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Feline Vaccination Series: Part 2

Posted Aug 19 2013 7:00am
Dr. Coates is a veterinarian based in the other “Sunshine State” – that's Colorado to the rest of you – where she lives and plays with a varied range of animals. She shares her professional and personal experiences, Monday through Friday, here on petMD's blog, the Fully Vetted. Log in for your daily dose of her insight and wisdom. < Previous Post Next Post > Aug 19, 2013 Feline Vaccination Series: Part 2 by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM     Share       Save to mypetMDLast week we talked about essential vaccines for cats (rabies, feline viral rhinotracheitis, panleukopenia, and calicivirus) that virtually every cat should receive on a regular basis. Today, let’s touch on the first of the situational vaccines — feline leukemia virus (FELV).
First a bit of background on the disease. Cats primarily come in contact with FELV through bites inflicted by infected cats, but the virus can also be spread through mutual grooming or sharing food bowls and litter boxes, and pregnant females can pass the disease on to their offspring. Some individuals can fight off the virus, but once infection is established, the consequences are dire. FELV attacks and weakens the immune system. Early in the course of the diseases, cats often do not appear to be sick. But as immune function declines, they become susceptible to life-threatening infections, immune-mediated disorders, and certain types of cancer. Some cats with FELV can enjoy long, relatively healthy lives, but most eventually succumb to the disease. Treatment is limited to symptomatic and supportive care.
Given that FELV infections are so serious, you might be wondering why the vaccination is considered situational rather than essential. The reasoning is based on the fact that the risk of infection can be virtually eliminated by keeping cats indoors-only and screening new feline additions to the household. Also, FELV vaccines have been associated with a higher than average risk of injection site sarcomas, an aggressive type of cancer. New vaccine manufacturing techniques have greatly reduced but, unfortunately, not eliminated that risk. These recombinant FELV vaccines are now the only ones I will use.
Now, let me temper the definition of “situational” in the case of FELV by saying that I do consider the vaccine essential for kittens. I recommend that all of my pediatric feline patients receive two doses of a recombinant FELV vaccine 3-4 weeks apart (usually starting around eight weeks of age). This applies regardless of whether or not an owner plans on keeping his or her cat indoors. I make this recommendation because young cats are at highest risk for becoming infected with FELV (adults have greater innate immunity), and it can be difficult to establish a cat’s lifestyle until he or she is grown. (Some owners find it next to impossible to prevent a cat from going outside as he or she grows and becomes more determined and crafty.)
After these first two “kitten” vaccines, I reassess the situation at every annual check-up. If the cat has successfully been kept indoors and that remains the plan for the continuing year, I do not recommend vaccination against FELV. But, if the cat is at high risk for the disease (e.g., going outside or living with a FELV positive housemate) a booster should be given.
Currently, all FELV vaccines are labeled for annual (rather than every three year) revaccination intervals, and there are no definitive studies that show a longer duration of immunity. That said, as cats get older, I do become increasingly more comfortable lengthening the time between FELV vaccines and eventually discontinuing them altogether as long as owners are aware of the potential pros and cons of this approach and the cat’s risk of infection is not terribly high.

Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Thinkstock
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Susan Brown Johnson 08/19/2013 09:36am We are a multi-multi cat household, all are safe indoors, no declaw. That said, I have vaccinated kittens we have rescued for FELV and discontinued once they were adults. We do yearly exams with blood/urinalysis work for all our clowder with their thyroid concerns, kidney, etc., etc. As clients, we need to TALK with our veterinarians, make your concerns known and don't be afraid to tell the vet, "no". Some clinics use scare tactics and try to make you feel as though you aren't a good guardian for your pet. Use your vet regularly, get to know his/her and the staff. Know your local ER too! Do your homework, you would for your own doctor...your pet is part of your family.
Love these articles! Thank you. Reply to this comment Report abuse 6 TheOldBroad FeLV Vaxfor Kittens 08/19/2013 05:56pm If one adopts a kitten, whether from a shelter or breeder, what is the possibility it has been exposed to the virus? Are there risks to vaccinating a kitten that already carries the virus? (Can routine bloodwork be done on a kitten?) Reply to this comment Report abuse 4 Connor 08/19/2013 06:36pm If the kitten already carries the virus then it's too late to vaccinate for Felv. Most shelters vaccinate and over-vaccinate the animals and I'd be more concerned about vaccinosis rather than Felv. You can ask the breeder if they vaccinated the kittens or not. They usually have paperwork from a vet verifying the vaccines. Approximately 90% of adult cats have a natural immunity against the disease and I, personally, would never vaccinate an adult cat for Felv. If your kitten is going to be an indoor pet then there's no reason to vaccinate for Felv. I've had cats all my life and I've never had one indoor cat try to escape the house. Kittens are protected by maternal antibodies up to 12 weeks, therefore, any vaccine before this age is pointless because maternal antibodies de-activate the vaccines. Then the adjuvents in the vaccine will weaken the kittens already under-develop immune system, thus, leaving them vulnerable to diseases. The best thing to do to protect your kitten from diseases is to let them suckle from the mom cat for as long as possible, feed mom and kittens an excellent diet, and keep them indoors and away from strays. Reply to this comment Report abuse 4
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