What is Skin Cancer?
Skin cancer will often begin subtly and then increase in seriousness, making early recognition and veterinary care a crucial part of your cat’s prognosis for long-term recovery.
Skin cancer in cats refers to a variety of types of malignant (cancerous) tumors that are found on your cat’s skin. Skin cancer is distinguished from other types of tumors, including non-malignant sebaceous cysts, as cancer can spread to surrounding bodily structures and cause damage to other cells and tissues. Skin cancer occurs more frequently in cats with shorter or thinner coats that have more exposure to the sun. Skin cancer can also have a hereditary component as cats with a relative with the condition have a greater chance of developing the disease.
Symptoms of Skin Cancer in Cats
Symptoms of skin cancer in your cat will often begin very subtly. As the disease progresses, the signs will become more noticeable. Examining your cat regularly while petting will help in early identification and better long term treatment options. Signs to watch for include:
- Redness or red patches of skin
- Flaky or dry patches of skin
- Itchiness in specific isolated areas of skin
- Ulcers or lesions on skin
- Open wounds that do not have an apparent injurious cause
- Open wounds or sores that will not heal
- Lump on the skin
- Swelling in isolated areas
While skin cancer refers to any number of cancers that affect the epidermis of your cat, there are several common types of skin cancer to watch out for.
Basal Cell Carcinoma
Affecting the top or basal layer of skin and appearing along the head, neck, legs and chest, basal cell carcinomas are malignant tumors that increase in size and can spread to neighboring skin.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma
Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common forms of skin cancer in cats. Tumors often occur around body openings and in areas exposed to the sun and rarely metastasize, or spread to other parts of the body.
Mast Cell Tumors
Small tumors with a distinct appearance of ulcerated, damaged or dead skin, mast cell tumors tend to occur on the legs and abdomen and can often spread quickly to other parts of the body.
Melanomas can be distinguished from other types of cancers by their color. These black or brown tumors can be found in numerous locations around your cat’s body.
Causes of Skin Cancer in Cats
For some forms of skin cancer, the exact cause is unknown. However, there are several generally accepted causes for the most common types.
- Long-term, repeated exposure to sun
- Exposure to environmental toxins
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
- Hereditary predisposition
Diagnosis of Skin Cancer in Cats
Diagnosis of skin cancer in your cat will begin during a thorough physical examination of your cat’s body. In some cases, identification and diagnosis may be made during routine veterinary visits. If you have previously identified the symptoms, you should make a particular note of any changes in the appearance of the skin or tumors. Timing growth or changes in shapes can help identify the type of skin cancer in your cat, as well as provide initial clues as to the severity and best course of treatment.
You veterinarian will next take several samples from your cat. These will include skin scrapings or samples of any ulcerated tissue or mole-like structures. Your veterinarian will also run a full blood panel and, depending on the severity of the condition, may also take a tissue sample from nearby lymph nodes to determine whether the cancer has spread. Finally, your veterinarian will want to perform imaging of your cat, such as chest x-rays or ultrasounds, to confirm that any cancer has not spread to other parts of the body.
Treatment of Skin Cancer in Cats
The preferred method of treatment for skin cancer in your cat will almost always be removal of the tumor. In cases which the skin cancer is caught early, the tumors may be small and easily removed during a surgical procedure. Your cat will need to be admitted to the hospital and placed under anesthesia. Your vet will then carefully remove the affected tissue, being sure to obtain clean margins, or an area of uninfected, non-cancerous cells around the tumor, to ensure that cancer will not regrow.
In cases which the skin cancer has grown too large or has spread to other parts of the body and become inoperable, chemotherapy or radiation may be potential alternative treatment options. Chemotherapy will involve strong tumor fighting drugs being administered to your cat over several months. There may be side effects to chemotherapy, such as weight loss or loss of appetite. These side effects may be lessened by various medications prescribed by your vet.
Recovery of Skin Cancer in Cats
Depending on the severity of your cat’s skin cancer, prognosis is very good for recovery. If the skin cancer was of a type that does not rapidly spread, removal of the tumor will provide a cure and allow your cat to have a normal, long and healthy life. It will be important to follow up with regular veterinary exams to ensure the cancer does not recur. You should also speak with your vet about preventative measures that can be taken to decrease or avoid sun exposure to your cat’s skin.