All you need to know about: skin cancer in cats

The ‘C’ word is always a scary one, but the good news is vets can often treat cats’ skin cancer successfully – as long as it’s identified promptly. Petplan vet Brian Faulkner explains more about how to prevent, spot and treat this disease.

We all hate the thought of our pets being unwell, and any sort of cancer is a particularly scary prospect. Luckily, many cancers, including skin cancer, are very treatable if detected early – and by understanding the signs to look for and what to expect from treatment, you’ll be in the best position to cope with any diagnosis and help your cat recover.

Yes – skin cancer happens when the cells inside a cat’s skin start to divide and grow abnormally. Over time, it can lead to a mass or tumour that can then spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body.

‘While their fur provides some protection against the elements, cats can be susceptible to skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma, which typically forms on the edges of the ear tips and is linked to sun exposure,’ says Petplan veterinary expert Brian Faulkner. ‘However, not all skin cancer in cats is caused by overexposure to the sun or sunburn, and cats can also be predisposed to tumours due to their genes.’

There are many different kinds of skin tumour. Some form within the skin, while others develop just beneath it. Either type can be benign (not usually harmful) or malignant (faster growing and usually harmful). Although many lumps and bumps that cats develop are harmless, it’s always important to get them checked out by your vet as soon as possible.

The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) reports that skin cancer can affect 25% of cats.

While cats can develop skin cancer at any age, senior cats have an increased susceptibility to skin tumours, as well as cancer of any organ. Cats with white-coloured ears or noses – or those with shorter hair, like Oriental Shorthairs – are also more prone to developing skin cancer as they are at greater risk of exposure to the sun’s harmful rays, especially if they get sunburnt.

Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to develop cancer. Persians and Himalayans are more likely to develop basal cell tumours (affecting cells in the sweat glands, hair follicles or sebaceous glands), while Siamese cats are more likely to develop mast cell tumours (affecting a type of white blood cell found under the skin, among other places).

Unfortunately, there isn’t anything you can do to protect your cat from cancers related to their age or genetic make-up – but you can protect their skin from the strong sunlight that’s responsible for squamous cell carcinoma. During the summer, make sure there are plenty of shady spots for your cat to bask, or keep them inside during the sunniest periods of the day. You can apply a cat-friendly sunscreen to the ears and nose – many cats will groom it off quite quickly, but it will help a little. (It’s important not to use human sunscreen on animals.)

One of the best ways to spot any potential signs of skin cancer is to regularly groom your cat. ‘Not only is this excellent for bonding, it also means you will notice any unusual lumps and bumps as soon as they appear,’ says Brian.

Signs to look out for include:

  • Bumps or lumps on or under the skin
  • Red or crusty scabs – especially on the ear tips and nose
  • Changes in skin colour
  • Unexplained wounds that don’t heal

‘Make sure to feel the areas that aren’t normally stroked, touched or seen, such as the armpits, inside the groin, the back of the neck, between the shoulder blades, under the tail, and the anus,’ says Brian. ‘Also, remember to check your cat in areas where their fur is thinnest, such as the tips of the ears or where the bridge of the nose meets the nostrils.’

If you find crusting or redness on these areas, or a lump or bump anywhere on your cat’s skin, don’t panic – but it’s important to immediately get them checked out by a vet.

Brian adds: ‘Unfortunately, certain misconceptions are common, including the assumption that if a lump is freely moveable, or isn’t painful to the touch, then it’s benign – which isn’t always the case. It’s vital to get your vet’s professional opinion whenever you spot something out of the ordinary.’

If your vet suspects a lump could be cancerous, they will want to perform some simple tests to explore this. ‘Cells can easily be extracted using a procedure called a fine-needle aspirate,’ explains Brian, ‘although delicate areas, like the tips of the ears, may require a biopsy under sedation. Once acquired, the cells are placed on a slide and examined under a microscope. Depending on the findings, the vet may then recommend a tissue biopsy, where part of the tissue is removed for examination, to confirm the diagnosis. This is usually done under deep sedation or general anaesthetic.’

If there are signs of skin cancer, surgery is usually recommended – with or without chemotherapy, depending on the stage of cancer. ‘Keep in mind that if it’s caught early, most cats with skin cancer have a good chance of recovery, and the condition can be managed well enough to ensure it doesn’t affect your cat’s quality of life.’

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