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The best way to care for your furry friend is to understand how their body works and to know what to look for when it comes to their health and well-being. Lymphoma in cats is a malignant 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, leading to intestinal lymphoma in cats, and is the most common cause of spinal cord tumors.
Here's what you need to know about lymphoma so you can be the most informed pet parent you can be.
Lymphoma in Cats
According to PetCure Oncology, feline lymphoma accounts for 30% of all cancer diagnosed in cats. The most common location for lymphoma is in the intestinal tract. Also known as gastrointestinal (GI) or alimentary lymphoma, intestinal lymphoma in cats can cause vomiting and diarrhoea.
There are many types of lymphoma in cats, however, and a variety of factors will determine how this cancer might affect your kitty.
The onset of feline lymphoma has been linked to the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and, to a lesser extent, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Cats who are positive for feline leukemia 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. The American Journal of Epidemiology suggests that chronic exposure to cigarette smoke may also be a risk factor for lymphoma.
Because the lymphatic system interacts with every system in the body, lymphoma can affect any of these systems. The main types of lymphoma include:
- Alimentary (digestive tract, most common)
- Mediastinal (chest)
- Renal (kidneys)
- Nasal (nose)
- Spinal (spine)
- Cutaneous (skin)
- Multicentric (meaning multiple systems are affected, most often the spleen and liver)
Signs of lymphoma depend on which organs are affected. Here are some of the signs to look out for according to where the lymphoma is located:
- Chest: Open-mouth breathing, coughing, loss of appetite, weight loss and regurgitation
- Digestive tract: Vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy and bloody stool
- Kidneys: Excessive 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 tumors
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 bloodwork, urinalysis, and testing for FeLV and FIV) and imaging studies, such as radiographs and abdominal ultrasound.
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 biopsies.
Feline lymphoma treatment is aimed at inducing cancer remission and maximising your kitty's quality of life for as long as possible. Chemotherapy is frequently an option, and working with a veterinary oncologist will help your cat get the best possible outcome. Cats usually do well with chemotherapy and don't experience the unpleasant side effects humans experience, such as hair loss and nausea.
If chemotherapy isn't an option, cats can receive palliative care, such as with prednisone. This can generally provide remission of about two to four months, explains the Cornell Feline Health Center. Sometimes, your vet will recommend radiation and/or surgery.
Prognosis after treatment varies 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. Some cats can achieve cancer remission up to several years, depending on their individual situation.
With chemotherapy, many cats — somewhere between 50% and 80%, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center — can achieve temporary remission of clinical signs and maintain a good quality of life.
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's no FIV vaccine.) If your cat goes outdoors, keep their FeLV vaccine up to date.
Keep your cat's environment free of tobacco smoke
Secondhand smoke may increase the risk of lymphoma.
Visit your vet regularly
Early detection is key. Get your cat examined twice a year and request annual bloodwork for cats 7 years and older.
Advances in medicine and better education for pet parents continue to improve the odds for pets with cancer. From early detection to reducing risk factors, you can take steps to help your favorite feline friend 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 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.