Is Chemotherapy the Right Choice for Your Cat?

chemotherapy-cat

Finding out that a beloved cat has cancer is heartbreaking for cat parents. The sad reality is that cancer is 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. However, a cancer diagnosis does not have to be the end of the road. In fact, just like with humans, treatment is often possible, and chemotherapy may be one option that can allow your cat to live comfortably for many months and even years.

How does chemotherapy work?

Chemotherapy uses drugs with the objective to kill cancer cells with the least possible amount of damage to normal, healthy cells. In human medicine, the goal of chemotherapy is to achieve a cure. In pets, chemotherapy is aimed at controlling the disease and achieving a period of remission. Chemotherapy is typically used for cancers that affect multiple sites. Lymphoma is the most common form of feline cancer that is treated with chemotherapy. The drugs used in veterinary chemotherapy are frequently the same drugs used in human medicine.

How is chemotherapy administered?

Chemotherapy drugs are administered in several different ways, depending on the type of cancer and the drug used. Options include

  • Oral – Given by mouth
  • Intravenous – Injected directly into the vein
  • Intralesional – Injected into the tumor
  • Intramuscular – Injected directly into the muscle
  • Subcutaneous – Injected under the skin to be slowly absorbed into the bloodstream

Chemotherapy usually doesn’t require hospitalization, but your cat may have to stay at the clinic for at least a couple of hours so vets can monitor any potential adverse reactions to the drug.

What about side effects?

Cat parents often recoil from the mere hought of putting their cat through chemotherapy. “Don’t be fearful of chemo,” said Conor J. McNeill, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM (Oncology), an oncolgist at the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, VA. “Depending on how it is given, chemotherapy in cats generally can have 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. Some cats may experience side effects such as vomiting, diarrhea or poor appetite, but these side effects are usually mild and can be managed with supportive care. Only a very small number of cats on chemotherapy will require hospitalization due to the side effects of chemotherapy. Unlike humans, cats will not lose all their hair. Most cats will lose their whiskers, and shaved hair will be slow to grow back, but substantial hair loss is uncommon. 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.”

How will you know whether chemotherapy was successful?

A cat in remission doesn’t look any different from a cancer-free cat. Typically, a successful remission means that lymphnodes will go down to normal size, and if there were any signs of illness that were related to the cancer, they will disappear. Remission can last anywhere from weeks to months, and for some lucky cats, even several years.

How to make the chemotherapy decision

Deciding whether chemotherapy is right for your cat is a very individual decision, and is best reached by talking to your vet and/or a veterinary oncologist. Factors that come into play are:

  • Prognosis: what is the prognosis for your cat’s particular cancer? How much time will you gain with your cat by treating the cancer?
  • Your cat’s lifestyle: is your cat extremely fearful of going to the veterinary clinic? Cancer treatment will involve frequent vet visits and blood tests, and you’ll have to weigh how this will affect your cat’s quality of life.
  • Finances: costs for chemotherapy can climb into the thousands of dollars. Making treatment decisions can be challenging for cat guardians when financial concerns have to be considered in addition to quality of life issues.
  • Palliative care: Sometimes, the right answer may be no treatment, and palliative care, which is aimed at keeping the cat comfortable with good quality of life for as long as possible, may be a better choice.

When it comes to deciding whether to choose chemotherapy for your cat, there is no right or wrong answer.

Five years ago, I wrote a post titled Chemotherapy for Cats. The post has received more than 500 comments to date and has turned into a forum for cat parents whose cats are going through chemotherapy to provide support to each other, ask questions, and share resources.

45 Comments on Is Chemotherapy the Right Choice for Your Cat?

  1. Shirley
    February 25, 2018 at 4:02 pm (4 months ago)

    I have had differing opinions and I am lost. My cat Lexie has always had dark spots on one eye. Now at age 10 they believe it is cancer and want to remove her eye. I am struggling with this as they are uncertain how long she has had cancer in her eye and it could have spread. Blood work and xrays were good but apparently inconclusive. If spread it would got to her lungs first. I have seen her leaving her mouth open and I believe it has spread. Anyone been through this?

    Reply
    • Marco
      June 18, 2018 at 1:53 am (1 week ago)

      Get a second opinion.

      Reply
  2. Jackie Moore
    January 11, 2018 at 7:14 am (6 months ago)

    My domestic long hair Maisie is 8 years old has just been diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s lymphoma so can be treated with chemotherapy but I don’t know if that’s best for her or for me. Sometimes I think I have to at least give her a chance but the stress on her and me could outweigh the benefits. No one I speak to understands. I feel so helpless. She is the most beautiful friendly cat and I don’t want to lose her. I’m at a loss as to what to do next!

    Reply
    • Jourdan
      January 11, 2018 at 11:29 am (5 months ago)

      Hi Jackie, I was at the same crossroads a couple of months ago, and what helped me make the decision was two factors. 1. The oncologist suggested we try one round of chemo, see how he did, and I could decide from there if we wanted to continue or not. I thought, it can’t hurt just to try or I’ll never know. He did pretty well actually. 2. Another vet friend who deals with end of life care told me that people always tell her the same things after they lose their pet and that’s what they regret the most. She said that ultimately I have to figure out what I’d regret more: putting him through chemo and knowing I tried everything I could, or not doing it, and regret knowing I’ve didn’t do everything I could. She said there is no wrong or right answer, but I have to decide, knowing my personality type, which one I’d end up regretting more. I knew I’d regret not doing everything I could. So, I decided to try it.

      Reply
    • Sarah
      January 13, 2018 at 11:39 pm (5 months ago)

      In August my companion of over 11 years was diagnosed with lymphoma. Cairo absolutely hates the vet so I was very hesitant to progress with chemo treatment as it meant he would be going to the vet once a month. I ultimately made the decision to try chemo as he needed to have his stitches from the biopsy removed. The difference after chemo and steriods was astounding. I had been cleaning up messes daily. Since treatment begin there have been minimal out of box messes. And he went from just over 7 pounds to nearly 12. I feel his monthly visit to the vet is more than made up by his improved daily quality of life. I have no regrets about the chemo.

      Reply
      • yvonne perkins
        March 5, 2018 at 6:00 am (4 months ago)

        Hi my rescue cat Annie is having chemo for lymphoma after her chest filled with fluid.. she is doing very well and has had 6 sessions I have been told she will need chemo every month which I am prepared to do even though she is not insured and I have had to sell lots for treatment I feel she is happy and deserves all I can give her x

        Reply
    • Paula
      February 15, 2018 at 8:45 am (4 months ago)

      Hi jackie, my cat coco is on her 6th week of chemo, her only side effect is diahorreah which we now have under control with prokolin, she seems happy! If she becomes miserable and in uncontrollable pain we may have to rethink but for the time being she is happy and her blood results show promise.

      Reply
      • jackie
        February 17, 2018 at 9:54 am (4 months ago)

        Unfortunately upon her following check up her mass had quickly increased in size and therefore too advanced to treat. I had to make the hardest decision ever to put her to rest. I have 2 other furry friends who have been amazing and I’m not sure what I’d do without them. Maisie may be gone but will never be forgotten and always in my heart.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          February 18, 2018 at 6:42 am (4 months ago)

          I’m so sorry, Jackie.

          Reply
  3. Jourdan
    November 30, 2017 at 12:42 pm (7 months ago)

    Buzzy was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer called Synovial Cell Sarcoma, and had his rear left leg amputated two weeks ago. The oncologist recommends chemotherapy immediately. He was scheduled to start that today when he had his sutures taken out, but I decided against it, at least for now. I’m going back and forth with whether we should try it or not. I’m absolutely beside myself right now and have never been so depressed in my life. Buzzy is not my pet, he’s my child. I have no idea what to do.

    Reply
    • jlynn
      December 1, 2017 at 7:12 am (7 months ago)

      My vet that did my cat’s surgery did not recommend chemo so I can’t say if it would have helped in my case or not. I was also beside myself. I am so sorry you and your baby are going through this. Talk to your vet, other vets if need be, read more posts, do more research, pray, and follow your instincts. I will keep you both in my prayers.

      Reply
    • Name*
      December 24, 2017 at 5:10 pm (6 months ago)

      Our kitty was diagnosed with lymphoma right after Thanksgiving. We were offered three approaches: we administer Predinisone – she lives maybe 1-2 months; medium treatment with chemo – she lives maybe 5 – 5 months; heavy chemo treatment – she lives maybe 8-9 months. We decided to go with the 1-2 month option for the following reasons. The chemo/vet visits, recover would terribly stress the cat. And the whole experience would terribly stress us. We figured we are going to greatly cry sooner or later and we had to face it. The cat would be terribly stressed and we would be even more stressed living with her under these conditions. It was not good for any of us. We put our kitty to sleep two mornings ago with a home visit vet. And not a moment too soon. The cancer pain had very quickly increased. We could see the poor thing had terribly discomfort just trying to position herself and lay down. Thank God, our kitty is now resting in peace and not being tortured with cancer pain and a life of starvation and distress. We made the right decision for all of us to not prolong this terrible experience. We are on the other side of this whole process and recovering. Our kitty is doing what she loved the most, sleeping. She will always be an important part of our past….. Love to you all.

      Reply
      • Jourdan
        December 26, 2017 at 3:46 pm (6 months ago)

        Thank you both for your advice! I’m sure it’s so different in every case. We decided to do chemo and take a holistic approach as well. The chemo barely had any side effects at all actually, which is what I kept hearing about pets vs. humans. He ate just like normal and get get sick a couple of times, but he has IBS and it’s actually normal for him to get sick a couple times a week anyway, so not even sure if that was from the chemo or not. The anti-nausea medicine he got ended that immediately and he was just like normal. I was pleasantly surprised at how well he did. He has his second treatment this week and plan to give him the anti-nausea pill two days afterwards as a preventative. He’s also on several supplements and CBD oil to help him feel better. He has been running and jumping to play, with three legs, just like he used to before the cancer. I’m so happy he’s doing so well right now!

        Reply
    • Paula
      February 15, 2018 at 8:49 am (4 months ago)

      Hi, i hope yr baby is ok. I also have kitties that are my children so kno how you feel, my cat coco is undergoing chemo and her blood results show improvement. Yr little one has already gone thro an operation so i would proceed with the chemo. Side effects are low xx

      Reply
  4. Judy
    September 9, 2016 at 9:01 pm (2 years ago)

    My beautiful Thunder Paws Chunky Butt Moose was an 11 yr old large tabby cat. He got lung cancer. It was caught very early but not early enough that surgery was an option. I did try the chemo because we did catch it early, he only had an occasional cough. He was put on oral chemo pills. I only ended up with 3 months more with my beautiful cat. He never improved. I will never let an animal suffer so when the day came that his breathing became laboured, I had to make the horrible decision that it was time for him to cross the Rainbow Bridge. I miss him dearly!!!!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 10, 2016 at 5:40 am (2 years ago)

      I’m so sorry about your kitty, Judy.

      Reply
    • Jo
      September 10, 2016 at 10:14 am (2 years ago)

      The first most important thing is to not let our pets suffer; second most important thing is to not hold on to them for our own sake. My Eloise is only oral chemo. She seems OK so far, sometimes subdued… but the moment I see she is no longer enjoying life, then it will be time. I know I’m just buying time. You did well by your kitty. We miss them, yes. 🙁

      Reply
  5. Lauren
    August 30, 2016 at 7:35 pm (2 years ago)

    I opted not to do chemo on my FIV+ cat who had multiple tumors in his abdomen and surrounding area. He had two surgeries, but ultimately succumbed to the aggressive cancer 9 months after the first surgery. The first intestinal surgery did not reveal cancer, but after this surgery, cancer started growing. The second surgery was done in hopes of extending his life. He only lived 2 months after that surgery. I am glad I spared him frequent trips to the vet for chemo. I have never had a cat who enjoyed a trip out of the house.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 31, 2016 at 5:42 am (2 years ago)

      I’m sorry about your kitty, Lauren. Your situation perfectly illustrates that it’s always an individual decision as to whether chemotherapy is the right choice.

      Reply
  6. Sherri
    August 30, 2016 at 7:59 am (2 years ago)

    I just put my Lucy to sleep on Friday, August 26th. She had cancer. Her quality of life went down so fast. Because of her age, 15 the vet and I decided not to do surgery, chemo and the rest. Still grieving and miss her so much. That was the hardest decision to make.

    Reply
  7. Margaret
    August 30, 2016 at 3:27 am (2 years ago)

    Most interesting and sensible article, Ingrid…. I’ve always felt chemo would be putting an animal through a lot of stress, as much as anything else; your words made me part change my mind, although I still feel that it’s only buying time, and sometimes quality of life just isn’t there. Personally I still feel I would not want to put any cat of mine through that. I’ve never had to make that decision although one of our cats did at the very end of his life have a “mass” – vet didn’t even offer surgery – wisely I always felt as dear Tim went on to better things less than a week late. We are all individuals, even in the animal world and all think differently. How brave I could really be about it in, say a younger cat is something else….. – to each his own

    Reply
  8. Jlynn
    August 30, 2016 at 1:40 am (2 years ago)

    Wow, now I am kind of freaking out after seeing the other comments. My cat’s tumor was not benign nor was I given a prognosis of any kind of time frame. My vet gave me more of a “que sera sera” answer. Now I am wondering if he was being hopeful, avoiding telling me what he really thinks, or if he really can’t give an honest prognosis after her surgery.

    Reply
  9. mommakatandherbearcat
    August 30, 2016 at 12:42 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you for this article! When I found a lump on Bear last year, I had terrible thoughts of him having to go through chemotherapy … we were lucky that the tumor was benign, but it scared me to no end. Hopefully, we’ll never need it, but I feel better knowing that cats tolerate it fairly well.

    Reply
  10. Sweet Purrfections
    August 30, 2016 at 12:03 am (2 years ago)

    Thank you for this article. I chose not to do chemotherapy on Sweet Praline when she was diagnosed with cancer. The vet said because of her age and her prognosis of a month to a year left, she didn’t recommend the treatment. Praline was helped to the bridge 1 month after her diagnosis. I’ve always wondered if I made the right decision.

    Reply
    • Jlynn
      August 30, 2016 at 1:43 am (2 years ago)

      Did Praline have the removal surgery? Don’t want to bring up painful thoughts/memories for you, but I could really use the insight of others right now

      Reply
      • Paula
        February 15, 2018 at 8:54 am (4 months ago)

        Hello, my cat coco had the tumor removed and is now in week 6 of chemo and is doing very well. I would do it again! I love my little old girl she is 13. Ask yourself if it was you…yourself with the diagnosis what would you do? I always ask myself this when any of my kitties ill…i have 8 and it helps my decision for treatment x

        Reply
  11. Jlynn
    August 29, 2016 at 9:23 pm (2 years ago)

    Thanks for posting this Ingrid. It has given me more to think about before I make my decision.

    Anyone – how long after having surgery does chemo usually get scheduled? As I said my vet does not want me to do chemo citing my cat’s age (which I estimate as 10-11). He says my cat is older than I think, which to me still doesn’t seem to be a problem (or is it?). I am wondering if he is going to make me miss some window of opportunity for her being cured by whatever agenda he is working on.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 30, 2016 at 5:53 am (2 years ago)

      Please see my other reply to you, Jlynn. Your best course of action is to consult with a veterinary oncologist. If your cat is otherwise healthy, age should not be the only factor in making a treatment decision.

      Reply
      • Jlynn
        August 30, 2016 at 10:44 am (2 years ago)

        Hi Ingrid,

        I thought you were right about the age thing also. It was not the ER vets who would not refer me, they actually are affiliated with the specialty vets (including oncologists), it was my standard vet who is reluctant to refer me. He is also the one who did the operation. He has been in practice since the 70’s at least so I doubt it is lack of knowledge of these situations. After reading something else in the other comment area I have another idea though, you responded that surgery should not be done during the course of chemo, so maybe he is thinking about that. I really wish he would be more up front with me. What he isn’t saying is making me worry just as much as what he does say.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          August 30, 2016 at 10:58 am (2 years ago)

          It sounds like you simply no longer trust your vet, Jlynn. I would look for another vet and at the very least get a second opinion.

          Reply
    • Jo
      September 7, 2016 at 5:33 pm (2 years ago)

      My 11 year old cat, Eloise, was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma (in small intestine). When her staples were removed 2 weeks after surgery, we started the chemotherapy / pill / chlorambucil (plus prednisone and flagyl). It’s a roller coaster. She doesn’t seem to be suffering… but she’s more subdued. Not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’m game as long as she is…

      Reply
      • Jlynn
        September 7, 2016 at 11:16 pm (2 years ago)

        Thanks Jo,
        My vet put down on my cat’s history (that I took to the ER) that he removed the 3rd, 4th, and 5th mammary gland on one side and the 1st and 2nd on the other, and ONE node. When I questioned him about her still having mammary glands he back pedaled on me saying he couldn’t remove anything else and I could bring her in for a recheck if I wanted. What?! Either he removed them or he didn’t. Either you did or you didn’t. I directly asked if she had mammary glands left and he said no. He did the same thing with the lymph nodes, at first he said he removed one, then when I questioned why he would leave the ones under her “arms” then he said they were removed. Now I am totally skeptical over what he removed and what he left behind. He is the only one who would know and he acted like I would need a referral for an oncologist, which I discovered I don’t, but I still haven’t made an appointment. I was told that the surgery “record” should be more detailed as to what was done to her. The pathology wasn’t even specific about what type of tumor was removed. I am really disappointed in the treatment we received. The only thing that is a relief is that the tumors were removed. I wasn’t working but it looks like I might be hired somewhere shortly then I could take her for her consultation with the specialist and see if they can get a better explanation from my vet. If I find out he lied to me then I will contact the BBB. If it was in her lymph nodes and he didn’t remove them then there has to be something I can do. I don’t want to put her through unpleasantness and stress but if chemo would help then I don’t want to dismiss it.

        Reply
        • Jo
          September 8, 2016 at 9:31 am (2 years ago)

          Like Ingrid said, I would look for another vet right away. If you have friends with pets, I’d ask for a referral. I have access to Angie’s List nationwide so if you want to tell me your zip code, I could look for you, too. (I’m in Northern NJ)

          Reply
  12. Nora
    August 29, 2016 at 1:57 pm (2 years ago)

    My 11 year old tabby Ben was diagnosed with cancer of the stomach wall 1 year ago. He’s been receiving Chemo since then and was doing terrific. Just this last Thursday, the Vet reported 2 lumps near his shoulder blades which she described as likely to be either inflammation or “injection site sarcoma”. How does Chemo injections result in cancer? I am just not sure what to think about this turn of events. The vet says they can’t surgically remove the lumps because of the Chemo, but surgical removal is the recommended treatment. She also said that these lumps were not present 3 weeks ago at his last Chemo treatment. Frankly, I hate to seem suspicious and maybe I just being too critical, but I got the feeling she was making excuses and was concerned about liability. Sorry, I just don’t know what to think.

    Reply
    • Jlynn
      August 29, 2016 at 9:14 pm (2 years ago)

      Hi Nora,

      My cat had her full mastectomy last week and the vet had ME transport her to the ER (while she was in shock and anemic) and downplayed her condition to me. She stayed there two nights and was then able to come home. The vet that I originally saw was the associate of this one and she told me that they don’t do chemo for cats with breast tumors. I knew she was full of it. The male vet (who did the surgery) is still not recommending chemo for my cat. He didn’t even want to refer me to an oncologist. I found out today that I don’t need his referral (thank goodness). My point being the same as yours, that I can’t figure out why they would not want me to go get chemo, or at least a second opinion. Wouldn’t be in the best interest of my pet to speak to a specialist? Why would my vet want to keep me from seeking a specialized opinion? Is he hiding something? Is it because he wants my money? I don’t seem suspicious, I AM suspicious. He also has asked me a few times if I am working (which I am not) but as long as he gets paid, which he has, I don’t see why he keeps bringing that up. The quality of care should be there for every patient. I am just so confused. It stinks to have to put your faith in the professionals and then feel like you can’t trust their “expertise”. These are not the kind of decisions they should be playing around with. If they don’t know then why don’t they say that instead of giving these opinions without clear explanations.

      You are not alone out there.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        August 30, 2016 at 5:51 am (2 years ago)

        I’m sorry you feel that way about the vets who treated your cat, JLynn. I agree that the ER vet should have referred you to a veterinary oncologist. However, most likely, the lack of a referral was motivated by lack of experience with this type of cancer rather than monetary concerns. I urge you to follow your instinct and consult with a veterinary oncologist so that you can have peace of mind that you are making an informed decision for your cat’s treatment. All my best to both of you.

        Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 30, 2016 at 5:45 am (2 years ago)

      Any injection can result in an injection site sarcoma, Nora. They can come on very quickly, and your vet is correct, surgery is the preferred treatment for these tumors. She is also correct that surgery during chemotherapy can be risky, since chemotherapy weakens the immune system and slows down healing. Here is more information: http://consciouscat.net/2013/04/01/injection-site-sarcomas-in-cats/

      Reply
  13. Sally Bahner
    August 29, 2016 at 10:14 am (2 years ago)

    Celica Blue was diagnosed with lymphoma a little more than two months ago, when she was just under 2 years old. I never thought I would put my cat through chemo, but with all the research I did and in speaking to the oncologist (we have an excellent facility close by), I knew that was the way to go, expense be damned. She’s responded beautifully. The mass can barely be felt, no side effects, not even whisker loss; appetite, weight, energy all fine. For all intents and purposes, a normal kitty. Her sixth treatment is coming up. Then we’ll see where we stand. (Her journey is on my website.)

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 30, 2016 at 5:40 am (2 years ago)

      I’m thrilled that Celica Blue is doing so well, Sally!

      Reply
    • arly
      October 16, 2016 at 12:24 am (2 years ago)

      Thanks. I have a young cat – 5 years old and your comments helped. My cat has no overt tumors but a very high white blood count. If anyone has had this situation i would appreciate hearing from you and how things went.

      Reply
  14. Sue Brandes
    August 29, 2016 at 7:31 am (2 years ago)

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  15. Janine
    August 29, 2016 at 7:02 am (2 years ago)

    Me and my husband have made the decision that if we were to get cancer, we wouldn’t go through chemo. So, I wouldn’t put one of my cats through it either.

    Reply
    • dovemck
      August 29, 2016 at 9:11 am (2 years ago)

      cats don’t respond to chemo the way that humans do. My cat has had 7 rounds of oral chemotherapy and if you wouldn’t know to look at her that she’s been ill at all. She is active, hungry, playful and loving. She is happy and attentive and gained more than a kg since the initial diagnosis. I watched family members go through chemo – cat chemo is NOTHING like it.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        August 30, 2016 at 5:39 am (2 years ago)

        Thank you for sharing your experience. That has been my experience with my own cat (more than 15 years ago) and with cats I’ve seen during my years working in veterinary clinics.

        Reply

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