We humans aren't vaccinated nearly as often as our cats. In most cases, we'll receive our pediatric series and thereafter remain immune to the particular disease they protect us from for the rest of our life. Why wouldn't a cat's vaccine series be similar?
Many cat parents ask questions about vaccine frequency because they've heard about negative reactions to vaccines in some cats, but also because receiving annual vaccines throughout an animal's entire lifetime seems a somewhat onerous proposition – one they're not quite sure they want to comply with.
So you may ask… Why so many vaccines?
Cat owners hear veterinarians and governmental bodies tell them, ad nauseum, about how safe vaccines are. Meanwhile, they're reading reams of information online and elsewhere telling them these products are less safe than they've been led to believe. They're rightfully worried for their cats – especially for those who are old, infirmed, or at an especially low risk of contracting any disease.
Are Vaccines Safe?
So what's the straight story about vaccine safety?
Despite the persistence of obvious risks (nothing you put in your body is risk-free, much less something designed to whip your immune system into action), it's nevertheless true that modern vaccines are considered very safe. Not only are serious vaccine reaction rates considered very low in cats, adverse reaction rates are dropping with each passing year.
Despite the scientifically demonstrable margin of safety, the reality is uncomfortable, nonetheless: In the case of some diseases (rabies, comes to mind), more cats actually die of the consequences of being vaccinated than come down with the virus. Which helps explain why you hear horror stories about vaccines.
Do the Benefits of Vaccines Outweigh the Risks?
Having said that, some of you might wonder how it's possible for me (or any veterinarian or regulatory body) to defend the use of vaccines. But if you think about it, this scary-sounding reality is likely the case with all successful vaccines.
That's because the goal of a vaccine is to render a disease so rare that very few animals are ever exposed to it. Indeed, the most successful vaccine program of all aims to extinguish a disease entirely so that vaccination becomes wholly unnecessary (think Smallpox).
Here's another example from our more recent history: The side-effects of polio vaccination in humans are thousands of times more common than the disease itself. And yet we'd never advocate the elimination of the vaccine from our medical repertoire. That's because the disease still exists (in the Middle East and Africa) and the vaccine has managed to keep polio out of our population so successfully.
In cases like Polio's, the small risk of an adverse vaccine reaction is considered "acceptable" to the individual, given its monumental benefits to the population at large.
Such is the case with rabies too. It remains the consensus of the human and veterinary medical communities alike that the benefits the rabies vaccine confers to both human and animal populations outweigh the individual risk of vaccination.
And when you consider that fifty thousand people die of rabies every year worldwide, yet less than a handful of those are in the US, it stands to reason we'd want to continue to vaccinate our cats. After all, rabies is almost 100% fatal.
Still, many of you ask, isn't an every-year vaccine considered overkill? And here's where the medical community agrees with you. Since the mid-1980s we've had ample evidence that our vaccines “last” at least three years. But it wasn't until fifteen or so years later that veterinary scientists, veterinary organizations, and manufacturers all agreed to move to an “every-three-year” vaccine administration protocol for all “core” vaccines.