Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Early Detection Takes The Bite Out of Mouth Cancer

Pet Column for the week of July 3, 2000

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

Squamous cell carcinoma is the No. 1 oral cancer affecting cats. It seems that being neat is
their downfall -- cats may be particularly prone to mouth cancer because they are so

"Grooming may expose the cat's tongue and mouth to carcinogens from the air," says Dr.
Pamela Jones, a former oncology resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in
Urbana. "Environmental carcinogens can land on the cat's coat and get into its oral tissues
when it grooms." Carcinogens bombard the squamous cells -- the flattened epithelial cells
that line the oral cavity -- causing a few to start dividing uncontrollably. When that happens,
a tumor may result.

That doesn't mean you should try to prevent your cat from grooming. But since most cats
are not particularly fond of having someone poke around in their mouth, a tumor there may
go unnoticed by owners until clinical signs show up. "That's the hard part with oral tumors,"
says Dr. Jones. "They are hard to spot if you don't look in the mouth all the time."

Taking your cat to a veterinarian at least once a year for a physical and oral exam is the
best way to catch this disease early. With early detection, this cancer can possibly be
completely eliminated.

The cancer may look like a raised, reddened, ulcerated mass. When the signs of drooling
and lack of appetite appear, the lesion has likely been there for several months.

If a lump is found in your cat's mouth, the next step is a biopsy. The veterinarian will try to
determine the extent of the tumor in order to determine your pet's prognosis and formulate a
plan for treatment. The earlier the tumor is caught, the better the cat's chances for a full

Though this cancer is not one to quickly metastasize, or spread to other areas of the body,
tumors can be large and invasive. "This type of cancer is a local problem -- it usually stays
in the mouth area without spreading to other areas of the body until very late in the course
of the disease. We can attempt to successfully remove the tumor with surgery. But, when a
tumor isn't noticed for several months or more, it may have a chance to get fairly large. That
makes removing all of it very difficult. Squamous cell carcinoma usually comes back if it isn't
completely removed," says Dr. Jones.

If oral cancer is not detected until very late in the course of the disease, a cure may not be
possible. In that case, palliative treatment may include a feeding tube and supportive pain

"Owners of an older cat should be on the alert if tabby suddenly stops eating or drools
excessively," says Dr. Jones. "To spot this cancer early on, a yearly or bi-yearly checkup,
including a dental examination, is very important, especially for middle-aged to older cats."

So if you have not already taken your feline companion to the veterinarian this year, make
an appointment today. For more information about squamous cell carcinoma, contact your
local veterinarian.