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Oral Cancer in Cats | Diagnosis, Treatment & Prognosis

Picture of a grey cat

In cats, mouth cancer is a silent, but deadly disease. It often goes unnoticed because most of its clinical signs aren’t as obvious as those that you’d see, for example, if your cat had mammary tumors. The oral cavity is one of the most common sites for neoplasia in our feline friends, and some studies suggest that oral cancer accounts for approximately ten percent of all feline tumors.

In this article, we’ll go through some of the symptoms you should be on the lookout for, what you can do if your cat is diagnosed with mouth cancer, and what you should know about cat oral cancer life expectancy.

Signs of Oral Cancer in Cats

Some of the most notable symptoms of this type of cancer range from lethargy to a switch in food preferences. Let’s take this situation, for example. If you know that your cat has always had a preference for dry, crunchy food and treats, and she suddenly starts refusing it altogether and going for wet food only, this could be an indication that she is experiencing mouth pain.

Not too many cats have bad breath, but those that have oral tumors will have a nasty mouth smell. If you notice that your cat doesn’t like you to pet her chin anymore, there’s something going on, too.

Some of the clinical signs of mouth cancer that are a bit more severe range from facial swelling, mouth bleeding, and oral discharge to the loss of teeth, reduced appetite, and an evident difficulty in swallowing food. Dribbling isn’t uncommon, either, and some cats paw at or scratch their faces in an attempt to relieve the pain.

Oral squamous cell carcinoma

This is a malignant tumor that can occur anywhere inside the oral cavity. It is locally invasive, and it often metastasizes to regional lymph nodes. While it rarely spreads to distant sites, it can do so.

The sublingual region (under your cat’s tongue) is the most common area affected by this type of cancer, but other primary sites of development are represented by the maxillary and mandibular gingivae, as well. Otherwise said, oral squamous cell carcinoma can also show up both in the upper and the lower portions of your cat’s mouth.

We made a separate section about this specific type of tumor because it grows rapidly and has a series of symptoms that are more severe than other types. In this sense, you could notice that your cat has inflammation or necrosis in the mouth, or that she dribbles other types of secretions, not just saliva. Sometimes, you might even notice the tumor as your cat yawns. Many cats affected by oral squamous cell carcinoma look like they have an enlarged jaw because the growth of the tumor in the mandible can make the cat’s mouth look asymmetrical.

Around fifteen percent of all cats that have this type of cancer experience metastasis to the submandibular lymph nodes. The cancer can even spread after the primary tumor was treated.

There is no specific cause for this type of mouth cancer, but there are both dietary and environmental factors that could contribute to the growth of malignant tumors in a cat’s oral cavity. Flea collars contain a number of chemicals that could be the culprit, and exposure to secondhand tobacco can be another factor.

Diagnosis

It’s crucial that you take your cat to the vet if you are under the impression that she might be suffering from oral cancer. In fact, it might be a good idea to get her to the clinic whenever you notice any change in color, volume, shape, discharge, funny smells, or anything else that suddenly looks bizarre about her mouth.

Your vet may want to know more about your cat’s medical history and some of the symptoms that you have noticed, and that’s why it’s important to be organized and even take some notes of the signs you have seen over the course of a week, for example.

Simple palpation could detect any signs regarding a change in the size of the lymph nodes, but a complete diagnosis is often necessary. Otherwise, you can’t know for sure if your cat has feline oral cancer. Sedation or anesthesia might be required for the vet to properly look inside your cat’s mouth. If the veterinarian finds any indication of a mass or tumor, blood work might be necessary, as well as several special diagnosis methods such as biopsy or an X-ray.

To evaluate the stage of oral cancer, advanced imaging might be necessary. It’s the only way to overrule the extension of the cancer to surrounding areas such as the nasal cavity, pharynx, or the eye.

Treatment

Some types of feline oral tumors aren’t malignant, and if your cat has any of these, they can be surgically removed. It’s also worth noting that cats can have masses in their mouth and they could just as well not be cancerous – eosinophilic granuloma is just one of them.

However, if the cat in discussion does have cancer, the vet will most likely try to remove the tumor with surgery. This treatment method can be successful only if the disease is diagnosed in due time and especially if the type of tumor is not malignant. Surgery can also be associated with chemotherapy and radiation treatment and in most cases, combination therapy is the one that offers the best results.

Supportive treatment and feeding cats with oral cancer

If your cat begins treatment for oral cancer, you will also have to do your best to provide her as much care as possible — palliative care. Curing her cancer is definitely important, but providing your pet with pain relief can also be crucial. Medication such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and opioids could be beneficial in some cases.

All cancer patients have to receive the right amount of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients so as to put up with the abuse of the therapy and the disease. In some situations, the cat might have to receive food through an esophageal feeding tube or gastrostomy tube if she can no longer use her mouth to feed herself.

Prognosis

Unfortunately, this type of cancer almost always has a poor prognosis. A whopping 90% of the cats that receive treatment for oral cancer die within the first twelve months after the initial diagnosis. Many are euthanized because of the disease, because it makes them unable to feed, and because they are in constant pain.

No pet parent likes to see their cat or dog in pain, and under such circumstances, euthanasia could be a responsible decision.

Final thoughts

Early detection is extremely important when it comes to treating oral cancer in cats. If you have any suspicion that something might be more to what you’re seeing or if you notice that your cat just doesn’t seem that enthusiastic about food and tries to eat in all sorts of weird positions or does so very slowly, she might be in pain. Take her to the vet as soon as possible.

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