While cancer in cats is not as common as it in dogs, it is still one of the leading causes of death in older cats. According to the Animal Cancer Foundation, 6 million cats will be diagnosed with cancer in the United States along. And because cats are masters at masking illness, it is often harder to detect.
Cancer used to be a death sentence for cats, but recent advances in feline cancer research have made treatment possible in many cases. Just like with human cancers, early detection is key to successful treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, treatment options may include sugery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
How and whether to treat cancer can be a big decision for cat parents, and factors such as the cat’s age, general health status, temperament all come into play. So do finances: cancer therapies can be expensive.
Sometimes, the right answer may be no treatment, and keeping the cat comfortable with good quality of life for as long as possible may be an appropriate choice.
What is palliative care?
This is where palliative care comes in. The World Health Organization defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.”
I particularly like the emphasis on psychological and spiritual care for the entire family: when a cat becomes terminally ill, it doesn’t just affect the cat, it also affects the cat’s guardians and other family members, both human and feline.
Palliative care is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for the feline cancer patient that involves your cat’s veterinarian and staff, the cat’s guardian, and, if needed, a social worker or bereavement counselor.
When to choose palliative care
Palliative care is chosen when
- cat guardians make the decision not to pursue treatment.
- a terminal illness with no cure is diagnosed.
- curative treatment failed.
- long-term care is required.
- symptoms of the illness interfere with the daily routine of the cat or guardian.
What is involved in palliative care?
Palliative care can include traditional medications such as pain relief, steroids, and fluids, or alternative modalities such as acupuncture, Reiki, homeopathy, and herbal therapy.
Education about the specific cancer your cat is facing is critical. Discuss with your veterinarian what a typical progression of the disease looks like, how to recognize symptoms and manage them, and what kind of medical and nutritional support may be required. Be open about your limitations. Will you be able to provide the level of care your cat may need? Can you monitor vital functions, administer fluids, and give medications?
Quality of life will be your most important consideration. You will want to monitor pain, hydration status, hygiene, mobility and overall happiness of your cat. The Quality of Life Scale developed by Alice Villalobos, DVM, the founder of Pawspice™, is often used to help cat guardians determine whether it may be time to stop treatment.
As your cat’s illness progresses, and if your desire is to avoid hospitalizing your cat, you may need to set up an “at home clinic.” Soft bedding, easy access to litter boxes, clean water, and food in your cat’s favorite part of your home can make this time as comfortable as possible for your cat.
If you make the decision for palliative care, be aware of something often called “caregiver aversion.” Depending on your cat’s temperament, giving frequent or long term medications can cause anxiety for both cat and human. You will need to decide whether risking breaking the bond you share with your cat is worth the additional time the medications may give you.
Discuss end of life issues
It is also important to discuss your personal views about death and euthanasia with your cat’s veterinarian. Even though euthanasia in veterinary medicine is widely accepted as a gentle way to put an end to potential pain and indignity for dying patients, some cat guardians may prefer a natural to an assisted death. You’ll want to work with a veterinarian who respects your personal beliefs.
If and when the time comes that you will need to choose euthanasia, consider asking your vet to come to your home, rather than taking your cat to the clinic. Even though few vets advertise this service, many will perform it when requested. You can find veterinarians who perform in home euthanasias through the In Home Pet Euthanasia Directory or the American Association of Housecall Veterinarians.
Despite the logistic and emotional challenges palliative care may present for cats and their humans, it can also be a time of great peace and increased bonding with your beloved feline companion. It allows for a gentle preparation for the impending loss for both cat and human.
A cancer diagnosis does not have to be the end – it can be the beginning of a deepening, peaceful, final phase of life for both cat and human.
Palliative care is not just for cancer patients; it can apply to any terminal illness. I chose palliative care for Buckley’s heart disease when she stopped responding to treatment. The photo above was taken three weeks before she passed away.