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Liver Cancer in Cats

While uncommon, cancer can develop in the liver of cats. This disease can have a serious impact on the health and well-being of your feline friend. Here, our vets in Toledo share the signs and symptoms of liver cancer in cats, the different types of tumors and how this condition is treated.

What is liver cancer?

Liver cancer most often affects cats who are more than ten years old, with males having a slightly higher risk. When a cat has liver cancer, they will develop tumors, also known as hepatic neoplasia. These occur when a primary tumor develops in the liver, when cancer develops in the blood cells or lymphoid tissue (tissue in which lymphocytes, or white blood cells, develop) that involves the liver, or when a different type of cancer metastasizes and spreads to the liver. While primary liver cancer is rare in cats, the majority of liver cancer occurs when cancer of the spleen, pancreas, or intestinal tract spreads.

Signs & Symptoms of Liver Cancer in Cats

When it comes to liver cancer in cats, there are a range of signs and symptoms. These include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive thirst (polydipsia)
  • Increased urination
  • Abdominal distension
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Pale gums
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and mucous membranes)
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Seizures
  • Disorientation
  • Stumbling

Does liver cancer cause pain in cats?

Cats with early-stage liver cancer may sometimes experience abdominal pain caused by swelling. Pain is especially common in patients with advanced-stage liver cancer. Because the cancer has likely spread by that point, the patient may be experiencing pain in both the primary liver cancer site and in areas where the cancer has spread.

Types of Liver Tumors

As we mentioned above, cancer rarely begins in the liver of cats but can spread there from other areas impacted by cancer. It is also possible for cats to develop benign (non-cancerous) tumors in the liver. Here are some types of feline liver tumors:

Hepatocellular carcinoma: Hepatic carcinoma (or hepatic adenocarcinoma) is the type of primary liver cancer most commonly found in cats. Hepatocellular carcinoma can lead to the development of tumors in multiple lobes of the liver.

Sarcoma: Sarcomas can begin in other parts of your cat's body and spread to the liver.

Mast cell tumors: While mast cell tumors often present as skin tumors in cats, they can also begin in the liver or other areas of the body.

Hepatic lymphoma: Lymphoma is a cancer that often begins in the lymphatic system (a vital part of the immune system) of a cat.

Benign tumors: Certain liver tumors, like adenomas, are benign (non-cancerous). 

What are the causes of liver cancer in cats?

There is no known cause of liver tumors, but researchers believe that age could be a risk factor. The older a cat is, the more cell divisions its body has gone through, increasing the risk of a mutation. Other possible risk factors include genetics, consumption or inhalation of chemicals or toxins, chronic inflammation, and hepatotoxicity.

How is liver cancer diagnosed in cats?

When you bring your cat in for an examination and diagnosis, your vet will examine them, checking for any enlarged lymph nodes or abdominal enlargement, and listen to their breathing and heart. The tumor will sometimes grow and spread, so it may have been found during a routine checkup.

Your cat will have several diagnostic tests performed, including a complete blood count, an electrolyte panel and a urinalysis. While these tests don't specifically show cancer, they can show signs of the impact that cancer has on the body. If there is any indication of a tumor or cancer, your vet will perform an X-ray or ultrasound. To make a definitive diagnosis, the veterinarian will need to do a liver biopsy. This will be done via a needle that is inserted into the liver to remove a sample of tissue or during surgery to remove a small portion of the liver tissue. This sample will be sent off to be tested for cancer cells.

What are the treatment options for liver cancer in cats?

Surgery

Most liver cancers are treated with surgery. Because the liver is regenerative, your vet can safely remove up to 75% of this organ. For the surgery, your cat will be placed under general anesthesia. An incision will be made in the abdomen, and the tumor, along with a small portion of healthy liver, will be removed. This is to ensure that all of the cancer cells have been removed. Surgery is usually successful if the cancer has not yet spread to other organs or areas of the body.

Chemotherapy

In some cases, chemotherapy may be used to slow and treat cancers that have spread beyond the liver. Chemotherapy can have many side effects, like tissue and heart damage. It may not be suitable in all cases.

Medications

Medication will be used throughout treatment. These include pain medications to keep your cat comfortable and antibiotics to prevent infection.

What can you expect while your cat recovers from liver cancer?

When caught early, primary liver tumors have a high success rate after surgery and a good prognosis. The cat will need to regularly follow up with the veterinarian to monitor the liver for signs of the cancer returning. Cats who have a liver tumor that has spread from another primary cancer or has spread have a poor prognosis. The cat will need ongoing at-home care with a focus on keeping them comfortable.

When it comes to liver cancer in cats, the life expectancy is pretty good, with most cats responding well to treatments and regaining a high quality of life. Unfortunately, end-stage liver cancer in cats can occur if the condition isn't caught or addressed quickly. If this happens, then your vet may discuss humane euthanasia options with you to prevent further suffering.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. Please make an appointment with your vet to accurately diagnose your pet's condition. 

If your cat is showing the signs or symptoms related to liver cancer that we listed above, please don't hesitate to contact our vets in Toledo. Our diagnostic lab contains the technology needed to diagnose this and other serious conditions.

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