Cancer, or neoplasia, is the uncontrolled growth of cells due to damage to DNA (mutations).

The cause(s) of cancer are complex and often multi-factorial. A leading trigger is chronic inflammation, from UV light, environmental chemicals, etc., accounts for approximately 25% of cancer cases, and viruses, bacteria and parasites contribute to a further 17.8% of the global burden of human cancer[1]. A significant proportion of the remainder is attributed to genetic predisposition. A similar scenario is seen with cats.

Carcinogenic compounds result in chronic inflammatory conditions where reactive oxygen and nitrogen species are generated from inflammatory and epithelial cells, causing DNA damage that leads to neoplasia[2].

From a clinical perspective, neoplastic diseases in cats must be distinguished from:

  • autoimmune diseases such as pemphigus and Immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, which arise from an overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body.
  • tissue associated with new growth (hyperplasia), abnormal growth (dysplasia) and shrinkage (anaplasia).
  • transplant rejection – immune attack of foreign tissues

Feline cancers Properties
Adenocarcinoma (pulmonary) a rare and usually fatal disease in cats
Basal cell tumour a common cell tumour of the skin with variable malignancy
Biliary carcinoma a rare cancer of the gall bladder of cats
Bladder (urinary) cancers a rare form of cancer in cats
Brain tumours a rare form of cancer in cats, usually untreatable
Carcinoma list of common tumours of epithelial tissue
Chemodectoma a rare tumour of the aortic body, common in cats living at high altitudes
Chondrosarcoma a rare tumour of cartilage which affects the nasal cavities and surrounding sinuses
Digit (paw) tumours rare tumours affecting the feet of cats, usually requiring surgical excision
Ear tumours common, fast growing tumour of skin inside the ear canal. Surgical excision is preferred treatment
Epulides a tumour of the oral gums, often malignant in cats
Fibrosarcoma a rare skin cancer associated with reactions to feline vaccines containing adjuvants
Fibropapilloma (sarcoids) a rare skin cancer often seen in farm cats
Giant cell tumours a rare tumour of bone
Globus tumours a rare tumour of blood vessels with high malignancy
Hamartoma a rare vascular malformation/cancer in cats
Haemangioma rare, benign vascular growths
Haemangiosarcoma a rare and often fatal blood cell cancer
Hepatic tumours rare tumours of the liver of cats
Histiocytic disease a rare tumour of skin, showing as single or multiple nodules
Lipoma a tumour composed entirely of fat cells. Rarely malignant. Surgical excision is preferred treatment
Leukaemia a rare type of cancer, often associated with infection with FeLV virus
Liver tumours infrequent cancers, often associated with lymphoma
Lymphangiosarcoma a tumour of the lymph system, with high malignancy and morbidity
Lymphoreticular tumours rare tumours of bone
Lymphoma a cancer of lymph nodes, similar to Hodgkin’s Disease in humans
Lymphosarcoma one of the most common types of internal cancers in cats, usually in cats over 8 years of age
Mammary tumours a common tumour in queens requiring mastectomy
Mast cell tumour a common skin tumour which can metastases but usually has a good prognosis post-surgical excision
Melanoma a rare skin cancer with high mortality rates
Multiple myeloma a rare, fatal tumour of plasma cells in cats
Neurofibrosarcoma a rare ‘Schwannoma’-type cancer
Oral neoplasia rare, usually malignant forms of cancer
Osteochondromas a rare bone cancer of cats
Osteosarcoma a rare bone cancer affecting limbs of the cat, usually malignant
Pancreatic carcinoma usually malignant, rapid onset and high mortality rates in older cats
Papilloma usually benign tumours of mouth and feet
Paraneoplastic disorders a neoplasia-associated alteration in bodily structure / function distant to the tumour
Parosteal osteosarcoma second most common type of bone cancer in cats
Plasmacytoma a rare skin cancer of cats
Sebaceous tumours a common skin tumour of cats, usually non-malignant
Squamous cell carcinoma the most common and treatable form of cancer in cats
Subungual carcinoma tumour of toenail-bed in cats
Teratoma a rare cancer formed from germ cells
Testicular cancer primarily Sertoli cell cancers, usually malignant
Thymoma a relatively benign tumour of the thymus causing general physical disease
Thyroid hyperplasia (Hyperthyroidism) a benign thyroid tumour readily treated with medication and/or radiation therapy
Urinary cancers a rare form of cancer in cats
Vaccine- and microchip-associated sarcomas a cancer as a result of certain types of vaccines

About chemotherapy

Chemotherapy in feline medicine follows in parallel with advances in human medical chemotherapy. One of the most common skin cancers in cats, squamous cell carcinoma, is rarely approached chemotherapeutically, but a common gastrointestinal cancer, mesenteric lymphosarcoma is relatively successful when treated with modern agents such as cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil and/or prednisolone.

Broadly, most chemotherapy drugs work by impairing mitosis (cell division), effectively targeting fast-dividing cells. As these drugs cause damage to cells they are termed cytotoxic. Some drugs cause cells to undergo apoptosis (so-called “cell suicide”).

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to be able to locate specific features of malignant and immune cells that would make them uniquely targetable (barring some recent examples, such as the Philadelphia chromosome as targeted by imatinib). This means that other fast dividing cells such as those responsible for hair growth and for replacement of the intestinal epithelium (lining) are also affected. However, some drugs have a better side-effect profile than others, enabling doctors to adjust treatment regimens to the advantage of patients in certain situations.

As chemotherapy affects cell division, tumours with high growth fractions (such as acute myelogenous leukemia and the lymphomas, including Hodgkin’s disease) are more sensitive to chemotherapy, as a larger proportion of the targeted cells are undergoing cell division at any time.

Chemotherapeutic drugs affect “younger” tumours (i.e. more differentiated) more effectively, because mechanisms regulating cell growth are usually still preserved. With succeeding generations of tumour cells, differentiation is typically lost, growth becomes less regulated, and tumours become less responsive to most chemotherapeutic agents. Near the centre of some solid tumours, cell division has effectively ceased, making them insensitive to chemotherapy. Another problem with solid tumours is the fact that the chemotherapeutic agent often does not reach the core of the tumour. Solutions to this problem include radiation therapy (both brachytherapy and teletherapy) and surgery. In the past two decades, numerous experimental, clinical, and epidemiologic studies have linked tumour development and progression with the presence of cyclo-oxygenase (COX) in tumour cells in humans. A similar relationship between inflammation and oncogenesis seems to occur in cats associated with sarcomas and vaccines/microchips. COX enzymes exist as two different isoforms and catalyse conversion of arachidonic acid to an array of prostaglandins. COX-1 is expressed constitutively in many cells and is involved in normal physiologic activities such as cytoprotection of the gastric mucosa, regulation of renal blood flow, and platelet aggregation. COX-2 is an inducible enzyme that is involved in the production of prostaglandins, which modulate pathologic events such as inflammation, wound healing, and neoplasia. A variety of agonists including cytokines, growth factors, and oncogenes can induce COX-2 expression. COX-2 immunoreactivity is found in a number of human tumours including colon, lung, breast, gastric, prostatic, head and neck, and bladder carcinomas. More recently, COX-2 has been demonstrated in canine squamous cell, renal cell, and transitional cell carcinomas, prostatic adenocarcinomas, and intestinal neoplasias.

Recent studies also demonstrate that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which inhibit COX enzymes, can reduce the incidence of cancer in humans and experimental animal models and may be potential targets for therapeutic and preventive strategies. Importantly, the relative risk of developing epithelial cancer, including colonic carcinoma, is lower in persons receiving aspirin therapy. In veterinary medicine, dogs with transitional cell carcinoma of the urinary bladder may have complete or partial reductions in tumour size when treated with piroxicam, a potent NSAID. Recently, anti-tumour activity was reported in dogs with oral squamous cell carcinoma treated with piroxicam[3].

Diagnosis of feline cancer

See Diagnosis of feline cancer


  1. ↑ Vennervald BJ, Polman K. (2009) Helminths and malignancy. Parasite Immunol 31(11):686-96
  2. ↑ Hiraku Y. (2009) Formation of 8-nitroguanine, a nitrative DNA lesion, in inflammation-related carcinogenesis and its significance. Environ Health Prev Med Nov 19
  3. ↑ Beam, SL et al (2003) An Immunohistochemical Study of Cyclooxygenase-2 Expression in Various Feline Neoplasms Vet Pathol 40:496-500

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