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Everything you need to know about pancreatic cancer in cats

Grey and white cat at the vet

Pancreatic cancer in cats is quite rare but can become fatale.

© Shutterstock

The symptoms of pancreatic cancer in cats are often nonspecific and vague. Although this health condition is quite rare in felines, it can very quickly become a fatal complaint.

By Dawn Parrish

Updated on the 03/06/2021, 14:13

Pancreatic cancer is a serious condition, and therefore if your cat is showing any signs of illness, it’s important to get her checked out sooner rather than later to ensure she gets swift treatment.

What is pancreatic cancer in cats?

The pancreas is a V-shaped organ in the upper abdomen which produces insulin and digestive enzymes. It is crucial to not only maintain healthy blood sugar levels, but also for the digestion process itself. The pancreas in cats is located below the spleen and behind the stomach. Carcinomas or malignant cancer tumours can develop on the pancreas. Malignant adenocarcinomas can be diagnosed in cats in this region and can potentially be fatal if not recognised quickly. Pancreatic cancer in cats is usually very aggressive as cancer cells very quickly metastasize and spread to other areas in the cat’s body.

Inflamed pancreas is located behind the ribs ©Shutterstock

Causes of Pancreatic cancer in felines

As the inciting cause of pancreatic cancer in cats is mainly unknown, the disease is known as “idiopathic”. But because it is diagnosed more commonly in senior cats and is more common in certain family lines and breeds, it could be related to genetics. However, unless you have a detailed feline family tree that reports incidences of pancreatic cancer, it’s difficult to generalise.

Symptoms of Pancreatic Cancer in cats

It can be especially difficult to diagnose cancer of the pancreas in cats. Cancer and its devastating effects take hold before any real symptoms appear. While your cat may show no symptoms, metastatic spread can already happen. Her stomach may look swollen due to a tumour or even a fluid collection in the abdomen area. When you rub her tummy, she will cry out in pain, or withdraw from your touch. This is more probable if you touch the upper right side of the cat’s body.

Likewise, your cat may appear to suffer from any of the following health conditions, without you realising its pancreatic cancer at the root. Fever of unknown origin (FUO), jaundice, abdominal pain, digestion problems, weight loss, lethargy, weakness are all symptoms of pancreatic cancer in felines. Since the pancreas influences blood sugar levels, your cat may also appear to have diabetes.

How is pancreatic cancer in cats diagnosed?

A medical examination at the vet’s surgery will be needed in the first place. Any lumps, swelling or pain around the cat’s abdomen area will be examined. It is that blood and urine tests will be carried out. On the blood test, your vet will take particular note of lipase and amylase, which are pancreatic enzymes which increase if the pancreas is damaged. And ultrasound scan may also be taken to check for any tumours or mass in your cat’s abdomen. This is important to carry out, as an inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, is more common than pancreatic cancer, and the treatment can be very different. Therefore, it’s important to distinguish between the two before treatment commences.

An ultrasound examination can help to diagnose cat pancreatic cancer ©Shutterstock

Can a cat recover from pancreatitis?

If your cat has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, this is a treatable condition which your cat can recover from. However, it can result in severe health implications for your cat if left untreated, and make your cat feel extremely unwell. So even though it carries a better prognosis than pancreatic cancer, you should seek veterinary care swiftly.

How to treat pancreatic cancer in the cat?

As a result of a tumour diagnosis, your vet may discuss the option of surgery with you. If the cancer is at an early stage, surgery may remove all the cancerous cells. But because malignant tumours are known to spread very quickly to other parts of the body, further treatment may be needed such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy. Unfortunately, if your cat has pancreatic cancer that has developed quickly, chemotherapy and radiation treatments will only give a limited extension of survival time.

Nutrition during treatment for pancreatic cancer in cats

If your cat is to receive treatment for pancreatic cancer, proper nutrition is essential. Adequate nutritional support is essential to maximise therapy response times and to improve her quality of life. Supplements, vitamins and minerals will also maintain your cat’s strength and improve the healing process following surgery. Your veterinarian is a great source for nutritional advice, and he can recommend the best food and supplements for your cat to boost her immune system.

How long can cats live with pancreatic cancer?

If your cat has been given the diagnosis that she has pancreatic cancer, you are likely to be overwhelmed with emotions. Above all, the best thing you can do is to make sure she isn’t suffering and to make sure she is comfortable. Discussions with the vet will help you to decide on the best course of treatment. Fill your cat’s final time with you with happy memories and of course ensure that she doesn’t suffer any pain or discomfort.

If your cat has been diagnosed at a progressed stage, unfortunately the prognosis is likely to be poor. Consequently, some cat owners opt to have the cat put to sleep, but this is something that your vet will be able to give honest and caring advice about. The median survival time for cats with pancreatic cancer can vary considerably depending on the type of tumour, what stage it is at when first diagnosed and whether it has metastasised to other parts of the body. It might be as short as one month, or as long as a few years with early treatment.

Pancreatic cancer in cats can be difficult to spot and diagnose. Symptoms often begin at low-grade, but by the time severe signs appear, it is often too late to treat. In most cases, keeping your cat comfortable, alleviating any pain and offering comfort and support are the most important things to consider.

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