines are required by law in most states.
- Feline leukemia (FeLV): The feline leukemia virus depresses the immune system of cats and leads to persistent infection. There is no treatment for this disease, and therefore, it is ultimately fatal. It is important to note that some veterinarians consider FeLV a core vaccine, and other veterinarians consider it non-core or a lifestyle vaccine. In addition, this vaccine is associated with a malignant tumor in some cats. The ultimate decision should be made in partnership between you and a veterinarian you trust.
The feline calicivirus, feline viral rhinotracheitis, and feline panleukopenia vaccines are often part of a combination vaccine, called the FVRCP vaccine, that protects kittens against all three viruses.
Non-core vaccines are not recommended for all cats but may be recommended for some depending on their lifestyle, where they live, their exposure to other cats, and existing health conditions. If your kitten is exposed to outdoor cats, for example, your veterinarian may recommend certain non-core vaccines.
Non-core vaccines can include:
- Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV): The feline immunodeficiency virus attacks the immune system, leaving a cat vulnerable to other types of infections. This virus is spread through bite wounds from an infected cat, making outdoor cats more susceptible to transmission.
- Chlamydia felis: This bacterium causes an infection called chlamydial conjunctivitis, which causes conjunctivitis and mild upper respiratory infections in cats. Young cats and kittens are particularly susceptible to the infection. The vaccine is only recommended for cats that spend a lot of time at groomers, kennels, or in multi-cat households that are known to have a problem with Chlamydia.
- Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough): Bordetella also causes upper respiratory infections and is most likely found in cats that are in close contact with other cats or dogs, such as in rescues, shelters, or multi-animal households. The bordetella vaccine can be given to prevent the spread of infection in these environments. Cats in close contact with people who have compromised immune systems should not be vaccinated, as the risk of zoonotic infection from the vaccine is unknown.
Kitten vaccination schedule
Now that you understand which vaccines your kitten may need, let’s break down what a kitten vaccination schedule might look like.
- Six to eight weeks:
- FVRCP combination vaccine. This vaccine can be given as early as six weeks. A total of three to four boosters are given, three to four weeks apart.
- Nine to 12 weeks:
- FVRCP booster.
- FeLV vaccine (if you choose to give this vaccine). This vaccine can be given as early as eight weeks. A total of two vaccines are given, three to four weeks apart.
- 12 to 16 weeks:
- Final FVRCP booster.
- Final FeLV vaccine.
- Rabies. This vaccine is only given once to kittens. Typically, this vaccine is given at 16 weeks of age.
Generally, after your kitten has completed their initial series of shots, they’ll need to receive boosters every one to three years depending on the vaccine or other health considerations.
Of course, every veterinarian will have their own policies for immunizations, testing, as well as other procedures that are common for kittens, such as deworming and starting heartworm prevention.
Most veterinarians will recommend that you spay or neuter your cat by five to six months of age. This is an important procedure to keep in mind as you and your veterinarian develop a health care plan for your kitten.
Risks of vaccines for kittens
Although there are some risks when vaccinating your kitten, they’re very minor. Similar to humans, kittens who receive vaccines may experience some initial side effects, such as a low fever, decreased appetite, localized swelling, or tiredness.
These symptoms, however, usually start shortly after the vaccine and last only a few days. If your kitten continues to experience side effects, contact your veterinarian.
Some kittens may experience an allergic reaction to a vaccine. An allergic reaction can cause itchiness, hives, and swelling of the face, so if you see any of these symptoms, you’ll want to take your cat to the vet immediately, and reconsider vaccinating your kitty in the future.
Finally, in other rare situations, cats can develop feline injection-site sarcomas, or FISS. This type of malignant cancer is thought to be caused by persistent swelling from the spot where a cat was vaccinated, and has been associated with the FeLV vaccine and rarely, the rabies vaccine FISS tumors are aggressive and invade surrounding tissues, and can require surgery and radiation for treatment.
Overall, veterinarians and feline medical organizations like the AAHA and AAFP agree that the incidence of negative side effects as a whole is low, and the benefits of core kitten vaccines outweigh the risks.
How much do kitten vaccines cost?
Bringing a new kitten into the family involves a multitude of expenses, and vaccines are a part of them. The cost of vaccines for your kitten can vary based on a number of factors such as your location, your veterinarian, the type of vaccine, etc.
In general, however, you can expect the cost of a single vaccine to range anywhere from $25 to $50. That said, some veterinarians may offer multiple services for your kitten – vaccines, an examination, and deworming, for example – packaged within a single price.
The frequent vet visits involved in the kitten vaccination schedule, these costs can add up, so it can be helpful to talk to your veterinarian ahead of time if you have any concerns about vaccine pricing.
Planning for a healthy future
The right vaccines will help your kitten stay protected against disease. And this is just one of many steps you’ll take as a new cat owner to make sure that your feline friend is set up for a long, healthy life.
After your kitten has received their vaccines, talk to your veterinarian about the best path forward for your cat – whether that’s choosing the right cat food, finding a great brush, or discussing environmental enrichment to prevent stress-related diseases and improve quality of life. And while you’re at it, read on for more vaccination pro tips here!
Preventive care and insurance can help
While vaccines are an essential part of preventive kitten care, some illnesses can still arise. In the event that your kitty needs a vet visit, pet insurance can help you say “yes” to the best care possible – now, and in the future.
*Pumpkin Pet Insurance policies do not cover pre-existing conditions. Waiting periods, annual deductible, co-insurance, benefit limits and exclusions may apply. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/insurancepolicy. Products, discounts, and rates may vary and are subject to change. Pumpkin Insurance Services Inc. (Pumpkin) (NPN#19084749) is a licensed insurance agency, not an insurer. Insurance is underwritten by United States Fire Insurance Company (NAIC #21113. Morristown, NJ), a Crum & Forster Company and produced by Pumpkin. Pumpkin receives compensation based on the premiums for the insurance policies it sells. For more details visit pumpkin.care/underwriting-information and pumpkin.care/insurance-licenses.
Preventive Essentials is not an insurance policy, and is not available in all states. It is offered as an optional add-on non-insurance benefit. Pumpkin is responsible for the product and administration. For full terms, visit pumpkin.care/customeragreement.