Spotting Types of Cancer in Cats

Like humans with every passing year our cats are increasingly likely to suffer from diseases of old age, including cancer.

We’re still not sure about the exact cause of cancer in cats but many veterinary scientists now think the feline leukaemia virus is a major contributor, although factors such as environmental toxins including second-hand smoke seem to have a part to play.

Certainly, a healthy lifestyle, diet and regular wellness check-ups with your vet can help to prevent cancer in cats but a cancer diagnosis need not be a death sentence if symptoms are spotted early.

Common Symptoms of Cancer in Cats

These basal cell tumours are a type of cat skin cancer but are thankfully quite rare. They’re usually seen around the neck, head, ears and shoulders, forming as solid lumps beneath the skin, however they are mostly benign.
Another relatively uncommon skin cancer, Mast Cell tumours appear as pigmented, ulcerated nodules. They can be found anywhere on the body and can only be properly diagnosed with a biopsy carried out by your vet.
These tumours appear in the fibrous tissue just under the skin as solid, irregular masses. Like Mast Cell, biopsy is the most reliable diagnostic tool.
Lymphosarcoma (LSA) is common among cats who have suffered feline leukaemia virus infections and because it affects the intestines and other lymphatic tissues in the abdomen, symptoms commonly include lost appetite and weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, blood in faeces and/or constipation.
Symptoms are usually related to respiratory system and may include difficult or rapid breathing and coughing up blood, but these are surprisingly uncommon. Left undiagnosed and untreated however, the cancer can grow rapidly and metastasize – spread – to brain, eyes, bones, and other organs, showing up in low energy, poor appetite and weight loss, muscle wasting and lameness. Diagnosis can be difficult because tumours must be a certain size before they show up clearly on any X-ray and a biopsy is again the only real way to confirm the disease.
While a brain tumour in cats is less common than in dogs, it seems to be older toms who are at the highest risk, with benign tumours growing in the membranes which cover the brain. The single most common symptom is seizures – which you should react to whenever they occur – but also watch out for abnormal behaviour, changes in habits or routine, head pressing, heightened sensitivity to pain or to being touched around the neck, bumping into things and sight issues. He may also vocalise more yet purr less. Your vet will use blood and urine tests, possibly coupled with an X-ray to confirm a diagnosis, and treatment, outcome usually depends on the position and type of tumour and its stage.
Once again, older males are at the most significant risk of Liver Cancer in Cats and, like Lymphoma, because of the of the connection with digestive system, symptoms can include vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, nausea and diarrhoea. But because the liver is involved in many other bodily processes, you should also watch out for symptoms common to many the cancers we have discussed so far, as well as pale gums and jaundice. Proper diagnosis requires blood and urine tests and a liver needle biopsy carried out under a general anaesthetic. Because of the liver’s astounding regenerative power, up to three-quarters of the organ can be safely removed to eliminate the tumour. If the cancer has not spread to other parts of the body, surgery is normally successful.
There is no single proven cause of mouth cancer in cats; however, research has shown that they may be at more serious risk if you smoke, they eat large amounts of canned food – especially containing Tuna – or they routinely wear a flea collar. Some mouth cancers show up as visible lumps, but other squamous cell carcinoma tumours are harder to spot, growing invisibly inside the tongue, tonsils or roof or back of the mouth. Common tell-tales include bloody nose or mouth, oral pain, loose or lost teeth or facial swelling. The earliest symptoms might be bad breath, difficulties eating and drinking (and resulting gradual weight loss) as well as increased salivation. Mouth cancer can be very aggressive and quickly spread to the lungs and lymph nodes, so aside from the usual blood tests and biopsies, you vet may well request a CT scan (if available) to check for other tumours within the upper body. While mouth cancer may appear to be easy to get to, successful treatment usually includes removal of bone which may be impossible in parts of the mouth, so your vet may suggest radio- or chemotherapy.

Warning Signals That Your Pet May Be in Pain and What to Do

The obvious signs that she may be in pain are the easiest to react to, but cats are marvellous actors and sometimes they give away little sign that even simple things are becoming too difficult for them.

For example, if your cat visibly reacts when you pick her up – either visibly or vocally – you can be pretty sure that there’s some sort of pain. If you can’t see a physical injury, it could be painful joints or overly sensitive skin, any or all of which can result from cancer in cats.

The signs may be there if you look.

Is she grooming herself properly like she always does? It might be that the usual cat contortions required to smooth down fur and clean out irritants are simply too uncomfortable to achieve. Look to see if she’s lying in an unusual way, to avoid a particular part of her body or avoid flexing a joint. Is she holding herself in a different way?

Is her breathing laboured or too fast? Is she lethargic and lacking energy? Is she purring more? Strangely, cats may purr more if they’re experiencing pain. Cats in pain can also often eat or drink less.

Be aware that cats in pain are more likely to bite or scratch, especially if you touch the afflicted area. If she has been a sweetie up to now and has suddenly started being nippy or aggressive, it may be a sign she’s hurting.

Always call your vet if you have the slightest suspicion your cat is in pain.

Feline Cancer Life Expectancy

“How long will my pet live?” is the question every cat guardian needs to know. The answer is not a straightforward one. It very much depends on the type of cancer and when it was first diagnosed.

Taking the second part of that first, early diagnosis is vital to ensure a happy outcome. In almost all cases, catching cancer in cats at the very earliest opportunity means that it can be identified, treated simply and the possibility of spread reduced as much as possible. Look for the signs outlined above and consult a vet whenever you see something troubling. Sometimes, it may be just a feeling – picking up on the tiny imperceptible changes in your cat’s attitude and behaviour – but it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Early diagnosis means easier treatments which is better for her … and for you.

The first part of the answer is the difficulty and is often not fair. Many cancers such as skin cancers are usually benign and may be treated with a simple biopsy, even brain cancers. For others sadly, like mouth cancer, the prognosis is poor, even after treatment. Because it is usually picked up rather late, the disease is likely to have spread. Without surgery, life expectancy is usually just a few months, but even surgery may only make her life a little more comfortable by allowing her to eat or have a feeding tube placed.

Serious cancers such as lymphoma have usually spread to other organs by the time they are picked up. Untreated, the average survival time from diagnosis is about two months. Aggressive therapy may prolong this, in some cases for 12 months or more.

The decision to treat or not to treat is not easy and you should be guided by your vet, and your heart.

Cancer’s progression is rarely linear; it can speed up or slow down as it spreads, lengthening or shortening life expectancy. And while the possibility of treatment holds out hope for you it may not be the best for her. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment can be a prolonged, physically painful and emotionally stressful, and she cannot understand what she is being subjected to. Sometimes the best thing to do is to let go and opt for cat euthanasia.

While you may be able to prolong her life, the quality may be less than she deserves.

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