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According to studies, it’s estimated that 50% of dogs and cats over the age of 10 will have cancer. That said, cancer can afflict cats and dogs of any age, young or old, and while the incidence of cancer in cats is half of their canine counterparts, tumours in cats are also 3 to 4 times more likely to be malignant.
As distressing as this bit of information might be, do not despair and flounder. It’s never a welcomed news to hear that your cat has cancer, but in the unfortunate event that it has, the main focus remains the same: to provide your pet with the highest quality of life possible, and there are several ways you can do this for a pet with cancer.
A team effort
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Caring for a pet with cancer is a team effort. The best quality care is only possible if the pet owner works closely with a trusted veterinary care team, which will provide all the necessary information, advice, and healthcare needed for the treatment and management of the disease.
For this, all veterinary clinics will be qualified enough to oversee the medical treatment of a cat with cancer, but you may also seek out a veterinary oncologist or a cat-dedicated clinic such as The Cat Clinic, which is an accredited Cat Friendly Clinic that specialises in providing healthcare exclusive to cats.
Meanwhile, the pet owner is the primary caregiver involved in day-to-day tasks to provide supportive care, such as administering medicine, ensuring comfort by being able to recognise signs of pain, and preparing the nutrition that the pet needs.
If your cat is undergoing treatment for cancer, there will be a variety of medications prescribed. These range from pain medication to ones that reduce the adverse effect of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or drugs that help to destroy cancer cells.
Some of these medicines will be administered by veterinary professionals, while some will have to be taken at home. As the pet owner, you will play a crucial role in ensuring that your cat receives the correct dose of medicine on time. Dosage and timing are critical for effective treatment!
You will also have to monitor your cat’s behaviour and reaction to the medication on behalf of the veterinarian and report back if it is not responding as expected, so that the medication can be adjusted accordingly.
Recognising pain & ensuring comfort
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As cats are masters at hiding their pain and discomfort — this is a survival instinct that stems from when their ancestors used to live in the wild and signs of injury make them an easy target for predators — it is up to us to be vigilant and recognise even the most subtle signs.
In doing so, we can act on it to not only restore comfort as much as possible, but also provide our pet with the best fighting chance! This is because undertreated pain can lead to treatment failure, especially when it causes complications such as inappetence, aggravation of a lesion, and so on.
In order to be able to know when your feline is feeling pain, you will need to have a good understanding of its usual behaviour and habits. Be observant and pay close attention to your companion daily; when it starts acting out of character, you’ll know that it’s not feeling well.
The Purdue Integrated Cancer Pain Score System, developed by professors from the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine
Source: Today’s Veterinary Practice
As for how to make your pet feel better, pain-relieving drugs will typically be issued to pets undergoing cancer treatment. However, most of these pain-relieving drugs such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or opioids may have side effects when used for an extended period of time, so it’s best to stick to a recommended dosage or schedule set by your veterinarian. Under no circumstances should you dose your cat with human pain medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and paracetamol as well, as these are known to kill cats.
It is also important to note that pain can transcend beyond being purely physical — your pet may be in emotional and psychological pain as well, so it’s best to always be there for your buddy, especially if it has always enjoyed company and affection.
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Good nutrition is extremely important in the battle against cancer. As of now, researchers are still studying the nutritional needs of animals with cancer, but there is a general consensus that animals undergoing cancer treatment may need different foods and different amounts of food as compared to healthy animals.
This is because cancer and cancer treatments can change your pet’s metabolism and affect your pet’s appetite, so ultimately, the end goal is to simply supply your pet with the nutrition it needs to fuel its normal bodily functions.
Cats are naturally more finicky than dogs; if your pet is not eating or drinking enough, it runs the risk of “wasting away” due to malnutrition and suffering from dehydration, so it’s up to you to find ways to prevent that!
Ask your veterinarian about possible diet changes you may need to make, and find out more about appetite stimulants and medications that can help to encourage healthy eating behaviour. If necessary, buy water fountains as cats prefer drinking from fresh water sources, and make sure that food and water is readily accessible at various places in your home, so that your pet does not have to travel too far to get to them.
Other important aspects
To further improve your pet’s quality of life, there are other important aspects of caring for a cat with cancer that include equipping your house with tools and products that help with pain, limited mobility, and incontinence. These can range from orthopaedic beds, pet ramps, and lift harnesses, to even a pet wheelchair!
If your cat’s cancer or cancer treatment is preventing it from completing its usual grooming routine (for example, it may have a tumour in its mouth), you will also have to take up that duty. Maintain regular grooming such as bathing, brushing, dental care, nail clipping, ear cleaning, and anal gland cells expression, if necessary. Always take note to keep its skin free from being soiled by urine and faeces as well, as these will lead to skin inflammation and infection.
Finally, make sure to provide comfortable bedding and shelter from draught, heat, and cold, as old cats are less able to regulate their body temperature. You will also have to prevent pressure sores from forming by repositioning your cat regularly (every 2 hours if possible) when it is lying down, and by helping it to stand up regularly.
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As heart wrenching as it may be, one more thing that we can do for our pet if it has been diagnosed with cancer is to focus on being happy when we’re around it. Cats are way more in tune with our emotions than we think, so try your best to have as much fun as possible and avoid projecting your worries and sadness onto it!
Spend as much time as you can with your pet too, while in that positive headspace — being surrounded by love and care will provide a lot of mental and emotional support to your pet during this difficult time.
When to consider hospice care
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Also known as “comfort care”, hospice care for pets is to prevent pain and discomfort while providing emotional and physical support. It usually means giving up on treatment to focus on ensuring that your pet doesn’t suffer unnecessarily any more, such that your pet can live out its final days in as much peace and comfort as possible.
Some pet owners are faced with the tough decision of deciding if the continuation of the treatment for a potentially longer lifespan is worth the decrease in your pet’s quality of life because not all cancers can be successfully treated.
Usually, if a cure is unlikely or not possible, if treatments have been proven to be ineffective, or if the costs (such as the strain it puts on the pet) outweigh the benefits of the treatment, a pet owner may decide that it’s better to stop the treatment entirely and ensure that the rest of the pet’s life has minimal pain and discomfort.
In most cases, the best environment for comfort care is your home. It is a safe, stress-free, and familiar environment that won’t cause your pet additional anxiety and stress, plus it gives you and your family more time to spend with your cat and allows you to react quickly to its needs.
However, because caring for a terminally-ill animal is an emotionally difficult and time-consuming responsibility that requires an increased level of care, do be prepared to be able to commit a lot of time to your pet (you may have to re-arrange your schedules constantly) and consult your veterinarian on a comprehensive comfort care plan. If necessary, you may also need to learn how to perform medical tasks such as giving injections.
Coping with cancer
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Caring for a cat with cancer is no easy task, but take heart that there is a wide network of support for you to tap onto to guide you through this difficult time. This includes your family members and your veterinarian team, so please do not hesitate to reach out to them for help and advice, be it on how to care for your pet, or how to cope with grief.
As for cat owners with a healthy, spritely kitty by their side, vigilance is key — even if your companion seems to be in the pink of health, give your pet a once-over periodically to make sure that there are no recognisable lumps and bumps.
Other signs of possible cancer may include lethargy, refusal to eat or drink, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhoea, difficulties in breathing, and severe weight loss in a short time period. We’ll publish an article on how to recognise signs of cancer and a quality of life assessment, so keep a look out for that!
Remember, early detection reduces the chance of cancer spreading to other parts of the body and allows for better treatment and survival outcomes. Bring your pet for health check-ups at least once a year.
For more information on how to care for a cat with cancer, you may reach out to The Cat Clinic at https://animalclinicsg.smart.vet/ or leave a direct message on their Facebook page. The Cat Clinic is an ISFM Cat Friendly Clinic that is highly-raved and supported by many cat owners here in Singapore, and is a branch of The Animal Clinic, which has been providing quality healthcare for pets since 1979. It’s also the first-ever cat-dedicated clinic in Singapore, and fully equipped with everything needed to make cats feel at ease.
The Cat Clinic
This article was written with the professional veterinary advice from Dr Lennie Lee of The Animal Clinic.