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Cancer in Cats: Diagnosis and Planning for the Future

My kitty had a lump. It developed almost overnight on her right side near her back leg. It felt small, hard, and perfectly round like a little marble lodged under her skin. I wasn’t that worried about it. Mammary cancer in younger cats, especially those who were spayed before their first heat cycle is very rare. There’s a slightly higher risk factor in Siamese cats, but Morwen is your average, American shorthair with a bit of Bombay thrown in the mix, a sweet little kitty with a smooshed in nose and big yellow eyes. It certainly wasn’t mammary cancer, but maybe it was a lipoma, not unusual in cats, although not usually quick-growing or hard in nature. Lipomas, of which my elderly cocker spaniel had many, are usually squishy, round lumps filled with fat. Older dogs and cats often develop them and they are, usually, not dangerous. My cocker spaniel has had more than one aspirated and another two removed, all of which were benign.

I had the lump removed to be safe, along with the rest of the mammary gland. My vet, who has treated Morwen since she was a kitten, told me it was likely benign. She had none of the risk factors, the chief of which is being spayed late in life or having had kittens. But when the diagnosis came back, it was a mammary adenocarcinoma.  Although the margins were clean around the tumor (meaning there wasn’t any cancer in the surrounding tissue,) my vet recommended full x-rays.  The x-rays showed no additional tumors or growths and no spreading into surrounding tissue or organs.  Definitely good news, but there’s still a little lump of fear in the pit of my stomach. 

There are, of course, options when your pet is diagnosed with cancer even after surgical intervention: chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and, of course, holistic treatment.  Although my vet does offer holistic and immunotherapy services and, in fact, is certified to craft his own line of pet foods, chemotherapy and radiation are offered only be two specialists in our area. 

Of the 65 million dogs and 32 million cats currently in the US, roughly 12 million will be diagnosed with cancer this year. According to the American Cancer Society, the numbers in humans are over one million diagnosed yearly (in the US population of 11,028,000). That’s one in every two men and one in every three women who will be diagnosed with some form of cancer.  Cancer is the leading cause of death in older cats and one of the leading causes of death in older dogs. Risks factors vary, but in cats include feline leukemia virus as a contributor, exposure to environmental risk factors that also affect humans (such as second hand smoke,) genetic tendencies, and even vaccinations (although the risk is certainly outweighed by the prevention of diseases like feline leukemia, FIV, and rabies).

There are warning signs, although other than the lump itself which appeared in a matter of days, Morwen didn’t have any of them. They can include:

  • Difficulty eating or swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing or excessive coughing
  • Bad breath and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite or increase appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Stiffness, limping or difficulty walking
  • Sores or wounds that don’t heal or discharge from mammary glands
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • A change in litter box use or difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Change in habits like excess grooming, vision problems or decreased sense of smell
  • And, of course, unusual lumps or bumps especially those that appear suddenly and change shape or size.

Lymphoma is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in cats (25% of all cases). It is often associated with FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) although any cat can develop it.

Skin tumors are less common in cats, but certainly breeds (especially those with light or white fur) are more likely to develop them. These tumors usually develop slowly over years and may move under the skin.  One sign of their presence is over-grooming. Cats may obsessively lick the area where a tumor is present (even if you can’t detect it yourself). They’re the second most common kind of malignant tumor diagnosed in felines.

Mammary gland tumors are the third most common type of feline cancer. They develop mainly in older female cats who were spayed late in life and who have had multiple heat cycles and/or kittens. But this isn’t always true. Morwen was spayed early (at four months) before her first heat cycle. These types of tumors tend to be firm, round, and tightly embedded. They don’t move under the skin. They may be enflamed and may ooze (although Morwen’s did not).  

If your pet has any of these symptoms or especially if you find a lump, take them to the vet immediately. Ultrasounds and surgery will be able to better determine if your pet has a tumor. Your vet will likely recommend that it be surgically removed (if the tumor is localized and accessible) along with the surrounding tissue.  Once it is removed, it can be tested. Depending on the type of tumor, your vet may recommend aspiration (drawing a few cells from the tumor for testing) rather than surgery.

If the tumor is malignant, you have several options after surgery including radiation (if the tumor isn’t on an organ that can’t be radiated, chemotherapy (using anti-cancer drugs to break down the chromosomes of the tumor,) immunotherapy (to stimulate your pet’s immune system,) and holistic therapies including immune-strengthening herbs, special diets, and even acupuncture.

Since Morwen’s x-rays show no other tumors and her margins were clean after the tumor’s removal, I’m opting for holistic therapy to strengthen her immune system along with quarterly check-ups. Working the rescue cats in the past, I’ve had very good luck with immune-strengthening diets and herbs, especially in older cats and immune system compromised cats with FIV, Diabetes, and renal failure.

The diet recommended for cats with cancer is very similar to the one your pet might recommend if your cat was diagnosed with diabetes – whole foods (versus dry kibble and processed food,) lower carbohydrates, high-quality proteins, and increased fiber. No raw foods.

Bacterial infection is especially dangerous to pets with compromised immune systems although it can cause health problems in even healthy pets. I’ve found in the past with my geriatric cats that cooked pumpkin and squash are both great ways to introduce more fiber into your pets’ diets. There are also lots of great pet food options out there that offer a balanced, high-fiber, high-protein diet like Pet Tao and Weruva (http://www.weruva.com ).  Your vet will be able to make recommendations for you and there are also a ton of online groups and chat rooms for people who are dealing with cancer (or other health conditions) in pets.

As for herbal and vitamin therapy, supplements like Orthomolecular Specialties Mega-C, Wei Qi Booster, Bloodroot extract, Pycnogenol extract (Maritime Pine Bark,) Reishi and Shiitake mushrooms, Astragulus, grape seed extract, and Cholostrum are often prescribed by holistic vets to treat specific cancers and to boost the immune system overall. If this is the course of therapy you choose, you’ll need to find a vet who offers holistic therapy. Be sure to get recommendations and to check his or her certifications. Since ‘holistic treatments’ have gained prominence, there are quite a few service providers out there offering treatments without any official certification. Spend time discussion your pets’ diet and vitamin/herbal therapy options with your care provider and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If your veterinary care provider offers only traditional services, he or she will need to refer you to a specialist in holistic treatment.

In the end, the best course of treatment is up to you and your vet. You know your pet best and care most about his or her welfare. Just as you’d do some research if the diagnosis was made for you, you’ll want to talk to your vet, check out online resources, and get a second opinion. I’ve consulted with several traditional and a holistic specialists, as well as speaking to several friends who have gone through treatments with their pets in the past.  And, regardless, of which route you choose, your pet will need regular (probably quarterly) check-ups even after they’ve gone into remission. A diagnosis of cancer is no more an end game in a pet than it is in a person. Prevention and catching an illness early means that your pet has a good chance of a long future life.

Beverly Forehand

Beverly Forehand is a freelance writer, editor, and social & digital media marketer living in Nashville, TN. Her stories and articles have been published in Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories, FATE, Fine Gardening, Muscadine Lines, the Ghost Story Society, and other publications. She published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and was a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange/All Creature’s Exchange, an animal advocacy newspaper, for many years. She has published a book of ghost stories, Haunted Homeplace: Tales from the Borderlands of Tennessee and Kentucky with 23House Publishing. If you like a scary story with a cat or two thrown in, you can find it at: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/haunted-homeplace-tales-from-the-borderlands-of-tennessee-kentucky-beverly-forehand/1120537508 Her hobbies include cultivating her medieval herb garden and begging her cats (unsuccessfully) to stay off the sofa. Follow her blog at http://bforehand.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter at @Beforehand

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