Pet 411: Making sense of feline lymphoma

Cancer: It’s a word pet owners dread hearing from their veterinarians.

Unfortunately, cancer has become fairly common, particularly in older pets.  But while the news may be distressing, it’s no reason to panic.  There have been a lot of advances in this area of  veterinary medicine, leading to a better understanding of how to treat pets diagnosed with cancer.

That’s why I wanted to respond to an email I received from a reader whose 11-year-old cat has just been diagnosed with lymphoma – one of the more common diseases we see at our BluePearl hospitals throughout the country. The reader wanted to know more about lymphoma and how it is treated, so I reached out to my colleague Dr. Rachel Rasmussen, a board-certified veterinary oncologist who works in our partner hospital, Hope Advanced Veterinary Center in Rockville, MD.

Lymphoma is one of the most common cancers seen in cats, Dr. Rasmussen said. It develops from white blood cells called lymphocytes and is considered a “liquid tumor” because it’s a blood-cell derived disease.

Not every lymphoma is the same. The disease can be classified as either a small cell lymphoma, which is slower to grow; or large cell lymphoma, which is faster-growing and calls for more aggressive treatment. To determine which type of lymphoma your cat may have, a tissue sample is needed. For lymphoma of the intestinal tract, a surgical biopsy may be necessary, Dr. Rasmussen said. In some cases, a diagnosis can be made using ultrasound and endoscopy, which is less invasive.

In either case, the cancer is best treated with chemotherapy, often in combination with steroids. For the small cell lymphoma, the chemotherapy can be administered orally via pills. Large cell lymphoma requires more extensive treatment, with injectable medication and weekly check-ins with a veterinary oncologist for about 10 weeks. After that time, check-ins can move to every other week, for a total course of treatment of 25 weeks.

Although veterinarians cannot cure lymphoma, they can offer treatments that are very effective in extending and improving the lives of these precious pets. Studies show that cats with small cell lymphoma can live for an average of two years with treatment, while patients with large cell lymphoma may survive for a year, if they respond to treatment.

A veterinary oncologist will present you with options that focus on keeping your cat as happy and pain-free as possible. In addition to medical advice, the two of you can also weigh decisions based on an individual cat’s personality. For example, some kitties would be fine with getting in the carrier and visiting a vet each week. For others, it would cause immense stress. The same thing with medication – while some cats will happily accept pills, others simply won’t. The veterinary oncologist is there to help come up with a plan that will be manageable for you while giving your cat the best quality of life possible, Dr. Rasmussen said.

I hope that is helpful to our writer, as well as to others with pets who may be diagnosed with lymphoma. A big thank you to Dr. Rasmussen for all of her help! I hope you and your furry friends stay cool as the summer heats up.

Have a question about your pet that you’d like answered? Write to Dr. Cathy Meeks at She’d love to hear from you, and your letter may be picked for an upcoming Pet 411 column.