Do Older Cats Need Vaccinations? An Expert Weighs In

Updated September 1, 2021
veterinarian giving vaccine adult cat

If your elderly cat spends most of their day snoozing on the couch, you may wonder if they should continue receiving vaccinations. The short answer is maybe, but the decision depends on several factors. Before you cancel their next vaccine appointment, it's important to understand the scenarios when vaccinating is essential, and when your older cat is no longer a good candidate for vaccinations. A board-certified veterinary feline specialist offers insight to help owners approach this matter.

At What Age Is a Cat Considered "Older?"

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), a cat is considered a senior when they reach 10 years of age, and a cat becomes geriatric after age 15. These are the life stages when age-related changes commonly occur. Because issues can progress more rapidly in these aging patients, it's important for senior and geriatric cats to visit their vet regularly, even if they are not receiving vaccines.

Considerations When Vaccinating Older Cats

Experts believe that age is not the sole factor to consider when determining if an older cat should receive vaccines. "Whether or not to vaccinate depends on many things when assessing benefits and risks of vaccines," said Dr. Glenn Olah, DVM, Ph.D., DABVP (Feline).

Vaccine History

With each each vaccine, your cat's immune system becomes stimulated, promoting the creation of antibodies. It's important to remember that although a cat, "May have adequate protection after a lifetime of vaccination for core viral infections," Dr. Olah said, "they also may have a less robust immune system due to advanced age." If a senior cat contracts a virus, they may become sicker than a younger cat might.

Antibody titers can give insight into whether your cat has protective immunity, but results may not be reliable for all viruses. The AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel recommends, "Employing defined revaccination intervals rather than measuring antibody titers to assure protection." Although titers should not be used in place of vaccines, they can be a helpful tool for those cats who cannot tolerate vaccinations.

Lifestyle Risk Level

Consider your cats' level of exposure to infectious agents. A cat that you may describe as "indoor-only," yet who shares space with an indoor-outdoor housemate, is exposed to outside pathogens. Likewise, an indoor senior cat who interacts with foster cats from the shelter or a new kitten housemate is also at risk of disease transmission. The AAFP states that one must assess, "The cat's lifestyle as well as the lifestyle of any other cats in the same household."

Strictly Indoor Cats With No Exposure: Older cats strictly kept indoors are not exempt from vaccines, but they may not need as many. There are two core feline vaccines that are considered essential for all cats: FVRCP combination and rabies vaccines. These are classified as "core" based on the severity and prevalence of the diseases they protect against.

Even if your older cat never leaves your house, contagions can still make their way in. For example, potentially fatal viruses such as feline panleukopenia and calicivirus (both covered by the core FVRCP vaccine) can be brought into the home by visiting cats or contaminated items. Cats with feline herpes virus or a history of recurrent upper respiratory viral infections may be particularly sensitive.

Additionally, wildlife carrying rabies can make their way into your household. Although rare, these cases have been documented.

Cute Indoor Cat Sleeping

Indoor/Outdoor Cats or Cats in Mixed Households: Does your older cat or any feline housemates roam outdoors? Then they are at higher risk of exposure and would likely benefit from both core and non-core -- also referred to as lifestyle -- vaccines. Many cat-specific viruses such as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) can be easily spread through saliva, blood, and other bodily fluids. Vaccines are available for both.

Medical History

If your cat has a chronic illness or was diagnosed with a new disease since their last shot, ask your vet for guidance regarding future vaccines. Dr. Olah mentions that with geriatric patients in particular, "There may be co-morbidity conditions (the presence of two or more diseases in a patient) that may preclude further vaccinations."

In those patients who are immunosuppressed, either due to disease -- for example FIV or FeLV -- or as a result of medications such as steroids, a veterinarian may recommend avoiding modified live vaccines. However, Dr. Olah reminds owners that, "Actual infection may be considerably worse for this cohort than risks or side-effects from vaccination."

If a cat has experienced adverse reactions to vaccines in the past, such as persistent vomiting or diarrhea, hives, facial swelling, severe lethargy, or difficulty breathing following vaccination administration, they may not be a good candidate for future boosters. Some patients who experience mild reactions do well with a pre-vaccine dose of injectable anti-histamine and close monitoring, but your vet can make specific recommendations based on the severity of your pet's reaction.

Local Vaccine Laws

Depending on where you live, you may be obligated by law to vaccinate your cat, regardless of their age. This typically only applies to the rabies vaccine, as the disease is zoonotic, extremely dangerous, and can be transmitted from pets to humans. And yes, many of these guidelines apply to indoor-only cats, as well. In the United States, laws vary based on your state or even county of residence. Be sure to check with your local legislature to determine your legal obligation, or ask your vet.

Veterinarian Recommendation

Every cat is an individual; therefore, Dr. Olah confirms that the, "Decision to vaccinate an older cat is definitely based on a case-by-case basis." Your personal veterinarian is the best person to talk to regarding the benefits versus potential risks of vaccines for your unique, older cat. They know your pet's medical history and can assess their current condition. Bring up any concerns you may have with your vet, and together, you can determine the best course of action for your cat.

Close-up portrait of black cat

Advancements in Feline Vaccine Safety

Some cat owners are reluctant to vaccinate their cats due to reports of tumors arising at vaccination sites. If this has been weighing on your mind, your concerns are completely understandable. A Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force was even formed in the 1990s specifically to address these concerns. However, you can rest assured knowing that improvements in cat vaccine protocols have been made to reduce these occurrences.

Many experts believe that additives in vaccines, known as adjuvants, contributed to the prevalence of feline injection-site sarcomas. Therefore, non-adjuvanted formulations were developed in the year 2000 and are widely used in veterinary hospitals today.

Although this is somewhat of a controversial topic within the veterinary community, many feline vets elect to use only non-adjuvanted vaccines. In addition, vaccine-site location recommendations are in place to give cats a better prognosis if they do develop a tumor at the location.

Weigh the Benefits And Risks

Understandably, you want to keep your elderly cat as healthy as possible. If your cat has no existing conditions and is at risk for viruses due to their history or lifestyle, they may benefit from continued vaccines.

Dr. Olah emphasizes that, "Regardless of age, a benefit-risk assessment on a case-by-case basis should be made for all feline patients." Be sure to discuss with your vet whether your senior cat needs vaccinations. Together, you can weigh the benefits and potential risks involved and make the best choice for your feline friend.

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Do Older Cats Need Vaccinations? An Expert Weighs In