Treatment options for cats suffering from cancer will vary with the site of the cancer and also the prognosis. Sometimes the treatment is with the intention of a permanent cure but often it is just a way of making the animal more comfortable and prolonging its life at a reasonable level of quality. Cancer in cats is not as common as it is in dogs and people, standing at around 12%, but to counterbalance that it does seem to be the case that when a cat does contract cancer it is likely to be more aggressive with a less assured outcome. Survival rates taken over the whole spectrum of cancers seem to come out at less than 50%. It has been noted by some experts that cancer rates in cats are rising, but this is likely to be because cats are more valued pets these days than they used to be and so treatment is sought. Also, with improved feeding methods and levels of care, cats tend to love longer nowadays and of course the longer an animal lives, the more chance that it will develop a malignancy of some kind.
Where the site of the tumour allows it, surgery is always the first option for treating cancer. Surgery can be quite extensive and vets have obtained very good results with amputation is a limb is the site of a secondary. This is more likely than a primary tumour in a bone as bone cancer is really very rare in a cat. Skin cancers can be quite widely excised and although aftercare can be quite difficult as anyone will know who has tried to keep a dressing on a cat for more than five minutes, the results are usually successful. Tumours in the intestines are also relatively easy to remove and although the surgery in this case is often not considered a total cure, it certainly can give relief from the symptoms for an acceptably long period of time. Breast tumours if caught early can be dealt with by surgery alone, as the whole area of tissue can be taken away and as long as there is no lymph node involvement, the cure may be complete. Cats tolerate surgery fairly well if they are in reasonable health to start with, so results are often quite good.
Drug regimes in cats are quite simple and have not come on in leaps and bounds as they have for dogs. But even so, they can be quite successful and cats generally tolerate chemotherapy well, although we are back to the old chestnut of how to give tablets to cats. Avoiding stress is important at this difficult time for the animal, so if you have a sneaky way, use that. Otherwise, your vet probably has advice as well as a range of bits of kit to make it as stress free as possible for you and your cat. Many people worry needlessly that the cat will lose its fur – while this is obviously not a health issue for the cat, it can be distressing for the owners and children in particular find it hard to cope with. This is not a problem. The way that chemotherapy drugs work is to attack fast dividing cells – this is why anaemia and infections sometimes result from chemotherapy as the bone marrow can be suppressed – and the cat’s fur is relatively slow growing, so it will not fall out. Whiskers might, though, and the cat may look a little unusual for a while, but it will not affect the cat’s balance or anything like that, as some people believe. Chemotherapy is not a cheap option, but as it sometimes does affect a cure, most vets will suggest it, in a case with a good prognosis.
Radiotherapy is another option and is often used in cases where the tumour is discrete (in one place) but can’t be reached, for example brain tumours or tumours in the nose. Not everyone can take advantage of radiotherapy treatment, but the vet will certainly suggest it if it is likely to be successful. Sometimes it is useful in prolonging life at a reasonable quality because short term it can shrink the tumour considerably without actually curing it. In the case of a tumour which is causing pain or problems with breathing, this may be all the animal needs to give it many more months or even years of very comfortable life.
When to say enough is enough
It is always sad to have to say goodbye to a beloved pet and most pet owners have been there at some time or another. Despite improvements in treatments, cat cancers can be troublesome to treat and the outcome is by no means certain. You will not have to make the decision alone – the vet will have seen the situation you are in many times before and will guide you with advice on whether there is a likelihood of a happy result. You and the vet will weigh up the pros and cons of the case, with the emphasis always being on whether the cat is in pain or distress, whether it will cope with the treatment and its aftermath and, to a lesser extent, whether you as an owner will be able to cope with what may be a sick animal for the rest of its life. But the final thing to remember is the relative rarity of cancer in cats and to stay vigilant to keep your animal healthy as an otherwise healthy cat will cope with even cancer more successfully.