Whether your cat will be indoors-only, venture outside from time to time, or live outside exclusively, one of the best (and easiest) ways to protect their health is to vaccinate early — and appropriately — against preventable infectious diseases. Vaccines are a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to keep your kitten from becoming seriously ill now or even later in life. And, when it comes to rabies, having your cat vaccinated is also a simple and effective way to protect yourself and others in your home, since rabies can affect people, too.
There’s a lot to know, do, and keep track of when you get a new cat, so here’s an overview of the shots your cat is likely to need during their first several months of life and beyond. Take a look at the information below, but you should still talk to your vet to make sure your cat is getting just the right vaccinations they need — based on their individual lifestyle, health, and overall situation — and that they’re getting them at the right times.
The Timing of the “Kitten Shot” Series
The series of kitten shots should begin when your kitten is a few weeks old, or when you get a new cat. Your vet will follow up these shots with regular booster visits, which will continue for a few months. Here’s the timeline breakdown of the typical cat vaccination schedule:
- Initial vaccination: 6–8 weeks old, or when you get your new cat
- Booster shots: Every 3–4 weeks
- End of booster shots: 16–20 weeks
The exact shots your new cat will need, and how frequently they’ll need them, will be determined through discussions with your veterinarian and based on a multitude of factors. Since every cat and every situation is different, it’s important that you talk to your vet to determine the best vaccines and schedule for your individual kitten. As you’ll see from this list of factors below, a lot goes into this decision and your vet truly is your best resource and teammate to help you determine the best vaccination plan and schedule for your cat.
Questions Your Veterinarian Might Ask to Determine Your Cat’s Vaccination Schedule
- How old is your kitten?
- What is your kitten’s size/weight?
- What vaccines has your kitten already had and when and from whom?
- What is your kitten’s FeLV (feline leukemia) and FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) status (determined by a simple blood test)?
- Did your kitten come from a shelter, a breeder, a pet store, a friend or neighbor, or were they found as a stray?
- How many other cats were in your kitten’s litter (if known)?
- Was your kitten’s mom well-vaccinated (if known)?
- Where do you live?
- Will your kitten be indoors, outdoors, or a combination of both?
- Are there other cats in your home? And, if so, what are their FeLV and FIV statuses?
- What time of year is it?
- Are there feline infectious disease outbreaks in your area?
- Will your kitten be traveling with you?
- Are you planning to board your kitten?
- Will your kitten be attending “kitten kindergarten” or any other training programs?
- Will your kitten be used in a breeding program?
- Will your kitten go to cat shows?
- What are your local laws and regulations?
Vaccines Kittens Need and May Need — Core vs. Non-Core
Depending on the answers to the questions above, as well as on the results of your veterinarian’s exam, it may be determined that your kitten could benefit from certain vaccines in addition to the basic necessary ones.
- Core vaccines: Some infectious diseases are so common, debilitating/devastating, easily spread, and/or able to be spread to people (“zoonotic”) that it’s critically important to vaccinate all cats. These core vaccinations are strongly recommended, regardless of your cat’s location, lifestyle, history, etc. The core vaccines for cats are described in the table below.
- Non-core vaccines: On the other hand, some vaccines are only needed depending on conditions that are specific to your cat, their lifestyle, or their environment. If certain risk factors apply to your cat, your vet might recommend one (or more) of these non-core vaccinations. These vaccinations aren’t needed for all cats, but are important and beneficial to some. The non-core vaccines for cats are described in the table below.
First-Year Kitten Shots
Many of your kitten’s initial shots will be given as a series of “boosters” every 3–4 weeks. To achieve the best protection possible, your kitten will need boosters over the first several months of their life, at least until they are between 16–20 weeks old. And even adult cats will need an initial series of shots and boosters for certain vaccinations to achieve the best level of protection.
The table below lists and outlines the vaccinatable diseases for cats, broken down by what’s “core” and “non-core.” (A special note about Rabies vaccination and cats: While the Rabies vaccine is listed as a "non-core" vaccine, it may still be a legally required vaccine depending on the state or municipality you live in, and is always a good one to consider and discuss with your veterinarian. This is both because Rabies is a severely debilitating condition for cats, and also because it is zoonotic and can affect people (where it is pretty much typically fatal)... so Rabies is a big public health concern, too.)
|Core or Non-Core||What Causes the Disease||Signs of the Disease|
Panleukopenia (a.k.a. “kitty distemper” or “feline parvo”)
|Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV)||
Year 2 Vaccinations and Beyond
After the initial series in that first year, it’s still important to keep an adult cat up-to-date on vaccinations so they are fully protected from disease. Most of the vaccines above need to be boosted again at the 1-year mark, after which the frequency of re-vaccination may change, based on the vaccine itself (its reported “duration of immunity”) and all of the cat-specific factors outlined above.
This is just one of the big reasons why it’s so important for your cat to have a regular wellness exam with your vet each year. (And here are 5 non-vaccine reasons why wellness exams for cats are important.) During these visits, your cat can get any vaccine boosters they need and you can talk to your vet about additional vaccines your cat might benefit from. Additionally, you can ask about vaccines that can be discontinued depending on any changes in your cat’s health, lifestyle, home environment, and all of the other factors listed above.
Regarding your cat’s vaccinations — and overall health and needs — you should make sure to let your vet know if any of the following changes have occurred since your cat’s previous wellness exam, or will be occurring within the next several months:
- You’re moving to a different part of the country
- You’ll be traveling with your cat to a different part of the state, or out of state
- You will be boarding your cat in a kennel, cattery, or in someone else's home where there are other cats
- You’re getting, or have gotten, another cat
- You’re letting your cat go outdoors for the first time or letting them spend more time outdoors
- Your previously outdoor cat is now indoors-exclusively
- Your cat has been involved in a cat fight
So, there’s what you need to know about your new kitten’s “shots.” I hope this article has helped you as you begin your journey with your new little fluff ball. Want more info and advice to help you keep your new kitten as healthy, happy, and safe as possible? Grab a copy of my book, 101 Essential Tips for Kittens and New Cats. You’ll both be happy you did.