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 and Types of Cancer
Does my Cat Have Cancer? Symptoms of Cancer in Cats
When vets talk about cancer the terminology can get confusing because they use different words for the same thing. This is often because in the process of trying to work out what might be wrong with your cat they initially need to consider a wide range of potential problems and don’t want to be too specific too early. Words like growth, tumour, mass and neoplasia all roughly mean the same thing; one, or part, of the tissues of the body has started to grow or enlarge out of step with the rest. This might cause a lump or swelling which you can see or feel or might be happening internally with little indication, especially in the early stages, that anything is changing.
Some of these growths or tumours are ‘benign’, which means that they aren’t likely to keep on growing or spreading to the point that they will endanger life. Many of us will develop some sort of benign tumour in our lifetime and although they may need to be dealt with they probably won’t cause us a huge problem. What scares most of us are the other types of tumour, the ‘malignant’ tumour, more commonly known as ‘cancer’. What makes these tumours different is that they will keep on growing and spreading to such an extent that they can be fatal.
If your cat has a lump, swelling or particular set of symptoms and the vet suspects a tumour the first question to try and answer is whether its benign or malignant. This usually requires a sample of the lump, or tissue that appears to be affected, called a ‘biopsy’, is taken and sent to a specialised laboratory for examination. Diagnosing which specific type of tumour your cat has is not always straightforward. Taking a biopsy often requires an anaesthetic and the part of the body being sampled isn’t always easy to access or might be in the middle of some delicate and vital parts of the body. X-rays, ultrasound scans or a CT scan may also be used to visualise where and what a tumour is.
Just about anywhere in the body can be affected by tumours; skin, bone, liver, mammary glands, brain. Common types of cancer in cats affect the skin, mouth and the immune system. The immune system cancers, usually called ‘lymphoma’, are probably the most common in the UK. When lymphoma develops, a type of White Blood Cell (WBC), which usually circulates round the body and helps to fight infection, changes or ‘mutates’, and starts to invade different parts of the body. A common place for these abnormal cells to invade would be the ‘lymph nodes’, which are collections of WBC’s dotted around the body ready to deal with any threat of infection. Usually these lymph nodes are hard to feel but if they become infiltrated by abnormal WBC’s they become enlarged and more prominent. Some lymph nodes are near the outside of the body, like the ones in the neck or back leg but others are tucked away deep inside the body and can only be seen using scans or exploratory surgery. Another common place for these mutated WBC’s to affect is the gut, either causing tumours or accumulating along the intestinal wall causing it to thicken and work less effectively.
Treating Cancer in Cats
There is treatment available for some cancers in cats but it is usually better looked at as a way of slowing down the disease rather than achieving a ‘cure’. Research into feline cancer is nowhere near as advanced as it is for people and the resources required would be out of reach for the vast majority of pet owners. There are also ethical issues around putting animals through the sometimes highly unpleasant cancer treatments which people can decide for themselves to undertake.
Some types of tumour can be removed by surgery (cutting out the cancer while your cat is under anaesthetic). This depends on what type of tumour it is, how big it is and where it is in the body. If a tumour is very close to other important structures, or in a place where there is very little spare skin to close over the surgical wound then surgery might end up actually making your cat’s problems worse.
Other cancers are better treated with medication, also called ‘chemotherapy’. While this may conjure up worrying images of people being made very unwell during their cancer treatment we don’t push animals to these extremes of chemotherapy. There are courses of drugs we can use, called ‘protocols’, which aim to shrink cancers and slow down their growth. Vets who specialise in treating cancer in pets have devised different protocols for different types of cancer. Most protocols will involve tablets and injections and monitoring with blood tests. There may be side effects but if these are significant then its likely the treatment will be stopped.
You and your vet will need to decide on how best to deal with your cat’s cancer. In addition to the type of cancer being treated you have to consider your cat’s nature and potential response to frequent medication and visits to the vet. Will you be able to give your cat tablets, possibly every day for months? Does your cat get distressed while being transported or held for blood tests? Some cats take it all in their stride but others may fight against the help you’re trying to give.
Caring for a Cat With Cancer and Life Expectancy
If your cat has been diagnosed with cancer you are likely to have lots of questions about how best to deal with it and what the future holds. While your vet can give you the options you have for treatment it may be more difficult for them to give you an accurate timeline of how your cat’s disease will progress. Its famously difficult to predict ‘how long they have left’ for anyone and with cats and their private, sometimes unpredictable, natures its even harder. Cancer doesn’t always follow the text book and your cat may not either.
We all want to do what we can to make sure our pets are not in pain and feel well enough to enjoy life. Assessing pain in cats requires knowledge of their unique behaviour and appreciation that they don’t necessarily show that they are experiencing it. Their type of cancer will give us some indication of how likely it is to be painful. They might spend a lot of time asleep, but perhaps they are just lying quietly in the hope that the pain subsides. Some cats will become withdrawn or sit in uncharacteristic poses or positions.
Your vet may discuss palliative care for your cat, either if treatment is not an option or if the treatment your cat has been receiving is no longer working. Palliative care is treatment which aims to address the pain and discomfort caused by a disease rather than change the course of that disease. This is likely to include pain killers or steroids which can temporarily make cats feel better and more like eating.
Obviously as a minimum cats need to eat and be able to go outside or use a litter tray for toileting. If they are unable to do this or your cat becomes very unwell or experiences unpleasant symptoms you will probably have to make a decision about how long you will let that continue even if its sooner than you were expecting. If treatment, whether palliative or not, is no longer helping then you will need to consider cat euthanasia.