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Cancer in cats: all is revealed

Ginger cat sleeping advice © Pixabay

One in five cats will develop feline cancer in their lifetime. If you’re a cat-owner, especially with more than one puss, there's a chance you'll need to deal with the illness

By G. John Cole

Cats can get many of the same types of cancer as humans, such as lymphoma, leukaemia, and breast or skin cancer. Knowing more about cat cancer will help you to prepare medically and psychologically in case it happens.

Cancer in cats: what does it mean?

Cancer happens when a group of abnormal cells grow and divide without control. This collection of cells is often referred to as a tumour.

When these cells invade other, healthy parts of systems of a cat’s body, it’s considered to be malignant cancer. It is the spreading of these cells that causes the most damage. Tumours that don’t spread are called benign.

Cat cancer is more likely to be malignant in cats than in dogs. But whatever creature you have in your life, it’s important to look out for symptoms. That way you can treat your pet sooner. This may increase its chance of survival or at least a relatively comfortable experience.

Cancer in cats: what are the causes?

Unfortunately, cancer is still quite mysterious to medical experts. There are lots of reasons for it to develop, and a vet won’t always be able to tell why.

Some cats are genetically more likely to develop cancer. Excessive sunlight or exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals such as those in cigarette smoke) can be the trigger.

But viruses, such as feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) can also be to blame. It’s quite rare to encounter this virus these days. But it can be passed between cats through saliva, blood, wee, and poo. A cat with this virus is far more likely to develop leukaemia or lymphoma, particularly if that cat also has feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

It is very difficult to prevent cat cancer because we know so little about what causes it. The best thing is to avoid smoking near your pets, and to react swiftly if you spot symptoms. With cancer, the sooner treatment begins, the better the outcome.

Cancer in cats: what are the symptoms?

There are many types of cat cancer so the symptoms are also diverse. But it’s not up to you to decide if your cat has cancer. Rather, if you spot signs that it may be seriously sick, you should take it to the vet.

Symptoms that suggest cancer can take a long time to develop. Lumps and bumps are one of the more obvious signs, though they don’t necessarily indicate cancer.

You should observe any changes in your cat’s behaviour carefully. If it eats less, moves less, or loses weight unexpectedly, there’s something wrong. Vomiting or diarrhoea can also be bad signs. Unexplained bleeding is another danger sign to look out for.

Cancer in cats: diagnosis

If you take your cat to the vet, he will examine it to see whether the symptoms are indeed likely to indicate cancer. To confirm his suspicions, your cat’s vet may order x-rays or an ultrasound scan, followed by expert examination of cells from the cat’s body tissue.

A surgeon will take this sample from your cat by biopsy, either surgically by removing the tissue or by taking cells with a needle. She might also conduct blood tests.

If you find yourself with a cat diagnosed with cancer, your vet will inform you of the next stages and prognosis (likely outcome).

Your choice of treatment will depend on the type, location, and seriousness of the cancer. For example, some benign tumours are difficult to remove, and it may be better to leave it there if it doesn’t cause your cat too much pain.

Ideally, malignant cancer will be treated to stop it spreading and hopefully begin to get rid of it. But again you need to balance the cost and suffering involved with some treatments against the likelihood of it being effective. Ultimately you will need to consider your pet’s quality of life, which is more important than how long it lives. If treatment is unlikely to be beneficial, and your cat is suffering a lot, you might have to make the difficult choice to put it down (euthanasia).

Treatment, if appropriate, can include surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiotherapy. There may be fewer side-effects than with the human versions as the doses are lower. But your cat’s immune system may become weaker. So it’s important to be observant and give your cat plenty of love as it begins its fight against cancer.