Oral Cancer in Cats: Symptoms & Treatments

Oral Cancer in Cats: Symptoms & Treatments

What is Cancer? Cancer is a challenging term to define. It is rarely a simple or single disease due to its relationship with the different body systems. Cancer may be referred to as a tumor or tumors. It may be benign or malignant. The former means that it is not expected to spread to other body parts. Malignant, the latter term, refers to the ability of the tumor to spread (metastasis).

A common feature of cancer is uncontrolled cell growth and proliferation. A combination of genetics and environmental factors often contribute to cancer. Additional factors that may increase the risk include exposure to environmental carcinogens, such as secondhand smoke, and certain viral infections like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Some cat breeds may have a higher predisposition to oral cancer than others. Older cats are more commonly affected by oral cancer. The risk for cancer tends to increase with age.

Oral cancer in cats is relatively uncommon compared to other types of cancers. It is estimated to account for about 3-10% of all feline cancers. While this percentage is relatively low compared to other cancers, it is still a significant concern for cat owners and veterinarians. Poor oral hygiene and dental disease can also contribute to the development of oral cancer. Regular dental care and check-ups with a veterinarian can help reduce this risk.


What Are the Common Types of Oral Cancer in Cats?

The top 3 oral tumors seen in cats include squamous cell carcinoma, fibrosarcoma, and melanoma. Squamous cell carcinoma is the most frequently seen oral cancer in cats. Identifying once it is in an advanced stage can also be challenging.


1. Oral squamous Cell Carcinoma

Oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC) in cats is a type of cancer that originates in the squamous cells lining the mouth, particularly in the gums, tongue, and the back of the throat. It is the most common oral tumor in cats and is typically seen in older cats, although it can affect cats of any age. The exact cause of OSCC in cats needs to be better understood. Still, it is believed to be influenced by various factors, including genetics, exposure to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances), and chronic inflammation of the oral tissues. The prognosis for cats with OSCC can be guarded, as this type of cancer is often aggressive and challenging to treat effectively. The outcome depends on various factors, including the stage of the disease at the time of diagnosis and the success of treatment. Cats with early-stage tumors and successful treatment may have a better chance of survival. In cases where the cancer is advanced and cannot be removed entirely or treated, palliative care may be recommended to improve the cat’s quality of life. Palliative care includes pain management, nutritional support, and oral hygiene.


2. Oral Fibrosarcoma

Oral fibrosarcoma in cats is a malignant tumor that originates in the connective tissues of the mouth, particularly in the fibrous tissue. In cats, these tumors are most commonly found in the gums, tongue, and palate. They tend to infiltrate the surrounding tissues and can become locally invasive. Fibrosarcomas are generally considered aggressive tumors, which tend to proliferate and invade nearby structures, such as bone and muscle.


3. Oral Melanoma

Oral melanoma in cats is a cancer originating in the melanocytes, cells responsible for producing melanin. This pigment gives color to the skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. When melanoma develops in the oral cavity of a cat, it typically affects the gums, tongue, roof of the mouth (palate), and other oral structures. It is a malignant and aggressive form of cancer that can spread (metastasize) to other body parts, including the lymph nodes, lungs, and liver. The prognosis for cats with oral melanoma can vary widely. Melanoma is known for its aggressive nature, and if the cancer has already metastasized at the time of diagnosis, the prognosis may be less favorable. Early detection and treatment can significantly improve the chances of a better outcome. Even after successful treatment, monitoring the cat closely for any signs of recurrence or metastasis is essential.


Symptoms of Oral Cancer in Cats

Cats with oral cancer may exhibit various signs and symptoms, which can include the following: 

  • Bad breath (halitosis). This is particularly important if oral malodor appears rather suddenly. 
  • Difficulty eating or swallowing.
  • Drooling excessively
  • Weight loss
  • Pawing at the mouth or face
  • Swelling or lumps in the mouth
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Change in meowing or vocalization
  • Oral pain


Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing oral cancer in cats typically involves a thorough examination, full mouth imaging, and biopsy of suspicious oral masses. Cone beam CT or Conventional CT is recommended as radiographs often do not provide enough detail on the extent of the pathology. Diagnostics are completed under anesthesia. It is recommended to have the biopsy samples evaluated by a well-trained veterinary histopathologist with a particular interest in oral pathology. A biopsy is imperative for designing the treatment plan. It is essential to plan for treatment, whether a curative or palliative treatment plan is decided upon.

Treatment options depend on several factors. These factors include stage of cancer, type of cancer, location, age of the patient, and whether there are any concurrent systemic diseases. Tumors found near the front of the mouth generally have an improved outcome for surgical removal than tumors in the back of the oral cavity. In most cases, surgical removal involves an ‘-ectomy’.  For example, if a tumor is affecting the maxilla, surgical removal is considered a maxillectomy. If a tumor is removed from the lower jaw, it is referred to as a mandibulectomy. A cosmetic change may or may not be apparent depending on how advanced the tumor is during surgical removal. Quality of life over quantity/duration of life is of utmost importance to the majority of cat owners and veterinarians. A discussion regarding treatment for cancer is a difficult but necessary one to arrive at what will provide the best quality of life. 


Prevention of Oral Cancer

There is not a 100% foolproof way to prevent the occurrence of oral cancer. Good nutrition, control of environmental toxicants, and routine oral care, including oral home care, can all reduce the incidence of oral cancer. Chronic inflammation may lead to cell mutations. Periodontal disease is a chronic disease in many cases. Oftentimes, periodontal disease is seen alongside oral cancer.  Regular dental cleanings are recommended every 9-12 months. The frequency may depend on the individual’s predisposition for periodontal disease, as in humans. A dental cleaning is referred to as a COHAT, which is an acronym for Comprehensive, Oral, Assessment, and Treatment.  During a COHAT, the patient is placed under general anesthesia and full mouth imaging, and a dental cleaning takes place. See ‘What is a COHAT?’ blog post for more information regarding this procedure. 

It’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian if you suspect your cat may have oral cancer or notice any concerning symptoms in your cat’s mouth. A timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment are essential in successfully managing oral cancer due to finite space in the mouth. At Animal Dental Care & Oral Surgery, we are committed to providing optimal care for your cat. Please reach out if you have questions in regard to your cat’s oral health. 


Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (9/15/2023). Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash