Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 22, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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 successfully treating feline cancers.
Common cancers in cats
One of the most common forms of cancer in cats is lymphoma. Other frequently seen cancers are oral squamous carcinomas, similar to what people get. Fibrosarcomas, or soft tissue sarcomas, are tumors developing in muscle or in the connective tissue of the body. These are generally associated with injections and vaccinations. Other forms of cancer are less common, but they do occur in cats: lung tumors, brain tumors, nasal tumors, and liver tumors. There are fewer incidences of mammary tumors (yes, cats can get breast cancer, too) since more cats are spayed and spaying is one of the best ways to prevent this particular cancer.
Symptoms of feline cancer
People and cats both show similar symptoms when it comes to cancer:
- Lumps, especially lumps that seem to be getting bigger
- Sores that don’t heal
- Changes in bowel or bladder habits
- Unexplained bleeding or a strange discharge from any body opening
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Breathing problems
- Lameness or stiffness that persists over a period of time
- Bad odor
- Having trouble eating or swallowing food
If you notice your cat showing any of these symptoms, take him to your veterinarian for a thorough examination.
Diagnosis will vary, depending on the presenting symptoms. An exam will most likely include a complete blood chemistry, blood count, and urinalysis. Your veterinarian may take x-rays, perform an ultrasound, and take tissue biopsies. Depending on where the biopsies are taken from, this may require sedation, or full anesthesia. Biopsies will be reviewed by a veterinary pathologist to determine the type of cancer.
Treatment options for cats are almost as varied as treatment options for human cancers, and will depend on the type of cancer. Surgery is the most common treatment for any lumps or growths that need to be removed. In some cases, surgery can be curative. Other cancers may require chemotherapy or radiation. Cats tend to tolerate chemotherapy much better than people, and can have good quality of life for many months and sometimes even years following treatment. Radiation therapy may be used for tumors that can’t be removed. This is a more stressful therapy for cats, since it will require sedation or anesthesia for each treatment.
There isn’t as much research into the causes of feline cancer as there is on the human side, but I don’t think it’s much of a leap to assume that some of the same environmental toxins that cause cancer in humans also cause cancers in our cats. There have been some studies looking at secondhand smoke and feline cancers. Vaccinations and other injections have been proven to be responsible for fibrosarcomas, and these findings have led to changing vaccine protocols for cats.
While some cancers are caused by genetic mutations, there are still things cat owners can do to lessen the likelihood that their cats get the disease.
A wholesome, species-appropriate, meat-based diet is one of the most important foundations for preventing cancer, or any other health problems in cats. A balanced grain-free raw meat or canned diet provides the best nutrition for your cat. As obligate carnivores, cats do not need carbohydrates in their diet. In fact, commercial dry cat foods have been linked to many of the degenerative diseases we’re seeing in cats such as diabetes, kidney failure, and inflammatory bowel disease. The latter is often a precursor for intestinal lymphoma. The one best thing you can do for your cat’s health is to eliminate all dry food from his diet.
Environmental toxins and stressors are also linked to cancer in humans, and probably cause cancers in cats. Avoid exposure to commercial cleaning products and use natural products instead. Make sure your cat always has pure (bottled or distilled) water available. Most municipal water systems are contaminated with anything from heavy metals to chlorine. Avoid using chemical flea and tick products on your pets; look for natural alternatives instead. Minimize vaccinations to the really essential ones or core vaccinations.
Your cat’s risk of exposure and health state are important when considering vaccinations and this is why your vet is the indicated person to decide. In cats that are already immunocompromised, it might be better to minimize vaccinations to the really essential ones. If a cat already has cancer, have a chat with your veterinarian about what is best. Vaccination is not recommended for cats suffering from acute diseases or undergoing short-term immunosuppressive treatment.
The risk of not vaccinating against certain diseases is certainly much higher than the risk of injection site tumor development. Over-vaccination increases the risk of injection site sarcomas, although there are other factors that take place in their development, such as a cat’s genetics. The best advice is to make educated decisions about which vaccines are important for your cat to receive.
Cancer is a devastating disease, but early detection, combined with ever increasing treatment options, makes it possible for cats to continue to live with good quality of life.
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Featured Image Credit: Alice Rodnova, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.