Cat Skin Cancer: Symptoms & Treatment

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By Pet Expert Team
Updated: 7/16/20242-4 minutes
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While it can be devastating news, skin cancer in cats is treatable. The key is finding skin abnormalities early so you and your cat can begin a course of veterinary treatment as soon as possible. 

The first sign of skin cancer in cats is often a lump or bump on your cat’s skin. However, it can be anything from a new discoloration to a chronic skin wound that won’t heal. You might notice these changes while you are petting or grooming your cat. This is why frequent grooming is important for cat parents. It helps you bond with your kitty. It can keep your cat’s hairball production to a minimum. And it allows you to inspect your cat’s skin for any health issues. 

If you find something you are concerned about, take your cat to your vet to have it diagnosed immediately. Your vet will be able to determine if it’s cancer, if it’s malignant or benign, or if it’s another skin condition that requires care. Your treatment plan will depend on the outcome of those tests. 

Can Cats Get Skin Cancer?

With all their fur, can cats get skin cancer? Yes, and sun exposure is the most common cause of skin cancer in cats. This is particularly true for cats with white fur, cats with thin coats, and hairless cats, like Sphinx cats, which are prone to sunburn.  

There is also evidence of a link between skin cancer and cats who lick themselves compulsively. But, many times, the cause is genetics, as the propensity for cancer runs in families. 

What Are the Signs of Skin Cancer in Cats?

What skin cancer looks like on a cat will vary, depending on the type of cancer, but there are several general signs of skin cancer in cats you should be on the lookout for: 

  • Scabbing, particularly on the ears, nose, or eyelids 
  • Black, crusty patches of skin 
  • Weeping, raw skin 
  • Red and raised areas of skin 
  • Wounds that won’t heal 
  • Ulcers 
  • General lethargy

In cases of squamous cell carcinomas, skin symptoms may worsen in the summer and improve in the winter. Looking for any lumps, bumps, or wounds via regular grooming and close examination of your cat’s skin is highly recommended.  

When you first find a bump you might ask, is it skin cancer or a wart? Your vet will be able to tell. That’s why if you spot anything out of the ordinary, you should get it checked by your vet as soon as possible. Early intervention is the key to recovery. 

What Are the Types of Cat Skin Cancer? 

There are several types of skin cancer in cats. The most common types are: 

Malignant Melanoma 

Malignant melanomas in cats can grow in the skin’s melanoma cells – the cells that produce skin pigment. This type of cancer is usually found in the mucous membranes of the mouth and nose but can develop on the skin in rare cases. Most likely genetic and fast spreading, this cancer can move quickly to the lymph nodes and organs.  

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) is a malignant cancer of the skin cells occurring on sun-damaged skin where the coat is the thinnest. It can cause ulceration and crusting on the ear edges, nose, and upper eyelids of cats. It usually only affects one area of a cat’s body.  

Mast Cell Tumors

A Mast Cell Tumor (MCT) is a common skin tumor that is created by a group of immune cells known as mast cells. They present as red nodules on the cat’s head and neck. Not all skin MCTs are malignant. Your vet can test and determine the best course of treatment. 

Cutaneous Horn

A cutaneous horn appears as a horn-like structure on the skin. These horns are made of keratin, a protein that makes hair, skin, and nails. They are also known as keratinized skin cysts and may be malformations of hair follicles. 

Fibrosarcoma

Fibrosarcomas grow quickly and can spread to other sites on the body. Tumors arising under the skin surface may appear lumpy. It can be caused by an underlying virus or may spontaneously form. Tumors can occur on the trunk, legs, ears, or at a previous vaccination site. 

Basal Cell Tumors

Basal Cell Tumors are benign growths on the top layer of the skin. Basal Cell Carcinoma is a growth that is malignant. The benign tumor is common in older cats, especially in domestic long hair, Himalayan, and Persian breeds. The malignant version occurs most frequently in older cats, and Persian breeds are prone. They often appear as ulcers on the head, legs, or neck.  

What Causes Skin Cancer in Cats?

For white cats, hairless cats, and cats with thin coats, overexposure to the sun can cause skin cancer. In addition, cats with underlying skin conditions and cats that lick themselves compulsively may develop irritations that become chronic and can develop into cancer. Physical trauma leading to scar tissue on the skin may increase the risk of skin cancer in cats. Some cat breeds are prone to develop certain kinds of skin cancer as they carry a linked gene.  

Overgrooming can be a sign of skin cancer, especially if focused on an abnormal part of the skin. However, cats that groom excessively due to other reasons can cause a lick granuloma that resembles cancer. This is why it’s important to seek your vet’s care if you have a concern.  

How is Cat Skin Cancer Diagnosed?

The diagnosis of skin cancer often begins with a needle aspiration of the bump or lump. Your vet looks at the cells under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous. If there are signs of cancerous cells under the microscope, or if they can’t get an adequate sample from the needle aspiration, your vet may want to conduct a surgical biopsy to confirm the cancer diagnosis. Your cat will need to be sedated for that procedure.  

How is Cat Skin Cancer Treated?

Surgery is often required to remove the tumor. If the cancer is on the ears, the ear may need to be removed. This will not affect your cat’s hearing.  

In addition to surgical options, cats may need chemotherapy. Radiation therapy and cryotherapy may be recommended if surgery is not an option. 

The only complete way of removing the cancer is removing the entire tumor. There is always the risk the cancer may regrow.  

How Can I Prevent Skin Cancer in Cats?

If the cancer is inherited or caused by genetics, there is not much you can do to prevent it. You can limit sun exposure – even for inside-only kitties. This can be difficult because cats love to nap in sunbeams. Just make sure they don’t overdo it and have access to shade to cool down if they get too hot.  

For hairless, shaved, white-coated or thin-coated cats, keep them inside during the hours of the day when the sun is at its strongest, usually between 10 am and 4 pm, to limit their exposure to avoid solar-induced skin cancer as well as sunburn.  

With an early diagnosis and consultation with your vet, you’ll be able to determine the best course of action to give your cat the best quality of life for as long as you can. 

Want more cat health tips? Get advice from our experts with our other cat health articles.

 

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