By Katie McHenry

At the SPCA of Northern Virginia, we often hear the question, “Why does my cat need to see the vet for an annual checkup and vaccinations? She’s indoor-only, so she doesn’t get exposed to diseases from fleas, ticks, or other animals outdoors.”

We are also sometimes surprised to hear how people take their dogs to the vet for annual vet visits “because they go outdoors,” but don’t do the same for their indoor-only cats. Or if they don’t have dogs, they just put off taking their cats to see a vet until, sadly, the cat is showing serious signs of being sick – which is often too late to effectively manage many serious conditions.

It is just plain wrong to assume that indoor-only cats don’t really need proactive vet care, or that they will let you know if they are sick! Just as humans need regular visits to the doctor or dentist to prevent health problems or catch them early, all cats need proactive vet care to keep them healthy. You wouldn’t wait until your teeth start falling out to see a dentist, right?

We take the issue of preventive vet care for indoor-only cats very seriously. When processing applications for adoption, we do vet checks on current/ previous cats and/or dogs to determine how well potential adopters have been taking care of them. We also spend time educating potential adopters about their prospective cat’s health history, vet care we’ve provided (which is often extensive), and the importance of preventive care.

Vet Street says a good rule to remember is that the first two years of a cat’s life are equivalent to the first 24 years of a human’s life. After that, each feline year is equivalent to four human years. Thus, your cat is aging faster than you are!

Common Excuses for Not Taking Cats to Vet

Unfortunately, according to Spruce Pets, a 2010 study showed that one-third of cats hadn’t been taken to the vet by their guardians in the past year, despite recommendations for annual checkups. The reasons boiled down to three excuses:

  1. Cost of vet care,
  2. Discomfort of subjecting their cats to a trip to the vet, and
  3. Ease of checking their cat’s symptoms online.

Also, based on our interactions with potential adopters, we have found an even more startling reason:

  1. A misguided notion that a cat’s health depends only on external factors from being outdoors.

We hear this over and over again. What people fail to realize is that a cat’s health also depends on:

  1. What they may have been exposed to early in life from their mother or other cats with which they have interacted,
  2. How their organs are working, and
  3. Various hereditary issues, especially as they get older.

Addressing Excuses

Cost of Vet Care

Not everyone realizes it’s possible to shop around. Prices vary widely among vets and animal clinics. Of course, this isn’t to say you should immediately opt for the cheapest one because the quality of care might not be as good. Talk to friends and neighbors who have cats to ask for recommendations. Supplement this with online research from a reputable site such as Angie’s List.

In addition to shopping around for vets, you can also shop around for pet health insurance, which is one of the fastest-growing areas of the booming pet services industry. Some plans offer reimbursement for annual checkups while others cover only accidents and illnesses.

Stress of Vet Visits

You may have heard of mobile groomers, but did you know there are mobile vets who will come to your home to give your cat their annual checkup? It’s usually a little more expensive, but sparing your cat the ride to and from the vet’s office, as well as exposure to a potentially noisy environment with other cats and dogs, would remove most of the usual stressors for both of you! Or look for a cat-only vet practice, which would at least eliminate the noise of barking dogs.

You can also ask your vet about a prescription sedative for your cat to help reduce anxiety ahead of the visit. We have used mild sedatives with remarkably positive results for several SPCA NOVA cats who are very stressed with car rides and trips to the vet.

Checking Symptoms Online

While the internet can provide a wealth of information, the literature or symptom checkers online might be misleading or confusing. Think about the last time you checked your symptoms online and were led to believe you had a deadly illness! A cough and throat irritation could be tuberculosis or lung cancer… but it’s more likely a common cold.

There is no substitute for having an experienced vet examine your cat – and, when needed, perform lab work to check things like heart, kidney, and liver functions, and for signs of infections or various diseases. Unfortunately, by the time your cat has begun exhibiting symptoms that lead you to perform your online research, the illness could have progressed beyond what would have been found sooner by a simple trip for an annual checkup.

No Outdoor Exposure

Maintaining your cat’s health isn’t just about preventing exposure to things found outdoors, like fleas, ticks, other animals, and cars.

Why Vet Visits Should Be Annual (or More Often, If Needed)

Importance of Vet Exams

An initial vet visit will provide a health baseline for your cat, which gives a starting point to use for later comparisons. Perhaps your cat visits the clinic today, where the vet tech records that they weigh 10 pounds; the next checkup a year later shows your cat has lost a pound or two (despite no changes in their feeding routine). This clue might indicate to the vet that your cat has a health issue such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), which are both very common in cats. As with all diagnoses, the earlier your vet catches and addresses these health issues, the better! Both IBD and hyperthyroidism can be managed (often with food and/ or various medications). However, if they’re not caught and treated early and managed effectively, they can sadly become very serious and even cause premature death.

Importance of Certain Vaccinations

Additionally, it’s very important that cats receive two types of vaccinations throughout their lives to keep their immune system at peak performance: FVRCP (often called a “distemper” vaccination) and rabies.

FVRCP stands for feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia. FVRCPs are especially important. Cats and kittens need a series of two to three initial FVRCPs depending on the age they start the series, followed by an FVRCP a year later, then generally every three years after that, depending on your cat’s individual health history, age, and various risk factors. These boosters are needed because the initial vaccinations are generally effective for only one year; subsequent boosters are generally effective for three years after that. Imagine taking your older cat to the vet as their health has started to naturally decline and they get exposed to a cat with a nasty upper respiratory virus. Without having had prior FVRCPs, it can be very challenging for your cat’s immune system to fight off the virus, and such viruses can even be deadly.

Rabies vaccinations are also important even for indoor-only cats. All jurisdictions in this area – Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. – require rabies shots for all cats, including indoor-only cats. Imagine your cat getting outside accidentally and encountering a rabid fox or raccoon. Even though that’s an unlikely event, if your cat bites someone in your home or in a vet office, by law, they are supposed to be reported to the appropriate animal control jurisdiction, which will take measures to determine what type of quarantine is needed. Depending on the jurisdiction and the last time your cat got a rabies vaccination, your cat could be required to be quarantined at the vet office or the shelter for 10 days, rather than in your home.

We believe in a conservative approach to vaccinations – only vaccinate your indoor-only cat for what’s necessary: FVRCP and rabies. It’s not generally necessary, or even recommended, unless there is a risk factor of being exposed to other cats, for your cat to be vaccinated for leukemia or other feline diseases, since all vaccinations themselves pose some risk.

Finally, evolution has taught cats to mask pain in order to survive in the wild, which means that humans often remain unaware when their cats experience health problems until the problem is very serious and harder to treat. Many humans are surprised when the vet finds that their cat actually has a painful issue, such as serious gingivitis in their gums or broken teeth, as the cat never showed symptoms prior to the vet visit. Dental care is especially important, as most people don’t check their cat’s gums or brush their teeth. Gingivitis and tartar buildup can lead to infections that can travel to the heart and kidneys, causing preventable problems and even premature death, not to mention pain and discomfort that the cat has likely masked for quite some time.


As Benjamin Franklin said in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Whether in cats or humans, we should all remain proactive where health is concerned, and an annual visit to the vet is the best way to ensure your cat leads a long, healthy life. This becomes even more vital as your cat gets older and runs a greater risk of health problems. In fact, senior cats might even require semiannual vet visits. Some people opt for pet insurance, paying a little each month to help offset the cost of pet healthcare. Whatever you decide in terms of insurance (or not), please also decide to commit to preventive care for your cat for the rest of their life.

A vet does a dental exam on a rescue cat. Tooth and gum problems can turn into bigger health issues.
April gets weighed during a vet visit. Obesity in cats is a serious health problem. April has lost eight pounds over the last year under the supervision of a vet.
Local vet Dr. Flynn listens to Pockets’ heart – just as a human doctor would at a regular health check-up.