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Ask a vet online – ‘How imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia?’

Question from Jakkii Mickle: Feline question again- how imperative is having the annual booster jabs for cat flu/ Felv/ Fiv/ Leukemia ? If they have had these injections from kitten age- would they have built up a natural immunity ? One of my cats reacts very badly to these injections, so as a result, I decided not to have them immunised - also my mums dog developed canine leukemia as a result of the injection programme ( confirmed by vets )-- so what is best- assume they have their own immunity , or risk them catching these horrible ailments ? Or make them ill by injecting them....??? Answer from Shanika Winters MRCVS, Online Vet Hi Jakkii and thank you for your interesting question about cat vaccinations. In order to answer your question I will discuss what is in the feline vaccines, what immunity is and how vaccines work. What diseases are covered in my cat’s vaccine? Commonly found in the vaccine your vet will offer your cat is protection against feline influenza (cat flu), feline infectious enteritis (viruses affecting the gut) and feline leukaemia (FeLV).  Other feline vaccines available but less commonly given include rabies, Bordatella bronchiseptica (airway disease) and Chlamydia.  There is currently no vaccine against feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). What is immunity? The immune system is the way in which the body detects, reacts and fights off anything it encounters. The immune system is made up of white blood cells (and the substances they produce such as antibodies) and the lymph system (nodules of various size from tonsils through to parts of the spleen).  When the body meets an antigen (something like a virus of bacteria) for the first time certain white blood cells notice the antigen and set off a reaction in the immune system which leads to the development of immunity. Certain white blood cells produce antibodies that recognise and attach to the antigen, other white blood cells come along and help destroy the recognised antigen and some white blood cells keep a memory of the antigen so next time it is met it can be fought off quickly. Once immunity has developed to an antigen the body should be able to fight it off before it can cause illness. Immunity does tend to slowly decrease over time, the longer it has been since an antigen was last met the slower the body is to react to it. This is why booster vaccines are given each year to keep the level of immunity topped up. Vaccines and naturally being exposed to an antigen stimulate the immune system in the same way to help develop immunity, but vaccines contain antigen that has been treated so as to minimise the chance of developing the actual disease in the process.  The time intervals designed for each vaccine regime are based on research as to how long the immunity levels remain in the average cat. Generally the antigens in cat vaccines are either a small part of the antigen, an artificially produced version (that is less able to cause disease) or a killed version of the antigen.  This is all done so as to provide immunity with the least risk of your cat actually getting ill. Why does my cat react badly to the vaccine? After vaccination some animals feel mildly unwell or can have a slightly raised body temperature, but this is not common. It is also possible for some cats to react badly to some vaccines and develop a full infection. The other thing that cats can react badly to is ingredients in the vaccine most commonly the adjuvant.  Animals that are unwell at the time of vaccination or have an underlying disease can also have bad reactions to vaccines.  This is a large part of why it is important for your pet to have a full health check prior to vaccination.  In the case of your mum’s dog developing leukaemia as a result of vaccinations this is very rare. The adjuvant is a chemical added to the vaccine to help the cat’s body react more to killed and part antigen components as these would otherwise cause less stimulation of the immune system.  If as is the case with your cat there is a sever bad reaction to vaccination then this should be discussed with your vet, noted on your cats medical records and an attempt made to work out what it is that your cat is reacting to. Should I still have my cat vaccinated if it reacts badly? After careful consideration it might be that your cat could tolerate the vaccines if given separately or if a different form of antigen or adjuvant was in the vaccine used.  After many years of vaccination your cat will have developed a reasonable level of immunity but it is very hard to work out exactly how long this will last if annual vaccination is stopped. In conclusion the decision as to whether or not to have your cat vaccinated every year should be made between you and your vet weighing up the chance of your cat being exposed to various diseases against the severity of its reaction.  I hope that this answer has helped you and your cat. Shanika Winters MRCVS (online vet)
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Grissom survives cat flu.

[caption id="attachment_900" align="alignleft" width="291" caption="Grissom at 3 months old"]Grissom kitten 1 crop[/caption] This handsome fellow is Grissom, a lively 3 month old kitten. Like the TV character he is named after, he is extremely inquisitive and tenacious. Grissom belongs to a good friend of mine and enjoys all the luxuries that a cat-loving household can offer. But unfortunately he had a very bad start in life when he succumbed to cat flu as a young kitten in a rescue cattery. Cat flu is a viral illness which can affect cats of any age and breed, but the very young are most susceptible. Kittens born to unvaccinated mothers are especially vulnerable as they do not start life with good levels of immunity. The main strains of cat flu are feline viral rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus, but there are other viruses and bacteria causing similar symptoms. The signs of cat flu are very similar to flu in humans (although it is not caused by the same viruses). Cats will sneeze and have runny noses and sticky eyes, go off their food and generally look unwell. They are likely to have a raised temperature and become lethargic. Some strains also cause mouth ulcers. As a result of not eating and drinking they can quickly lose weight and become dehydrated. Longer term effects can include damage to the eyes or chronic snuffles. Most cats will get over the illness in 2-3 weeks, but unfortunately some will die of cat flu, sometimes in spite of receiving all the treatment possible. After infection, some cats will become carriers, which means they will intermittently shed virus, acting as a reservoir of infection for other cats. Known carriers should be isolated from other cats. Flu viruses spread very easily between cats as virus particles are shed in the saliva and the secretions from the nose and eyes. They spread when the cat sneezes, and they can also survive on bowls and litter trays, and on the hands and clothes of people dealing with them. Disinfection is an important part of prevention of spread, and in a multi-cat household or a cattery, any affected cats should be isolated. [caption id="attachment_906" align="alignright" width="300" caption="2 weeks of constant nursing care were essential to Grissom's recovery"]Grissom kitten 2[/caption] Viruses themselves are difficult to treat and anti-viral drugs are not generally available, but most cats with cat flu will also have secondary bacterial infections of the chest, throat or eyes, which can be helped with antibiotics. In serious cases they may also need to be given fluids by a drip. Nursing care is extremely important to their recovery. I don’t think Grissom would be here today if he hadn’t had round the clock nursing care, first of all at his vets and then at home, for nearly 2 weeks. This includes cleaning the eyes and applying drops, syringe feeding, steam inhalation to clear airways and general TLC. All of this has to be done in isolation from other cats. Now that Grissom is better, he is a very well-socialised cat who enjoys human company. Routine vaccination against cat flu is the best way to prevent it. There isn’t a 100% guarantee because of the different strains involved, but it will greatly improve the odds.  Rarely, vaccination itself can have some unwanted side effects, but I believe that the small risks involved in vaccination are outweighed many times over by the benefits. Kittens can be vaccinated from about 9 weeks of age, with the primary course requiring two injections a few weeks apart, and then an annual booster. Boarding catteries and breeding catteries have to be particularly careful to prevent outbreaks of cat flu, which happens much more commonly where many cats are housed together. It is preferable to house cats in smaller numbers, with solid “sneeze barriers” between them to prevent spread. Boarding catteries will not accept cats which have not been vaccinated. Cat flu is still one of the most common viral illnesses of cats and can be very serious and unpleasant. It is well worth taking all possible steps to prevent it. If you are worried that your cat may have cat flu, or any other symptoms, please contact your vet or use our interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.