I’ve been a veterinarian for over 30 years, focusing on cats exclusively for the past 20 years. There’s one fact of which I’m sure. Cats are sneaky. They tend to hide their illnesses, and it can be very difficult to detect cancers as early as we’d like. Complicating matters, cat guardians may unconsciously use denial to avoid dealing with the scary possibility that there might be something wrong with their pet.
Subtle behavioral or physical changes are often the only clues we get. I often tell my clients, that I may be an expert on cats, but they are experts when it comes to knowing their own cat’s normal routine and behavior. If you feel there might be something wrong, there probably is. Trust your instincts, and schedule an exam with your veterinarian as soon as possible.
What should you watch for? Weight loss without a change in feeding schedule or diet is one clue that something is probably wrong. Cats don’t look in the mirror, worry that they’re fat, and decide to go on a diet. While weight loss is nonspecific and can be caused by dental disease, kidney, liver or thyroid disease, diabetes, intestinal parasites, and so on, internal cancers are also a possibility, especially in older cats. Rapid weight loss with loss of muscle mass is particularly worrisome. Lymphoma is the most common cat cancer, and it can affect almost any part of a cat’s body, from kidneys, to stomach or intestines, to liver, spleen, and even the spine. Besides weight loss, you might see weakness, labored breathing, vomiting or diarrhea, a swollen eye or enlarged lymph nodes, depending on where the lymphoma is growing. Lymphoma is a cancer of immune system cells, so it appears in many guises. Chemotherapy is the gold standard of treatment, although palliative therapy with injectable or oral cortisone can temporarily help a cat achieve a better quality of life, when chemotherapy isn’t an option.
Cat cancers can also manifest as a visible swelling or skin irritation. A common cancer in cats is squamous cell carcinoma. Most often seen on the face or in the mouth, it may start as a small lesion that looks like a scratch. I tend to see it on a cat’s nose, eyelids or ears. Cats with a lot of white fur are particularly susceptible, especially if they have significant sun exposure. The key clue is while it starts out looking like a small sore or scratch, it doesn’t heal. It may form a crust, but when the crust falls off, the sore is still there. Diagnosed early, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is extremely treatable and surgery will usually cure it, if it can be completely removed. If very early and superficial, radiation therapy can also be a good option. Squamous cell carcinomas of the oral cavity (mouth) are much harder to detect early. They can occur due to a cat grooming and coming into contact with carcinogens such as cigarette smoke particles. Drooling,
Facial swelling, difficulty eating and weight loss are signs you might see.
To sum up, trust your instincts and have your cat checked if there are changes in behavior, weight or your cat’s appearance. The earlier cancer is detected, the more treatment options, for the best possible outcome for your cat.