Cancer in Cats: Signs, Treatments, & Cost

3 min read
Jun 02, 2023

The last thing we ever want to imagine is one of our furry friends suffering from cancer. Unfortunately, according to the National Cancer Institute, nearly 6 million cats are diagnosed with cancer each year.1 The good news is that cancer in cats is often treatable, especially when caught early.

Read on to learn about common cancers in cats, symptoms, treatment, treatment costs, and how pet insurance can help.

Most Common Cancers in Cats

Just like in humans, there are many forms of cancer that can affect cats. Here are some of the most common cancers found in felines.


Lymphoma is related to the feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and it involves immune system cells that travel throughout a cat’s body in blood and lymphatic vessels. Lymphoma commonly affects the intestines, so symptoms can be similar to intestinal diseases. However, it can also affect the chest and kidneys.

Typically, you don’t see tumors when it comes to lymphoma, so diagnosing this cancer requires examining cells under a microscope. Lymphoma is usually treated with chemotherapy, but it’s considered incurable, with cats usually going into remission for 2 months to 3 years at a time.2

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is a variety of skin cancer that typically affects a cat’s nose, ears, nail beds, or corners of the eye. Most of the time, there’ll be one lesion found in an affected area. However, multicentric SCC — where multiple lesions are present in multiple locations — is possible. Tumors may show up as ulcers, a raised red area, or a cauliflower-like growth.

Even with multicentric SCC, this cancer typically doesn’t spread, but it can happen. Treatment for SCC usually entails surgical removal of skin tumors. However, if a cat’s nose is affected, radiation therapy may be involved.3

Mammary carcinoma

Mammary tumors affect a cat’s mammary glands and are caused by abnormal replication of the cat’s breast tissue. They’re usually seen in middle-aged to senior cats. Typically, the formation of these tumors is related to a cat’s hormone status, with female cats that haven’t been spayed being seven times more likely to develop mammary tumors than those that are spayed. Usually, you’ll be able to see or feel a lump under the skin near a nipple.

Treatment for mammary carcinoma often requires surgery to remove the breast tissue, followed by chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from spreading. Larger tumors, multiple tumors, and cancer that’s spread to blood vessels have a less desirable prognosis — so early detection and action is important.4

Basal cell tumor

Basal cell tumors are abnormal growths due to the uncontrolled replication of basal cells in hair follicles, sweat glands, or sebaceous (oil) glands. Basal cells are various types of cells that make up the outermost skin layer. Basal cell tumors may show up as firm, hairless, raised bumps on the skin — usually around the neck, head, and shoulders. Most of these tumors are benign (noncancerous) and don’t spread, but sometimes they’re cancerous.

Treatment typically involves surgically removing the mass, and prognosis tends to be good following removal.5

Mast cell tumor

Mast cell tumors are tumors made up of mast cells that may be found on the skin or internal organs, typically the spleen and intestines. Mast cells are a type of white blood cell in the outermost skin layer. Mast cell tumors usually show up as hard, flattened areas or small lumps in the skin around the head and neck. But if the spleen or intestines are affected, you likely won’t see a bump, and signs similar to intestinal diseases may be present.

This type of cancer may spread if the spleen and intestines are affected. Treatment usually involves surgical removal of the tumors with potential chemotherapy or radiation therapy.6


Osteosarcoma is a form of bone cancer — commonly affecting the leg bones — caused by abnormal production of bone cells. However, osteosarcoma can also affect tissues, like those of the spleen, kidneys, mammary glands, and liver. Unfortunately, this cancer can be very painful for cats. Swelling, pain or warmth to the touch, lethargy, and lameness of an affected limb may be signs of osteosarcoma.

Since osteosarcoma commonly affects the legs, amputation of the affected limb is a common treatment protocol. Spreading of this cancer is rare, so amputation tends to control the disease, and chemotherapy typically isn’t needed.7

Pet Insurance May Help Cover Cancer Costs

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Signs of Cancer in Cats

Because so many distinct forms of cancer affect cats, there’s also a wide range of symptoms. Here are some of the most common symptoms of cancer in cats:8

Following are some of the most common signs of cancer in cats:

  • Unusual lumps or growths on or beneath your cat’s skin that may continue to enlarge
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite or severe weight loss
  • Fever
  • Strong odor in your cat’s mouth
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Coughing
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Lameness

Can you catch cancer early or reduce the risk?

Cats tend to be good at hiding illness. However, paying close attention to your cat’s temperament and physical traits throughout their life and spending quality time with them can help you spot when something may be wrong.

Every so often, as you pet your cat, try to give them a subtle physical examination to feel or look for any new lumps on their body. Monitor if your cat’s weight is staying consistent or if it has suddenly increased or decreased. Also, check their mouth from time to time. A growth, discoloration, or particularly foul odor could be a sign of cancer.

While cancer may not be totally preventable, you can potentially reduce your cat’s risk through certain health and lifestyle practices. Feed your cat a nutritious and healthy diet, reduce stress as much as possible, make sure they get enough exercise and play time, don’t let them stay in the sun for too long, avoid secondhand smoke, and bring your cat in for regular vet visits.

Cancer Treatment for Cats

If you notice your cat exhibiting one or more of the symptoms listed above, be sure to contact your vet to schedule a full exam. Fortunately, cancer in cats is often treatable due to advances in medical, surgical, and radiographic treatment.9 Although it isn’t always possible to cure cancer, cats may still live long lives despite their diagnosis.

Treatment options will vary depending on the type of cancer. Just as for humans, the most common treatments for cat cancer are surgical removal of tumors, radiation, and chemotherapy. Cats tend to tolerate chemotherapy better than humans do, as they typically don’t lose their fur or appear sick.2 Your veterinarian will guide you through the best treatment options for your cat.

Don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion from another vet or a veterinary oncologist if you feel it’s necessary. This may help when it comes to diagnosis, treatment, and costs.

Cat cancer treatment costs

Cancer costs can include initial examinations, diagnosis, staging (searching for cancer elsewhere in the body), and treatment. These costs can also depend on the size and location of the tumor, your cat’s size, the diagnostics necessary — like X-rays, ultrasounds, bloodwork, and biopsies — the type of treatment chosen, and how well your cat responds to their treatment plan.10

In terms of treatment, surgery may cost at least a few hundred dollars, chemotherapy may cost a few hundred to several thousand dollars, and radiation therapy may cost upwards of $7,000.10 Costs may be higher if you see a specialist compared to your cat being treated at your general vet’s office.

What To Do if Your Cat Has Cancer

Caring for your cat with cancer can be financially and emotionally difficult. You likely want to do everything you can to ensure they have the best quality of life moving forward. This may be challenging to do if you can’t afford the vet bills. However, there’s hope.

You may be able to negotiate a payment plan with your cat’s vet or specialist(s). Across the country, certain clinics are dedicated to providing free or low-cost services. There are organizations that offer financial assistance for pet cancer treatments. You may also be able to take your pet to an accredited veterinarian college for discounted services.

Ways to support your cat’s treatment

Outside of medical treatment, you can do things at home to help support your cat’s strength, whether they’re recovering or terminal:9

  • Pain management: Depending on what your vet recommends, you may be able to administer pain medication at home. Know the ins and outs of their medication to help provide as much pain relief as possible.
  • Diet: Depending on the type of cancer your cat has, it may be harder for them to eat or keep a healthy weight. Make sure your cat is eating and staying hydrated according to your vet’s recommendations.
  • Hygiene: If your cat is too sick to groom themselves, you’ll need to step in. You can use a damp washcloth to wipe down their fur and brush them regularly.
  • Environment: Create a calm and comfortable environment for your cat. If they’re unable to move easily, bring their litter box closer to them and make sure any play time or snuggling isn’t causing discomfort.

Consider Investing in Pet Insurance

Cancer costs can be a heavy financial burden to take on. MetLife Pet doesn’t want these costs to stand in the way of giving your cat a better quality of life after a cancer diagnosis. Consider investing in a cat insurance policy while your cat is still healthy. MetLife Pet Insurance offers coverage for vet costs related to cancer, and it could help make the best care more affordable when your cat needs it.11

Unfortunately for some cats, their prognosis can be terminal. This may force you to make tough decisions on how to best care for your cat for as long as possible. If euthanasia and cremation are part of your decisions, MetLife Pet may be able to help with those costs, too.11

Losing a pet is never easy. Seek the support of loved ones who can help you navigate this time. And if you’re looking for professional support, our cat insurance policies may help cover the cost of grief counseling.12 See if pet insurance is right for you and your kitty by getting a personalized quote today.

We Can Help Cover Vet Bills While You Focus on Your Cat’s Care

1 “What is Comparative Oncology?,” National Cancer Institute

2 “Lymphoma in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Squamous Cell Carcinomas in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Mammary Tumors in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Basal Cell Tumors,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Mast Cell Tumors in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Osteosarcoma in Cats,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“What is Cancer?,” VCA Animal Hospitals

“Home Care for the Cancer Patient,” Cornell Feline Health Center

10 “Cancer Management - Frequently Asked Questions,” Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine

11 Provided all terms of the policy are met. Application is subject to underwriting review and approval. Like most insurance policies, insurance policies issued by IAIC and MetGen contain certain deductibles, co-insurance, exclusions, exceptions, reductions, limitations, and terms for keeping them in force. For costs, complete details of coverage and exclusions, and a listing of approved states, please contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC.

12 Grief Counseling services are provided through an agreement with LifeWorks. US Inc., an unaffiliated third-party service provider. Grief counseling services provided by LifeWorks are separate and apart from the insurance provided by MetLife.

Coverage issued by Metropolitan General Insurance Company (“MetGen”), a Rhode Island insurance company, headquartered at 700 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886, and Independence American Insurance Company (“IAIC”), a Delaware insurance company, headquartered at 11333 N Scottsdale Rd, Ste 160, Scottsdale, AZ 85454. Coverage subject to restrictions, exclusions and limitations and application is subject to underwriting. See policy or contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC (“MetLife Pet”) for details. MetLife Pet is the policy administrator. It may operate under an alternate or fictitious name in certain jurisdictions, including MetLife Pet Insurance Services LLC (New York and Minnesota) and MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions Agency LLC (Illinois).