Cancer in Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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What is cancer?   Common cancers     Causes   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment    Prevention

Cancer in cats

At a glance

About: Cancer is the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells within the body, they can arise from any type of cell such as skin, kidney, bladder, breast.

Symptoms: Can vary depending on the type of cancer but may include unexpected lumps or bumps, lesions, bleeding, unexplained weight loss, and lethargy.

Treatment: Depends on the type of cancer but may include surgery to remove the growth, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and amputation.

What is cancer?

cancer in cats

Also referred to as malignant neoplasms or malignant tumours, cancer is the uncontrolled division of cells that normally should be restrictive in their growth. Tumours are split into two categories, malignant (cancerous) or benign.

  • Benign tumours grow slowly, are surrounded by a capsule and do not invade neighbouring tissue or spread to other areas.
  • Malignant tumours, on the other hand, tend to grow rapidly, invade surrounding tissue and spread to other parts of the body.

Cancers are often described by the part of the body they originate from, for example, breast, brain, liver, bile duct or pancreatic cancer. Cancer is also classified by the type of cell involved.

Cancer is a leading cause of death in senior cats.

Classification of cancers:

  • Carcinoma originates from the epithelial cells which line the inner and outer parts of the body and can be split into two types. Adenocarcinoma originates in an organ or gland and squamous cell carcinoma which originates in the squamous epithelium.
  • Leukemias cancers of the blood cells
  • Lymphoma originates from the lymphoid tissue
  • Myeloma originates from the cells in the bone marrow
  • Sarcoma originates from the connective or bone tissue

So, a cat may have skin cancer and it could be a melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma or a basal cell carcinoma for example. All skin cancers, but originating from different cell types. I have lost two cats both of whom had nasal cancer. One cat had osteosarcoma (bone cancer) and the other had squamous cell carcinoma which originated from the lining of the nose, both cats had identical symptoms in both cats but different types of cancer.

Common cancers in cats

  • Lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system). This is the most common cancer in cats, responsible for 1/3rd of all cancers. It arises from lymphoid tissue, which is found throughout the body and may involve any organ or tissue. Cats with feline leukemia virus are 60 times more likely to acquire lymphosarcoma than those without. Cats living in smoking households are twice as likely to acquire lymphosarcoma. [2]
  • Skin cancer – Squamous cell carcinoma which can affect cats who spend time outdoors in the sun, especially light coloured cats. The ears and nose are the most common sites. Other types of skin cancer may include melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and mast cell tumours.
  • Mammary cancer – The most common type of malignant mammary cancer in cats is adenocarcinoma making up 80% of mammary tumours.
  • Fibrosarcoma – An aggressive type of malignant growth (cancer) that originates in the fibrous connective tissue.

Cancer can occur in cats of any age, but it is most commonly seen in middle-aged to older cats. It is a leading cause of death in elderly cats.

Causes: 

There are a number of causes of cancer in cats, some of which include:

  • Carcinogens (agents which can cause cancer): Examples of carcinogens include UV radiation, X-Rays, certain chemicals, environmental toxins, cigarette smoke.
  • Viruses:  In particular, feline leukemia virus.
  • Genetic predisposition: Some cats, and breeds have a higher incidence of cancer.
  • Injections: Originally called vaccine associated sarcoma, the use of injections (especially vaccinations) have been associated with a rare form of cancer re-named injection site sarcoma.
  • Idiopathic: In most cases, the cause is not known.

Symptoms:

General signs of cancer in cats

Cancer symptoms will vary depending on the location and part of the body affected by cancer. Some common symptoms may include:

Diagnosis:

Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you. It may be possible to make a presumptive diagnosis if there is an obvious growth. Microscopic evaluation of the tumour is necessary for a definitive diagnosis.

Tests he may need to perform include:

  • Baseline tests: Complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of your cat and look for signs of infection or inflammation.
  • Fine needle aspirate: The veterinarian uses a thin needle to remove a small sample from the abnormal tissue for microscopic evaluation. 
  • Biopsy: If there is an obvious growth your veterinarian will take a biopsy which will be sent to a laboratory for evaluation.
  • Imaging: X-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to evaluate the internal organs and look for tumours inside the body and signs of metastasis.
  • Barium studies: Barium is a radio-opaque compound which when consumed coats the lining of the intestinal tract and shows the structures as white on xrays. This test can be a useful diagnostic for cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Treatment: 

Treatment may vary depending on the location but may include:

  • Surgery: Where possible, surgical excision of the tumour with a margin, it may also be necessary to remove lymph nodes closest to the tumour. 
  • Chemotherapy: A number of drugs which target rapidly dividing cells. Chemotherapy can shrink a tumour before surgery, after surgery to kill cancer to kill any cells left behind, or as a stand-alone treatment where surgery is not possible. In the latter case, the goal is to slow down the progression of the tumour.
  • Electrochemotherapy: An emerging therapeutic which shows great promise for the treatment of skin tumours. Chemotherapy drugs are poorly absorbed, but this treatment allows for better penetration by delivering an electric impulsions into the tumour after administration of chemotherapy. More information can be found on this site.
  • Radiotherapy: A treatment which uses a radiation beam to target cancer cells. Radiotherapy can be used to treat cancers which can not be surgically removed or after surgical removal to target any cancer cells which have been left behind.
  • Cryosurgery: For treatment of some cancers on the skin, liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and destroy target cancer cells.

A specialist veterinary centre may administer chemotherapy. It doesn’t cause hair loss in cats but in my experience, did cause our cat to be lethargic and off her food for one to two days after administration.

Prevention: 

It is not always possible to prevent cancer in cats but there are certain things we can do to reduce the chances of some types of cancer.

Spay and neuter your cat

Spayed and neutered cats don’t roam as much or get into fights, reducing the chances of contracting FIV or FeLV. Intact females are at greater risk of developing mammary cancer than spayed females and castration eliminates a male cat’s chances of developing testicular cancer.

Avoid household chemicals

We can’t avoid the use of certain treatments to prevent parasites, nor should we, good parasite control is vital. I do think we can try to reduce exposure to household chemicals by using natural products such as white vinegar and bicarbonate of soda in our day to day cleaning. Obviously, these are not effective where proper disinfection is necessary,  but the average home uses a lot of chemicals.

Avoid over-vaccination

There has been a lot of talk about over-vaccinating our cats over the past 10 years, only you and your veterinarian know your cat’s individual circumstances, but it is a discussion you should have. The new recommendation by the Australian Veterinary Association as well as the American Association of Feline Practitioners (page six) is to give your low-risk, household cats their core vaccinations (F3) as a kitten. Three vaccinations spaced 4 weeks apart at 8, 12 and 16 weeks, followed by a booster at 12 months and then every three years. This can reduce the risks of injection site sarcoma. Local regulations or individual risk factors may warrant more frequent vaccination as well as the administration of some non-core vaccinations.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) believes that in most cases, core vaccines need not be administered any more frequently than triennially and that even less frequent vaccination may be considered appropriate if an individual animal’s circumstances warrant it. However, local factors may dictate more frequent vaccination scheduling. These recommendations may be ‘off label’ for some vaccines. AVA vaccination of dogs and cats

Reduce sun exposure

Try to keep cats inside between the hours of 10 am – 4 pm, this is even more important if your cat is white or pale cats. Cats should have access to a shady area to get out of the sun and if you notice any redness or damaged tissue, especially around the ears, seek veterinary attention.

Smoke outside

Cigarette smoke is a carcinogen in both cats and humans.

Schedule annual checkups

Even if you decide to go with triannual vaccinations, it is still important your cat see a veterinarian at least once a year and twice a year once he reaches 7 years of age.

See a veterinarian if you notice any lump larger than a pea, which has been there longer than a month.

Keep weight down

Obesity causes a number of health disorders in cats and has been linked to the development of certain cancers.

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