Cat owners are often aware of the importance of rabies vaccines.
Rabies is fatal to animals that haven’t been vaccinated and to humans who wait too long to be treated following an interaction with an infected animal. Because of the great risk that rabies poses, Virginia requires that all cats and dogs, even indoor pets, be vaccinated.
Other feline vaccines aren’t as talked about, and though advised, are not required by law.
The big ones are the feline leukemia vaccine and a combination FVRCP vaccine that covers feline panleukopenia, more commonly known as feline distemper or feline parvo (both unrelated to canine distemper and canine parvo.)
The virus does not affect humans.
Cats that are vaccinated are unlikely to suffer any of these diseases, said Dr. Jay Margolis, a veterinarian in Fairfax County and co-owner of Linden Heights Animal Hospital in Winchester.
Panleukopenia is everywhere in the environment, and most cats will come into contact with it in their lifetime, Margolis said.
“From time to time it does happen all over the country,” he said. “It breaks out in areas where there are stray cats.”
The virus is a greater threat to kittens that haven’t built up their immune system yet, or older cats with immunity issues.
Highly contagious, the virus attacks white blood cells, said Margolis. It travels easily on clothes and shoes, so those who work with stray cats or manage cat colonies should be careful to wash and disinfect their clothes so they don’t risk spreading the virus to other cats.
Vaccinated house cats should be protected from the virus if they escape or if they come in contact with the virus from another source, he said.
“Generally, [it’s] well controlled through vaccination,” Margolis said. “The recommendation is that they should be vaccinated against distemper.”
Though efforts to trap, neuter, vaccinate and return feral cats to their colonies often include vaccinating them against rabies, Margolis said the FVRCP (distemper) vaccine that protects against panleukopenia isn’t always used for feral cats.
It’s another expense for people to vaccinate cats they don’t own, made even more expensive if they’re caring for multiple cats. Also, people might not see the distemper vaccine as important as the rabies vaccine.
Vaccine costs vary depending on where they're administered and if they're given separately or as part of a package.
The Front Royal Petco Vaccination Clinic, for example, offers a healthy cat/kitten package with the FVRCP and FeLV vaccines and optional round/hook dewormer as necessary for $59, according to its website. Administered separately, the distemper/parvo vaccine and feline leukemia vaccines are each $35.
The healthy cat/kitten package requires proof that the animal has received a previous FeLV vaccination, or else the cost might be higher.
The rabies vaccine (one or three years) is $19 on its own, but if added to a package, it's $10.
The FVRCP (distemper/parvo) vaccine, which also protects against calicivirus and rhinotracheitis, normally costs $10 to $20, according to the website petcarerx.com. It’s given to kittens in a round of three vaccines over several weeks that cost a total of $30 to $60. Then it’s given every one to three years.
Rabies vaccines for cats should cost between $5 and $20, the site says.
The feline leukemia (FeLV) vaccine is less of a concern for parents of indoor cats, Margolis said. However, feline leukemia is still a deadly disease that causes suppression of the immune system. A vaccine costs between $5 and $15 and is administered twice for a total of $10 to $30.
A feline immunodeficiency vaccine (FIV) that was meant to protect against the retrovirus that causes immunodeficiency disease in cats is no longer available, according to the website petmd.com because of issues that included cancer caused at the injection site and false positives when cats were tested.
Though Margolis said there is no effective vaccine for FIV, indoor cats rarely come into contact with the virus.
Another way of helping cut down on the spread of viruses among cats is to spay and neuter your pets, he said. This reduces the number of unwanted animals that often end up homeless.
Cat and dog vaccinations are available at area veterinary offices, the Humane Society and pet stores like Petsmart and Petco. Ask about any discounts and vaccination clinics. Often, adoptable pets have already received initial vaccinations.