The ‘C’ word is always a scary one, but the good news is that vets can often treat skin cancer successfully – as long as it’s promptly identified. We asked Petplan vet Brian Faulkner for his advice on preventing, spotting and treating this disease.
So cats can get skin cancer?
Yes. While their fur provides some protection against the elements, cats can be susceptible to environmentally caused skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma (a form of skin cancer linked to sun exposure), especially compared to dogs, which are more prone to genetically linked tumours.
However, not all feline skin cancer is caused by overexposure to the sun or sunburn, and cats can also be prone to tumours in which genetic factors play a role. There are many different kinds of skin tumours – some can form superficially on top of the skin, while others develop between the skin’s layers or completely under it – and they can be benign (not usually harmful) or malignant (faster growing and usually harmful).
Are senior cats more likely to develop skin cancer?
Unfortunately, yes. Old age brings an increased probability of tumours and cancer of any organ.
How can I spot the signs?
It’s important to spend regular time grooming your cat. Not only is this excellent for bonding, but it also means you can consistently check her for unusual lumps and bumps and spot any changes in her skin as soon as they appear. Make sure to feel areas that aren’t normally stroked, touched or looked at, such as the armpits, inside the groin, the back of the neck, between the shoulder blades, under the tail and the anus. Also remember to check your cat on areas where her fur is thinnest, such as the tips of her ears or where the bridge of her nose meets the nostrils. Crusting or redness on these areas, or the appearance of an unexplained lump or bump anywhere on her skin, should immediately be checked out by your vet.
Any bumps might not be as ominous as you fear, but there are also misconceptions out there, including the idea that if a lump is freely moveable, or isn’t painful to the touch, it must be 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.
Can I prevent it?
It’s only possible to help minimise your cat’s risk of environmentally caused tumours, such as squamous cell carcinoma. Cats love to sunbathe, and on particularly sunny days it may be a good precaution to keep your cat indoors. This is especially important for sunburn-prone white cats, or those with white- or light-coloured fur on the tips of their ears or head. Shorthaired breeds are also more vulnerable to the effects of the sun than those with longer coats, whose extra fur provides more of a barrier. While you can buy sunblock specifically formulated for pets (it’s best to avoid human preparations) cats tend to remove it during grooming, which often reduces its effect.
However, the single most important thing you can do is keep regularly checking your cat for changes on her skin. Early detection and treatment can make all the difference.
How is skin cancer in cats diagnosed and treated?
If your vet suspects that a lump might be cancerous, he or she will extract cells from it via something called a fine-needle aspirate (although delicate areas, like the tips of the ears, may require a biopsy under sedation). These cells are then placed onto a slide and examined under a microscope. The next step may then be a 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 your vet does find signs of skin cancer, surgery will usually be recommended – with or without chemotherapy, depending on the stage of cancer. Keep in mind however, that if it’s caught early most cats have a good chance of recovery and the condition can be managed well enough to ensure it doesn’t affect your furry friend’s quality of life.