Pancreatic cancer. Two words no cat owner ever wants to hear from their veterinarian. The good news is that this type of cancer is extremely rare in cats! Unfortunately, when it does happen, there is not much we can do to help. Promising treatments are being investigated, but current options are considered palliative.
In this article, we will explain what pancreatic cancer is, the signs that your cat may have pancreatic cancer and whether there is anything you can do to help reduce your cat’s risk of developing this awful disease.
What is Pancreatic Cancer?
The pancreas is a tiny organ with big responsibilities. It is found in the abdomen, near the stomach and small intestine.
The pancreas contains different types of cells, which have different roles:
Just like in people, the cells in cats’ bodies are constantly being replaced. When normal cells get old or damaged, they undergo a process called apoptosis (programmed death) to make room for new cells. They also recognize when enough new cells have been created and stop dividing.
Cancer cells are different from normal cells in several ways, one of which is that they divide uncontrollably. More and more cells are produced, which creates a tumor. Tumors are sometimes benign, but the word cancer generally implies malignancy—meaning the abnormal cells spread throughout the body and affect multiple organs.
Pancreatic cancer in cats is malignant and typically affects the exocrine cells. In this article, we will focus on feline adenocarcinoma (also referred to as exocrine pancreatic carcinoma).
What Are the Signs of Pancreatic Cancer?
Unfortunately, the signs of pancreatic cancer in cats may be subtle and vague until the disease is quite advanced. In its early stages especially, pancreatic cancer may present very similarly to other medical conditions, like pancreatitis.
One study reported that the following signs occurred most commonly:
Other possible signs include:
If you have any concerns about your cat’s health, please schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away. If your cat is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, please do not think that you should have noticed something sooner! Cats are masters at hiding their illnesses, and very few cats are identified in the early stages of this disease.
What Are the Causes of Pancreatic Cancer?
A specific cause of pancreatic cancer has not yet been identified in cats. Like many other cancers, it is likely due primarily to genetics, combined with environmental and lifestyle factors. It tends to occur in cats around 12 years of age.
One study identified a possible association with diabetes, which also affects the pancreas, but more research is needed to confirm this.
Studies are ongoing in the field of cancer genetics to try and identify specific mutations that may be associated with pancreatic cancer in cats. Hopefully, this type of research might lead to a genetic screening test in the future, which could be used to identify kitties at higher risk for this disease. If we know a particular cat is more likely to develop pancreatic cancer, we can use tools like bloodwork and imaging (e.g., ultrasound) to monitor them regularly, and identify cancer as early as possible (if it occurs).
How Do I Care for a Cat With Pancreatic Cancer?
Sadly, if pancreatic cancer has already metastasized at the time of diagnosis (which is the case for many cats), there may not be much anyone can do to help. In these instances, treatment is generally considered palliative. For some cats with advanced diseases, humane euthanasia may be the kindest option.
If your cat is fortunate enough to be diagnosed early in the course of the disease and has no evidence of metastasis, surgery may be possible. You are likely to be referred to a veterinary specialty hospital with a team of experts like surgeons, oncologists, and critical care doctors. Minimally invasive surgery might be an option, as in this case treated at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Chemotherapy may also be recommended.
One case report documented the treatment of a cat with a medication called toceranib phosphate, which may have contributed to her survival time of 792 days after diagnosis. However, more research is needed to know whether this might be helpful for other cats with pancreatic cancer.
Your veterinarian will help you determine the best plan for your individual kitty, keeping their quality of life in mind.
Frequently Asked Questions
How is pancreatic cancer diagnosed in cats?
Your veterinarian may suspect pancreatic cancer based on your cat’s history, clinical signs, and physical exam findings. Bloodwork and diagnostic imaging (e.g., ultrasound or CT scan) is often recommended to further support the diagnosis.
Definitive diagnosis is not possible without a biopsy (tissue sample) from the tumor. This can be obtained during surgery, but is sometimes not performed until a post-mortem examination (autopsy) after a cat has passed away.
Research is being done to identify blood biomarkers of pancreatic cancer in cats, which may be helpful in the diagnosis of this disease in the future.
How common is pancreatic cancer in cats?
Pancreatic cancer is reported to make up less than 0.05% of all cancers in cats.
Is pancreatic cancer curable in cats?
Currently, pancreatic cancer is not curable in cats.
How long can cats live with pancreatic cancer?
Sadly, pancreatic cancer is often not diagnosed until it has already metastasized (spread to other parts of the body). As a result, many cats are euthanized within a week of diagnosis.
One study looking at nine cats with pancreatic cancer who had surgery to remove an isolated tumor reported survival times of 25–964 days, but these cats did not have documented metastasis.
It is reported that less than 10% of cats undergoing surgery and chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer survive for more than a year. The report previously mentioned of the cat who lived with pancreatic cancer for 792 days is an isolated case and, while encouraging, should not be considered typical.
Researchers are working hard to find ways to identify feline pancreatic cancer in its early stages. If we are able to diagnose and treat these kitties right away, we may be able to help them live longer.
Unfortunately, there is no proven way to prevent pancreatic cancer in cats, but there are some things you can do to keep your feline friend as healthy as possible:
Featured Image Credit: YULIYA Shustik_Shutterstock