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.

Whether you choose aggressive treatment for your cat’s cancer, or whether you elect to provide palliative care, which focuses on providing quality of life for the ill cat as well as the cat’s caregiver, caring for the feline cancer patient is a team effort that involves the cat’s guardian, her veterinarian and staff, and, if needed, a social worker or bereavement counselor.

I recently had a chance to speak with Conor J. McNeill, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (Oncology), an oncolgist at the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, VA. Dr. McNeill had just finished giving a new chemotherapy drug to a 12-year-old cat with advanced lung cancer. The cat had been receiving chemotherapy for six months with several different drugs which kept the cancer at bay, but then the tumor would start to grow again. The new drug shrank the tumor with just one dose, and Dr. McNeill was still smiling when he sat down to talk with me.

Don’t be fearful of chemotherapy

Many cat guardians balk at the thought of putting their cat through chemotherapy. “Don’t be fearful of chemo,” said Dr. McNeill. “Chemotherapy in animals has few or no side effects.” Dr. McNeill frequently sees cat guardians who have been through cancer treatment themselves, and they don’t want to relive their own experience through their beloved cat. Most cats tolerate chemotherapy extremely well, and Dr. McNeill is proactive about treating possible side effects such as pain and nausea. “This becomes especially important with cats,” says McNeill, “since they’re so good at hiding symptoms.”

Because cats are masters at not showing pain or other signs of illness and often continue to act as if  nothing is wrong, even when something most definitely is, Dr. McNeill depends on the cat’s guardian to get a complete picture of how the cat is doing. “In this regard, it’s very much like pediatric medicine,” says McNeill. “We have to rely on the client to tell us what the cat is doing at home. Is she vomiting, how frequently, what is her activity level, how is she eating?” This is where caring for the feline cancer patient becomes a team approach.

Treatment vs. palliative care

This team approach also becomes important when it comes to deciding whether to pursue aggressive treatment, or whether to simply keep the cat comfortable for as long as possible. The decision involves multiple factors, including prognosis, age and general health status of the patient, and cost of treatment. According to Dr. McNeill, “one to one and a half years is considered a long term survival time,” with six months considered a good survival time. Cost of treatment can vary widely, ranging from $50 a month for palliative care to several thousand dollars over a period of six months.

There is no right or wong decision. “We discuss all options with the client, and we find a budget that is comfortable for them. For some, this may mean full-blown chemotherapy or radiation, for others, it may simply mean using steroids and treating for pain to keep the cat comfortable for a few more weeks,” says Dr. McNeill.

Dr. McNeill’s main goal is always the comfort of the cat. “We want to be sure that our patients don’t suffer,” he says. “Our goal is for them to be comfortable, pain free, and willing to eat on their own.”

The euthanasia decision

In most cancer cases, the time will come when a cat guardian will have to face the dreaded euthanasia decision. Often, palliative care can give a client additional time to come to terms with the idea that the end is coming. “We can’t decide for them,” says Dr. McNeill. Once a case reaches this stage, a client may be more comfortable with their regular veterinarian. Clients may want to consider in home euthanasia, rather than taking the 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.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis for a beloved cat is frightening and stressful, but cat guardians don’t have to go through it alone. Working together with their veterinary team, caring for a cat with cancer 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.

Photo: morguefile

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26 Comments on A Team Approach to Caring for Cats with Cancer

  1. I was wondering if you can tell us how long did the cat survive after the 6-month chemotherapy treatment? What type of breed was the cat? Thank you.

  2. So the obvious question is: What was that “new drug” Dr. McNeill used that he was so excited about! Can you please tell us?

    • I don’t know the name of the drug, Jo. Cancer therapy protocols need to be designed for each individual patient. If you’re asking because one of your cats has cancer, I’m sure your vet can contact Dr. McNeill directly and get the information.

  3. So I decided that I would not do chemotherapy for my cat. I made that decision because her cancer was so aggressive and because, while she let me feed and care for her, she was very stressed by the vet and vet care. She had a surgery a few months before her diagnosis and she had a difficult recovery and developed a fear of the vet she hadn’t had before.

    We did palliative care and extended her life an additional 6-8 weeks over the prognosis. She had weekly checks at the vet with antibiotic and steroid shots as needed. Also some pain medicine.

    My vet was a huge help. They even opened on the Saturday before Christmas just so they could treat her because otherwise it was going to be 2 weeks before I could see them.

    I am ok with my final decision, but I am still heartbroken. She was the most beautiful, smart, tough, loyal and affectionate cat. I loved her very much.

    • I really feel for you, Sharon. It’s so easy to feel a bit helpless. I’m going through a similar thing with my little stripy Moofy, but her tumor is inoperable because it’s too close to her spine. We’re doing about a million alternative treatments; so far so good.

    • I’m so sorry about your kitty, Sharon. Even knowing that you made the right decision doesn’t make it hurt any less when you have to say goodbye.

  4. This is such an interesting topic – I’ve read quite a bit about chemo for cats, and it seems that there are 2 schools of thought – there are lots of success stories, but also lots of less successful stories that involve traumatised cats with compromised quality of life.

    It seems that, like chemo for people, some will tolerate it well and some won’t. A shame it wasn’t all a lot simpler, I guess!

    Thanks for the article, Ingrid. 🙂

    • In my years working in veterinary clinics, my experience has been that most cats tolerate chemotherapy well. My own cat, who had lymphoma, went through seven months of chemo with good quality of life. It’s an individual decision for every cat and every cat guardian, and education is key.

  5. My cat has lymphoma that is growing rapidly. I can’t afford the expensive surgery and treatments for her. I love her so much but just the tests are $800 and I’ve already spent $1700. I feel I am letting her down because I know she is a fighter and wants to live.

    I’m very upset. And I get so confused about what to do. I could get a loan to pay for it but that seems like it might be foolish.

    What should I do?

  6. This is really interesting…and new to me! I would never have guessed that animals can tolerate chemotherapy much better than humans. I’d imagine this gives hope to many cat guardians struggling with what to do.

    I also didn’t know that many vets will come to your home when that difficult time comes. It’s hard to think of all this, but if that time ever comes for Katie, who is desperately terrified of going to the vet, I will remember this.

    xo Glogirly

    (thank you for visiting us today and sharing our silly blog post…we got a bunch of new Facebook friends and visits!)

  7. I haven’t had a cancer in my feline family for years, and back in the time I did there was no chemotherapy available locally, though the vet schools could administer it on an experimental basis.

    Both my veterinarian and another, and a friend who successfully treated her cat’s cancer, said that the treatments aren’t as bad because the veterinary approach is control, not cure, though often cure, or remission, does happen. The goal is really to contain the cancer or slow it down, but a dose that would eradicate it might make the cat or even a dog seriously ill, so they will go as far as the pet can manage to live with. People, on the other hand, are given a dose that could do serious damage and sometimes does, but humans can still survive with a dose that big, and the overall goal is to kill the cancer if possible.

    • Bernadette – that is really interesting and makes total sense. Wonder if we approached it differently in humans if it would help. I lost an Uncle this past year to cancer and he just didn’t want to do one more chemo treatment…and you often hear about chemo treatments “killing” the life that was left in them.

      • Jenny, sometimes I question it for humans as well. My mother had a lobectomy for lung cancer and was due for chemotherapy as a follow-up–scheduled even before the surgery as a matter of course. However, her underlying heart disease caused a blood pressure spike and a stroke in recovery and she had a two-month battle for her life after the surgery, was barely conscious and wasn’t expected to survive. In that condition chemo was not advised and so she never received it, and apparently never needed it. She lived almost ten years, with other complications, but never any recurrence of her lung cancer. A friend of mine, however, is undergoing chemo and radiation following breast cancer surgery, and in that case chemo is hugely successful despite the illness it causes. Surgery is radical and dangerous, obviously, but compared to flooding your body with a toxin I’m just not sure unless it’s proven effective.

        • How interesting about your mom – sorry to hear about the struggle, but so glad she lived another 10 years.

          I agree with your assessment on surgery. I had a thyroid disease for 8 years and my choices were surgery or filling my body with radioactive iodine and killing my thyroid that way. I was going to choose surgery – but I decided to get off birth control as a last resort to see if that would help – and wouldn’t you know, I went into remission so never did have surgery.

  8. Ingrid, I loved this post – knowledge is power.

    My Rags was diagnosed with Lymphoma and I was told that cats react way better to chemo than dogs. However, Rags was 16 years old – and the doctor was hesitant to put him through it. So it was up to my mom and I to make the decision. And we decided to try.

    We were working with an Internist, Michael Wasmer, at the time and he was kind enough to collaborate with a top feline oncologist Dr. Claudia Barton at Texas A&M University as to the proper protocol for Rags Lymphoma.

    As a result, he went into remission. His life expectancy before chemo was 4-8 weeks or 4-8 months with chemo….he lived 3 more years until renal failure took him at 19.5 years old.

    Here’s more info about his protocol, in case it helps someone else:

    I think Rags had his down days with the chemo, but overall I think it went fairly well. The prednisone really helped balance the down times and it made him act like a kitten again – it was wonderful in that sense. I do think cats are much more aware of their bodies.

    What I didn’t know and what they never told me was to properly dispose of his pee! Luckily, I don’t flush my cat’s feces/urine. And I didn’t know that he was exposing Caymus and Murphy to the chemo through his pee.

    When everything was said and done with and he was in remission – I talked to him with an animal communicator. He asked her to ask me what was wrong with him – he wanted to know, so that he wouldn’t focus his energy there. Which reminds me of my Uncle who had cancer and beat it – he told me that he tried not to think of it, so that it wouldn’t have power.

    So maybe it’s the power of the mind in the end.

    • Thanks for sharing Rags’ story, Jenny – I’m glad his treatment was so successful. The urine disposal issue probably varies depending on which drugs are given. I would also imagine that the much smaller doses animals receive aren’t nearly as toxic as the doses human cancer patients receive.

      • That’s good to know. I just know they aren’t as on top of things with animals as they are with humans. I didn’t even think about it at all – until my Uncle had cancer and the nurse told my cousin and I to leave the room. She was going to talk to my Aunt and Uncle together about exchange of any body fluid! So interesting and makes sense, just not something I ever thought of.

  9. I wonder why the chemo treatments aren’t as bad for animals as it is for humans. Since I had those treatments and they really are no fun at all. I have always said I wouldn’t put an animal through that, but it seems that I am wrong. That is great information.

  10. Great information……especially good to hear that cats won’t experience the same difficulties/reactions to chemo that humans do. Honestly, having gone through treatments myself I had thought I’d NEVER put Sam through it should the need arise….but perhaps now I might if conditions were right. Fortunately Sam’s health is great at this point in his life but you NEVER know!! Thanks for this info Ingrid.

    Pam (and Sam)

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