When kittens are born they receive some natural protection against disease from their mother's milk. This protection is only temporary and it declines in the first few weeks of the kitten's life. When this happens the kitten is at greater risk of infection and disease.
The mother can only pass on the immunity that she herself has, her ability to do this depends on whether or not she has been properly vaccinated and has had regular boosters. The kittens only absorb the antibodies associated with immunity during the first few days of their lives. The amount of milk they consume relates to the amount of immunity they acquire.
The immunity that the mother passes on diminishes in the kitten at certain ages. Your veterinary surgeon will probably vaccinate your kitten at both 9 weeks and 12 weeks of age, depending on the vaccine used. Kittens are vaccinated at this age because it has been found that their immunity levels are starting to decrease or disappear altogether at these times. These vaccines take time to become effective, usually between 7 to 14 days after both doses have been given. During this time after vaccination it is essential that to reduce the risk of infection that you keep your kitten away from other cats, especially if you don't know their vaccine status, and places where they might have been.
Vaccinations contain a harmless form of the virus or bacteria which causes that particular disease.
The vaccination works by stimulating the kitten's natural defense mechanisms to set up a protective screen against the disease. This protective response is remembered and triggered whenever the kitten encounters the disease.
The main diseases that kittens and adult cats can be vaccinated against are:
Feline Infectious Enteritis (Panleucopaenia) is caused by a virus which can survive in the environment for long periods of time. Vaccination has reduced the incidence of this disease, but it is still a significant threat to cats. It is highly contagious and spreads very quickly. It can be carried on shoes, clothing and via litter trays. It varies in its severity showing itself as a mild fever through to being much more severe and death occurring. The symptoms of this disease are that the kitten or cat appears to be overly tired, depression, lack of appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain and profuse watery bloody diarrhoea. This can result in severe dehydration and even death. Cats that do survive, and this can take many weeks, often suffer from other infections because this disease has damaged their immune system.
Cat Flu (Feline Infectious Respiratory Disease) is still an extremely common problem in cats. It rarely causes death in healthy adult cats but it can be fatal in kittens, old cats and cats which are already ill. There are 2 main viruses involved in cat flu. The kitten or cat may be infected with just one or both of these. They are spread by direct contact between cats and sneezing. The symptoms of cat flu are runny eyes and nose, sneezing, high temperature, conjunctivitis, salivation, mouth ulcers, occasional coughing or even pneumonia. The mouth ulcers can make the cat reluctant to eat and this can cause further complications. Cats that recover from cat flu may become carriers of the virus and can transmit the disease to other cats for many years. If this 'carrier' cat is stressed, this can be by moving house or other activities which are out of the ordinary, it may show signs of cat flu, this being a runny nose and most commonly by sneezing.
Feline chlamydia is another infectious disease that is spread via the respiratory system, it causes symptoms similar to cat flu. Kittens may also develop some respiratory signs as well as having the discharge from the eye which is associated with chlamydia. The signs of this disease start in one eye and quickly spread to the other eye. Without treatment these signs can last for months, even years. The symptoms are red eyes with a thick discharge, reluctance to open eyes fully, may have a mild nasal discharge and the occasional sneeze. Their temperature is usually normal and they will probably continue to eat as normal. Cats which show these signs must be kept isolated from other cats. Chlamydia can also infect the genital tracts of cats, which can result in reproductive failure in female cats.
Feline Leukaemia is an infectious disease which can damage the immune system or cause tumours in cats. It is one of the most common infectious cause of death in young adult cats. It has been estimated that "two thirds of cats will have contact with an FeLV infected cat at some stage in their life". An infected cat will spread the virus in its urine, saliva, blood and other body fluids. It is most commonly passed on via grooming, fighting or sexual activity. An infected female cat can pass the disease on to her unborn kittens in the womb or via her milk once they are born. As a result of this kittens can be born with the disease or can contract it from their infected mother. This virus only infects cats, even though it has many things in common with the human AIDS virus (HIV) it is specific to the species which it infects. The way FeLV works is that it suppresses the immune system, making the cat susceptible to many diseases which can be fatal as the cat is unable to fight the diseases it comes into contact with. The cat may appear slow to recover from infection, have little appetite and may develop chronic or recurring problems like diarrhoea or mouth infections. The FeLV virus can cause Leukaemia but it more commonly causes tumours in various parts of the body. Another sign of infection can be anaemia which shows itself by pale gums and listlessness. Your veterinary surgeon can carry out a blood or saliva test which will tell you if your cat already has the FeLV virus or not. If your cat is clear of this disease it would be advisable to have the vaccination administered, especially if it is an outdoor cat and is likely to come into contact with other cats.
Vaccination of your cat against these major infectious diseases is necessary to the health of your cat. The vaccine protects your own pet and prevents it from being a carrier of disease and spreading infection. Immunity to these diseases does not last indefinitely so regular boosters are vital to maintain this.
Once your cat has had its primary course of vaccinations you will be given a vaccination certificate which will have your pet's details on it, the dates the vaccine was given and when the booster is due. This certificate is important if you are putting your cat into a cattery. Many catteries will not accept your cat unless you can show this certificate and it is up to date. Your veterinary surgeon will send you out a reminder when the next vaccination is due.