Indoor Cats and Infectious Disease

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Why does my cat need vaccinations if she spends 100% of her time indoors?

It is a myth that cats who live indoors do not need to be vaccinated against infectious diseases. While living an indoor lifestyle is certainly safer overall than living outdoors, and indoor living contributes to a longer life expectancy, important infectious diseases can find indoor cats.

The feline distemper complex is composed of feline rhinotracheitis virus, feline calici virus, and feline panleukopenia virus. Vaccination against the feline distemper complex is important because these diseases can be deadly.

These are hardy viruses that can be brought into the home on inanimate objects like clothes or shoes. Because transmission does not require direct contact with another cat, indoor-only cats can be exposed and become ill if they are not appropriately vaccinated. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), World Small Animal Association (WSAVA), and Cat Healthy (Canada) have published vaccination guidelines that reflect the current standard of vaccine science. Your veterinarian will help you understand the most appropriate distemper vaccination schedule for your cat.

If feline leukemia virus (FeLV) requires direct cat-to-cat contact, why does my indoor cat need to be vaccinated?

The current vaccine recommendations for cats from the AAHA and the AAFP include vaccinating all kittens against FeLV following a negative blood test. Cats are most susceptible to this virus in the first few years of life and their personalities are still developing – you don’t know if your adorable new kitten will decide to dart out the door whenever they spot it opening.

"When deciding about FeLV vaccination, it is important to consider all the cats in the household."

This vaccine should be boosted at the one-year anniversary, at which time you can discuss your cat's lifestyle with your veterinarian, who may recommend discontinuing this vaccine. Keep in mind that if you have more than one cat and one of them spends some time outdoors, this cat can potentially become a carrier, transporting FeLV indoors and exposing the cat who lives strictly inside. When deciding about FeLV vaccination, it is important to consider all the cats in the household.

Why does my indoor cat need rabies vaccination?

Rabies is a human health concern, not just an animal health issue. Rabies can be transmitted to humans and is nearly universally fatal, so many communities have laws mandating rabies vaccination of pets. Rabies is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected animal. Bats, skunks, and raccoons are the most common sources of exposure to rabies.

"Rabies is a human health concern, not just an animal health issue."

Regardless of legal requirements, maintaining regular rabies vaccination makes good medical sense. Even a strictly indoor cat may find a way to sneak out of the house and be exposed to rabies by a wild animal in the neighborhood. A rabid bat could find its way inside, presenting an attractive hunting target for an indoor cat. It is not worth the risk to the cat or your human family members to decline vaccination against rabies.

Your veterinarian is the best source of information about vaccinating your cat to protect her from preventable infectious diseases - even if yours lives strictly indoors. The current guidelines for cat vaccinations involve a rotating vaccine schedule: it is no longer considered appropriate to vaccinate against every disease every single year. Instead, an individual risk assessment is performed to determine the most appropriate disease protection and prevention plan for your cat. Your veterinarian has your cat's best interests in mind.

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