Last Updated on: May 5, 2014 by Ingrid King

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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