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Everything you need to know about cat ear cancer

Ginger cat ears

Cancer in cats ears is also called Squamous cell carcinomas

© Pixabay

Cats can be troubled by various types of skin problems, even on their ears. However, one cat ear cancer that needs early diagnosis is a squamous cell carcinoma.

By Dawn Parrish

Updated on the 27/05/2021, 09:57

Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) are a type of cancer which affects the ears and nose. They rarely look like tumours initially, and therefore it’s important to know what to be on the lookout for. However, there are also other types of cancer which also affect cats’ ears which can vary in appearance.

In this article we will explore everything you need to know about cancers of cat ears.

What is feline ear cancer

Tumours of the ear canal are generally discovered in the outer ear and the external ear canal. However, in some very rare circumstances, tumours can also develop in the middle or inner ear. Early diagnosis and subsequent treatment are crucial for the survival of the cat. The two primary types of cat ear cancer are ear canal tumours and squamous cell carcinoma.

Ear Canal tumours

This cancer generally only occurs on one side of the cat’s head. It affects older cats more. In the majority of cases, tumours are diagnosed as malignant, rather than benign. However, benign tumours, such as polyps, can also form from the lining of the ear canal and these can be easily removed with an excellent prognosis.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas often appear as crusty, red sores around the ear location. These ulcer type sores are scabby or scaly in appearance. Early detection, diagnosis and treatment result in a good prognosis in most cases. After surgical removal of the SCC, appearance in other areas of the body is still possible as the disease can metastasise. Luckily if aggressive removal has been performed early on, surgery can be curative.

Symptoms of cat ear cancer

Symptoms of cat ear cancer to look out for include:

  • Scabs on the tips of the ears or nose
  • Pink or red mass protruding from the ear canal
  • Discharge from the ears (bloody, pus-like or waxy)
  • Strong odour
  • Shaking of the head
  • Scratching at the ears
  • Swelling
  • Deafness

When inner-ear canal tumours are present, the cat may display further symptoms. These can be head tilting, loss of balance or other neurological co-ordination issues.

Causes of cat ear cancer

Squamous cell cancer is most prominent in white cats, especially those with white ears. In the majority of cases, the cause is understood to be from UV (Ultraviolet) damage through over-exposure to the sun. However, dark-coloured cats are also known, in rare cases, to develop a version of SCCs known as Bowen’s disease. This is known to be associated with a virus but also results in cat ear cancer.  No definite cause has yet been connected to ear canal tumours. Certainly, felines that tend to have ongoing ear infections and inflammation of the ear canal are more prone to this ear disease.

How do I treat my cats sunburned ears?

Like humans, sunburn is also painful to cats. Cats with white hair and pink skin are most likely to become sunburnt. Treating sunburn doesn’t prevent SCCs, as by then the skin is already damaged. Preventing sunburn is the only way to decrease the chances of cancer. This can be done by reducing your cat’s outside time on days with a high UV index or applying cat-safe suncream to their ears, nose, belly and groin areas.

If your cat has become sunburnt, he may need medical treatment. If it is severe, your vet may need to provide intravenous fluid therapy to correct any dehydration. Cold compresses can also relieve pain, and sometimes ointments may also need to be prescribed to improve the skin healing.

How can you tell if a lump on a cat is cancerous?

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell whether a lump on a cat is cancerous just by sight. Therefore, it’s important to consult your veterinarian for further diagnostic tests to understand what is the cause of the lump and how serious it is.

Cat ear cancer diagnosis

Initial examination will include details of the cat’s medical history. Has the cat suffered any recent ear infections, ear discharge or sores? A thorough full-body examination will take place with blood tests too, to check your cat’s general health. If tumours are thought to be present, a skull and chest X-ray may be ordered. Biopsies may also be taken to determine if a tumour is cancerous, benign or even a different skin complaint. The cat may be sedated and a deep examination of the inner ear may be done if a tumour is suspected. Other diagnostic methods such as an MRI scan or CT scan may be needed if there is a suspected inner ear tumour.

Treatment of cat ear cancer

Initially, after diagnosis, treatment will commence relative to the type of cancer. If only one small ulcer or scab is present in squamous cell cancer, it may be removed by cryosurgery. This involves freezing the infected area. Traditional surgery might be advised if the area affected by the SCC or tumour is quite large. In some surgeries, some of the cat’s ear canal may be removed. Similarly, the pinna, which is the external part of the feline’s ear may be amputated. The majority of cats respond well to surgery and heal fairly quickly.

Where the surgical route isn’t an option, chemotherapy can be suggested. Likewise, if total removal of a tumour fails, radiotherapy treatment might be used to minimize pain and slow the growth of a tumour.

Recovery prognosis of cat ear cancer

Early diagnosis and treatment of cats with squamous cell carcinoma usually have a positive outcome. After surgery and subsequent treatments, cats must be kept out of the sun and indoors to limit UV ray contamination. We all know about the warnings to use sunblock when in the sun. This also applies to cats too. A feline’s ears are the most vulnerable part of the body.

In felines, skin cancer of the ear is one of the most frequently diagnosed type of cancer. Owners should be alert to any changes in their pet’s ears, nose, jaw or skin. If you do spot any changes whatsoever, don’t delay but get your cat to the vet for early diagnosis and treatment.

Reviewed by Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS