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The best way to care for your cat’s health and wellbeing is to understand how their body functions and what to look out for when they’re sick. Here's what you need to know about lymphoma in cats so you can be the most informed pet parent you can be.
Lymphoma in Cats
Lymphoma in cats is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is a collection of lymphocytes (blood cells) and organs (lymph nodes, etc.). It can affect many systems in a cat's body, and is the most common cause of spinal cord tumours.
According to The Royal Veterinary College, feline lymphoma is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in cats. There are many types of lymphoma in cats, but the most common is intestinal lymphoma, also known as gastrointestinal (GI) or alimentary lymphoma. A variety of factors will determine how this cancer might affect your cat.
The onset of feline lymphoma has been linked to the feline leukaemia virus (FeLV), and, to a lesser extent, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Cats who are positive for feline leukaemia generally develop cancer at a younger age. These days, because many cats are housed indoors and there's widespread testing for and vaccination against FeLV, lymphoma is less common in younger cats. Cats who are negative for the virus tend to develop lymphoma at an older age.
Blue Cross says that exposure to tobacco smoke may increase the risk of lymphoma in cats. They explain that, while secondhand smoke may be harmful to all pets, cats are especially vulnerable. Not only do they breathe in smoke from the air, but while self-grooming, they may also ingest toxic particles from smoke that has settled on their fur.
Types of Lymphoma in Cats
Because the lymphatic system interacts with every system in the body, lymphoma can affect any of these organs. The main types of lymphoma include:
- Alimentary (digestive tract)
- Mediastinal (chest)
- Renal (kidneys)
- Nasal (nose)
- Spinal (spine)
- Cutaneous (skin)
- Multicentric (meaning multiple organs are affected, most often the spleen and liver)
Signs of Lymphoma in Cats
Signs of lymphoma in cats depend on which organs are affected. Here are some of the signs to look out for according to where the lymphoma is located:
- Digestive tract: Vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy and bloody stool.
- Chest: Open-mouth breathing, coughing, loss of appetite, weight loss and regurgitation.
- Kidneys: Increased drinking and urinating, weight loss and loss of appetite.
- Nose: Chronic nasal discharge, bloody nose, swollen nose, sneezing, loss of appetite, eye discharge and noisy breathing.
- Spine: Weakness or paralysis of the back legs.
- Skin: Itching, hair loss and bleeding skin tumours.
If you notice any of these signs in your cat, immediately contact your veterinarian. They can diagnose your cat's condition and determine the best treatment.
Lymphoma is diagnosed using a combination of information. If your vet suspects your cat has lymphoma, they'll ask you about your cat's history and lifestyle. They'll likely follow up with a physical examination of your cat, laboratory testing (including blood tests, urinalysis, and testing for FeLV and FIV) and imaging studies, such as radiographs and ultrasounds.
The testing your vet recommends will vary depending on the type of lymphoma they suspect. If there's a mass or swollen lymph node, for example, they may also take a biopsy. This involved taking a small sample of the affected tissue and examining it for cancerous cells.
Feline lymphoma treatment is aimed at putting the cancer into remission (eliminating all signs and symptoms) and maximising your cat’s quality of life for as long as possible. Because lymphoma is usually widespread in the body, explains Blue Cross, chemotherapy tends to be the preferred option rather than surgery. Cats tend to respond well to this treatment and don’t experience the unpleasant side effects humans do, such as hair loss or nausea.
If chemotherapy isn't an option, your vet may recommend radiation and, in rare cases, surgery. Cats may also receive treatments such as prednisone (a steroid) to relieve the symptoms of cancer.
With chemotherapy, many cats can achieve temporary remission of clinical signs and maintain a good quality of life. Some cats can achieve cancer remission for up to several years, depending on their individual situation. However, prognosis will vary depending on the type of lymphoma, whether your cat is positive for FeLV and/or FIV, and where the cancer is located. Cats who are FeLV- or FIV-positive often have a worse prognosis.
Pet parents should also consult their vet about nutritional requirements for cats with lymphoma.
While there's no way to prevent lymphoma, you can take actions to lessen your cat's chances of developing it.
Keep your cat indoors
This will prevent them from having contact with cats who are FeLV- or FIV-positive.
Test for FIV and FeLV
Have your cat tested when they're a kitten if possible. If you're adding a new cat to your household, have them tested before exposing your cat to them.
Vaccinate kittens against FeLV
There is currently no FIV vaccine, but you can have your cat vaccinated for FeLV. If your cat goes outdoors, be sure to keep their FeLV vaccine up to date.
Keep your cat's environment smoke-free
Secondhand smoke is not good for anyone, and according to the Blue Cross, that includes cats.
Visit your vet regularly
Early detection is key. Get your cat examined twice a year and request annual blood tests for cats 7 years and older.
Advances in medicine and better education for pet parents continue to improve the odds for cats with cancer. From early detection to reducing risk factors, you can take steps to help your cat live their best life.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and certified veterinary journalist, Dr. Sarah Wooten has 16 years of experience in small animal veterinary practice, is a well-known international speaker and writer in the veterinary and animal health care spaces, and is passionate about helping pet parents learn how to care better for their fur friends.
Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA