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What is Lymphadenopathy?

If you pet your cat and feel a lump under the skin, your cat could have lymphadenopathy. Caused by a variety of conditions from infections to cancer, lymphadenopathy is a broad term used when referring to enlarged lymph nodes. 

A lymph node is a bean-shaped organ where infectious material are picked up and destroyed by lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). When an area of the body has been infected by a microorganism, the duct of the lymph node picks up the excess fluids that have leaked from that area’s blood capillaries and filter the blood toxin, allowing healthy blood to return to the bloodstream. The processes of destroying infectious materials cause the lymph node to become inflamed. Therefore, the area adjacent to the lymph inflammation will pinpoint the location of infection and makes it easy for the veterinarian to diagnose. Lymphadenopathy caused by infections are usually painful to the touch and are accompanied by symptoms associated with the illness. However, lymphadenopathy caused by noninfectious conditions, such as cancer, will cause the lymph node to swell but no pain or accompanying will symptoms will be present. 

Symptoms of Lymphadenopathy in Cats

The main clinical sign of lymphadenopathy in cats is an enlargement of a solitary lymph node, a regional group of lymph nodes or several regions of the cat’s body. In all cats, the lymph nodes can be palpable on the popliteal nodes, superficial inguinal, axillary, superficial cervical and mandibular locations. A feline may only have an enlarged lymph node and no other signs of illness, but infectious lymphadenopathy usually has accompanying symptoms that vary depending on the area affected. An enlarged lymph node of the neck could cause difficulty swallowing, a decreased appetite, and weight loss. An enlarged lymph node of the limbs could make it difficult for the feline to walk, causing a decrease in physical activity, unusual gait, and swelling of one limb. Other symptoms associated with lymphadenopathy can are specific to the infection or underlying cause, but in general, lymphadenopathy causes symptoms of: 

  • A lump underneath the skin
  • Localized pain
  • Fever 
  • Fluid buildup 
  • Polyuria 
  • Polydipsia 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Lethargy 
  • Anorexia 
  • Weight loss
  • Runny nose

Causes of Lymphadenopathy in Cats

Lymphadenopathy in cats can be caused by neoplastic infiltration, lymphadenitis, or reactive hyperplasia. Neoplastic infiltration is caused by infiltration of metastatic neoplastic disease. Lymphadenitis results from an influx of inflammatory cells usually caused by a localized infection of bacteria, fungi, or a virus. Reactive hyperplasia results from antigenic stimulation of the blood plasma and lymphocyte cells. Examples of common lymphadenopathy causes in cats are listed below: 

  • Feline leukemia (neoplasia) 
  • Feline lymphoma (neoplasia) 
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus
  • Histoplasma capsulatum (fungual) 
  • Feline coronavirus 
  • Toxoplasma gondii (protozoa) 
  • Calicivirus polyarthropathy or stomatitis 
  • FPV
  • FeLV

Diagnosis of Lymphadenopathy in Cats

The veterinarian will begin the diagnostic process by performing a physical exam. If the lymph node is close to the skin’s surface and is not next to an internal organ, the doctor will be able to feel the localized enlargement. Ultrasounds have proven to be most effective in viewing an enlarged lymph node and are the preferred diagnostic imaging choice in most lymphadenopathy cases. Therefore, your veterinarian will likely request an ultrasound of the affected area to pinpoint the exact location. As lymphadenopathy in cats can be caused by several conditions, the veterinarian will begin with a laboratory diagnostic test to analyze the cat’s fluids before moving on to more effusive measures. The laboratory diagnostic tests commonly performed on cats with lymphadenopathy include the following: 

  • Complete blood count 
  • Serum chemistry profile 
  • Feline leukemia virus antigen test
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus antibody 
  • Serological tests (protozoa infections) 
  • Urine antigen titers (fungal infections) 
  • Fecal parasitology examination 

If the laboratory tests come back negative for infection or if the veterinarian would like to further exam the lymph node, a cytological examination will be requested. In order to examine the cytological nature of the lymph node, a fine needle aspirate biopsy will be requested to remove fluids or cells from the lymph. The biopsy will then be examined under the microscope by a laboratory technician. 

Treatment of Lymphadenopathy in Cats

The treatment option your veterinarian chooses for lymphadenopathy in cats depends greatly on the underlying cause. Infections are generally treated with oral or intravenous medications, focusing on maintaining hydration and terminating the microorganism. Lymphadenopathy caused by cancer, however, is often treated by surgical removal of the lymph node, chemotherapy or radiation therapy. 

Recovery of Lymphadenopathy in Cats

In general, lymphadenopathy in cats is not usually serious and most cats make a complete recovery. The cause of lymphadenopathy must be pinpointed to effectively treat and manage the condition, in order to receive a positive prognosis. All unusual lumps on your cat’s skin should always be checked out, even when the feline has no other symptoms, as cancer does not usually cause any clinical signs of disease. 

Lymphadenopathy Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

2 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms

Enlarged Lymph Nodes

My cat has felv. His nodes have recently become enlarged. I would like to try and make him feel better. Not sure what to do. He doesn’t seemed too phased about it although I know what it feels like.

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13 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms

Weight Loss
Vomiting clear liquid
Runny Nose
Enlarged Lymph Nodes

My senior cat has enlarged lymph nodes. Can cancer/tumors of the ear cause enlarged lymph nodes? She has been tested for all of the F diseases, and they came back negative. She has been tested for internal parasites, and that was negative. Her ultrasound was good with the exception of an enlarged spleen, and one kidney being on the small normal size.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1608 Recommendations
I think that conditions of the ears can cause enlarged submandibular lymph nodes, as those nodes drain that area. It would be unlikely that other lymph nodes would be affected.

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13 Years
Moderate condition
0 found helpful
Moderate condition

Has Symptoms

Swollen popliteal lymph node
swollen lymph node

I have a 13 year old Siamese who, based on blood panel, is in generally good health, except for mild asthma dianosed months before. He was on steroids. During his annual check up, he got his rabies vaccine (non-adjuvenated sp?). In 10 days, I noted paw and subsequently leg, became extremely swollen. After returning to vet, advised lymph nodes swollen. Cat had no fever. Node aspiration done. Results not conclusive but believe lymphoma. Was going to have a tissue biopsy done, but two days before, he had a morning of vomiting and some diarrhea. I postponed biopsy. Since that morning (3 days), no more vomiting and diarrhea (believe he was extremely stressed as he was confined to a room). I lost a cat before to fibrosarcoma secondary to rabies, so I can rule out that. However, the rabies injection appears to be what caused the inflammation as there was no issue prior. His physical exam the day the injection indicated no issues. My question: Is it not possible that the injection caused this issue? I realize lymphoma does not happen overnight, but could this swelling be reactive to the injection and is it possibly that it is a benign reaction? I am waiting to reschedule the biopsy, but would the tissue biopsy be able to confirm the reactive swelling or rule out lymphoma?l Cat is currently eating, defecting and urinating and taking fluids. Just has a limping gait due to swollen lymph node in back of knee. Thank you so very much for your opinion.

Dr. Michele King, DVM
Dr. Michele King, DVM
1608 Recommendations
If Simba's swelling is on the same leg as the vaccine, it is possible that it is related to the vaccine, albeit unlikely. The biopsy will be able to differentiate between reactive inflammation and lymphoma. I hope that all goes well for him!

Biopsy still not done as he has been on low doses of prednisone since March. At this time, swelling has spread to second hind knee and paw, and as of yesterday, appears to be moving into his front right leg. I am having difficulty grasping the diagnosis as the issues appears to be joint related and yes, I understand lymphoma is systemic, however, we had no issues until approx 10 days after the vaccine. Advised cats don't get lyme's disease (had to ask even though he is strictly an indoor cat.) He remains on buprenex for pain and low dose prednisone. We are meeting with our vet later today. Breaking my heart but still grasping what is probably false hope.

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1 Year
Serious condition
0 found helpful
Serious condition

Has Symptoms

Breathing Difficulty
lack of appetite
Swollen neck

I’m pretty sure my cat has Lymphadenopathy from Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (one of our other cats has it). What will happen if Lymphadenopathy goes untreated? Over a period of time.

Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
Dr. Callum Turner, DVM
3318 Recommendations
There are different causes of lymphadenopathy which include infections, inflammation, allergies and cancer (reactive/lymphadenitis/neoplasia); therefore it is important to know for sure the underlying cause before making any assumption regarding prognosis or anything else. If you are suspecting that Dinah may have feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or just to confirm it isn’t something more serious, you should visit your Veterinarian. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

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