Early Detection

Recognizing the Signs of Cancer Helps Improve the Odds of Successful Treatment

Little Tail, or L.T. as his friends knew him, was an 11-year-old, bright orange tabby that spent much of his time sleeping on top of the kitchen cupboards in close proximity to his food dish. He had a commanding view of his world from the top of the refrigerator and loved to swat at anyone foolish enough to come within reach.

One day, instead of vaulting to his usual place, he meowed until someone figured out he wanted a boost to the top of the counter. Soon he needed help getting from the counter to the top of the refrigerator. He looked as though he might have lost some weight. Was he unable to get to his food dish? The veterinarian was called. Little Tails abdomen now looked distended. Tests were done. Little Tail had cancer. By the time he showed signs of disease, the cancer had spread and he was a very sick kitty. The successful treatment of cancer in cats depends to a very great extent on the ability to identify risk factors and detect them early, even before the cat shows signs of illness.

Identifying risk factors
Almost half of the companion animals that live to be older than 10 years of age will die of cancer. Early diagnosis and prevention could do more to reduce the impact of cancer on the lives of companion animals than cancer treatment programs are able to accomplish, explains Rodney Page, DVM, director of the Cornell Comparative Cancer Program at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Page asserts that the key to early diagnosis and prevention of cancer is to identify those cats that have an increased risk of developing a certain type of cancer at a stage when treatments will be most successful. Once risk factors are identified, development of specific screening programs helps detect cancers that would otherwise remain hidden.

Preventive screenings
Because the incidence of cancer increases with age, all older cats are considered at risk, says Page, who is board certified in internal medicine and oncology. He advises that cats older than seven years of age see their veterinarian for a complete physical exam twice a year. In addition, he recommends that all geriatric patients have a complete blood count and urinalysis, as well as a map of the skin to assess the size, location, and diagnosis of all skin growths.

Lymphoma, or lymphosarcoma, is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in cats. A cancer of the lymphocytes (types of white blood cells) and lymphoid tissues, lymphoma may occur in many places in the body including the spleen, liver, gastrointestinal tract, chest, kidneys, or bone marrow. Cats of any age, breed, or sex can be affected.

Most common forms of cancer
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) infection has been shown to cause lymphosarcoma, and cats infected with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) have a higher risk of developing lymphosarcoma, as well. Therefore, FeLV and FIV exposure are both risk factors for the development of lymphoma in cats. When cats are kept indoors, their risk of exposure to the viruses is reduced. For cats at risk, frequent exams and FeLV/FIV testing are screening recommendations for this most common form of cancer in cats. FIV infection is also a risk factor in the development of oral tumors. Proper dental hygiene and frequent dental and oral exams by your veterinarian are recommended.

Mammary gland cancer is very common in cats. Exposure to the female sex hormone estrogen increases the risk of developing mammary tumors; cats spayed by six months of age are seven times less likely to develop mammary cancer than cats that arent spayed. Siamese cats have a twofold greater risk of developing mammary tumors, and people who live with a Siamese cat must be especially vigilant to examine their cat often for any lumps or swellings in the area of the mammary glands.

L.T.s reluctance to jump to his usual spot was the first sign that something was wrong. Its important that caregivers learn the common signs of cancer, and regularly evaluate their cats skin, mammary glands, lymph nodes, mouths, and ears for anything unusual, says Page, adding they should be especially aware of any changes in their cats behavior, no matter how subtle.