Lymphoma in Cats: How To Help Your Feline Friend

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / November 20, 2018
Lymphoma in Cats

Cancer. A horrible disease that has affected us all in one form or another. Although extremely common, a cancer diagnosis is always a terrifying one. Even with modern medicine, we know all too well about the dangers the disease entails.

Tragically for our feline friends, they too can suffer from a number of cancers that doctors also diagnose in people, one of them being Lymphoma. Receiving a lymphoma diagnosis can be understandably heart-wrenching for a cat owner. However, perhaps more troubling is the unknown. What causes the development of this disease and what should you do now?

In this article, we’ll unravel all of the questions you may have regarding feline lymphoma. We’ll also discuss a number of holistic treatment methods that can help support conventional cancer medications. A cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. However, being as informed as possible will ultimately help you make the best decisions for your feline’s happiness, health, and wellbeing. Let’s begin!

Lymphoma in Cats

What is Lymphoma in Cats

Lymphoma is a common form of cancer that doctors diagnose in people, cats, and dogs. It is a cancer of the lymphocytes or white blood cells. The term lymphoma is, in fact, a blanket term that doctors use to diagnose a number of cancers that stem from these white blood cells. Due to the fact that lymphocytes travel throughout the body, medical doctors consider lymphoma to be a systemic disease as opposed to a localized disease.

In cats, studies show that Lymphoma is responsible for an estimated 90% of blood cancers. Additionally, the disease accounts for 33% of all tumors diagnosed in cats. Furthermore, lymphoma in cats is the leading cause of hypercalcemia (a disease that causes excessively high levels of calcium in the blood) in cats. Due to its prevalence amongst our four-legged friends, understanding all there is to know about the disease is imperative for pet parents to be able to recognize early signs of its development.

Interestingly enough, Lymphoma has a connection to feline leukemia. With recent medical advancements and more and more feline leukemia vaccinations, there have been less feline lymphoma diagnoses. However, feline lymphoma still considered to be frequently diagnosed and accounts for an estimated 30% of new cancer diagnoses in cats.

What are Lymphocytes

Lymphocytes are white blood cells that play incredibly important and crucial roles in the body. They are responsible for supporting the immune system in fighting off infections. Lymphocytes are everywhere throughout the body but exist in higher volumes in areas such as the lymph nodes, the spleen, and within the bone marrow.

Lymphocytes High or Low: Understanding What it Means

High lymphocytes are often a temporary state and occur once the body fights off an infection.

Low lymphocytes are associated with diseases such as lymphoma. If your cat has low lymphocyte levels, their body is more susceptible to diseases and infection because their immune system is in a weakened state.

The Two Forms of Lymphocytes

There are two forms of lymphocytes: T cells and B cells. Different cells will be affected depending on the type of lymphoma your cat is diagnosed with.

Types of Lymphoma

There are varying types of feline lymphoma. Each type will affect the symptoms of the disease as well as the appropriate treatment. Understanding the varying types of the disease is an important step in recognizing it in its earliest stage. It likely goes without saying that the earlier your vet catches feline lymphoma, the more positive the prognosis.

Alimentary Lymphoma

Alimentary lymphoma is by far the most common form of lymphoma in cats. Approximately 50-70% of feline lymphoma diagnoses are alimentary lymphoma, which occurs in the gastrointestinal tract, liver, and abdomen. Most often, alimentary lymphoma is a problem in older cats, typically ranging from 9-13 years old.

Mediastinal Lymphoma

Mediastinal lymphoma occurs in the lymphoid organs in the chest, often affecting the lymph nodes and/or thymus. This type of lymphoma is usually diagnosed in younger cats (~5 years old). Mediastinal lymphoma is also the type most associated with feline leukemia virus. In fact, up to 80% of mediastinal lymphoma diagnoses also test positive for feline leukemia. Again, the feline leukemia vaccine is helping to lessen these numbers, yet we are far from the disease being considered uncommon.

Multicentric Lymphoma

Multicentric lymphoma occurs in the lymph nodes. In dogs, it accounts for up to 85% of lymphoma diagnoses. In cats, it is much less common but still very much exists.

Solitary Lymphoma

Solitary lymphoma is a type of lymphoma that can occur in any location. For example, nasal lymphoma can be a form of solitary lymphoma.

Renal Lymphoma

Renal lymphoma occurs in the kidneys and is often associated with clinical signs of kidney failure. In this type of lymphoma, crucial kidney cells are replaced with cancer cells. Renal lymphoma is also associated with feline leukemia virus. Up to 50% of cats diagnosed with renal lymphoma will test positive for feline leukemia.

Lymphoma Symptoms

As we previously mentioned, the specific type of feline lymphoma will dictate its associated symptoms. For this reason, symptoms of lymphoma can vary greatly as cancer affecting different body parts will have different clinical signs. It is important for cat owners to understand these signs and recognize them at their earliest stage of development.

Alimentary Lymphoma Symptoms

Lethargy is a symptom of Lymphoma in Cats

Alimentary lymphoma (the most common lymphoma diagnosed in cats) affects the gastrointestinal tract, abdomen, and liver. Therefore, the symptoms of the disease will follow suit. These symptoms include:

  • Lethargy and body weakness
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (with or without the presence of blood)
  • Black, tarry stools
  • Lack of appetite
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain and sensitivity

Mediastinal Lymphoma Symptoms

Mediastinal lymphoma often causes a large mass to develop in the chest and can, therefore, affect your cat’s ability to breath normally. Symptoms of mediastinal lymphoma include:

  • Coughing
  • Open mouth breathing
  • Difficulty catching their breath
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Multicentric Lymphoma Symptoms

Multicentric lymphoma affects the lymph nodes. The most commonly found physical symptom is swollen lymph nodes. In dogs, this type of lymphoma can have very obvious symptoms. In cats, the symptoms are not always as clear.

  • Swollen lymph nodes (often seen under the jaw, under the arms, and in the groin area)
  • Lack of appetite and associated weight loss
  • Depression and lethargy

Solitary Lymphoma Symptoms

Due to the fact that solitary lymphoma can develop anywhere, the symptoms will vary based on the location where the disease occurs.

Renal Lymphoma Symptoms

Renal lymphoma affects the kidneys and symptoms often involve:

  • Polyuria (increased urination)
  • Polydipsia (increased thirst)
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Lack of appetite

The symptoms of renal lymphoma are all associated with the build-up of toxins in the cat’s bloodstream. When lymphoma is present, the kidneys are unable to filter out the toxins and thus results in the aforementioned symptoms.

Lymphoma Causes

The exact cause of all feline lymphomas is still up for debate. Some feel that environmental factors contribute while others disagree. With that said, experts have been able to pinpoint a strong correlation between feline lymphoma and exposure to the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) as well as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Cats who have tested positive for feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus have a much greater risk of developing feline lymphoma.

How is Feline Lymphoma Diagnosed

Diagnosing lymphoma can be difficult due to the magnitude of places the disease can occur as well as the varying symptoms. Nearly all of the symptoms of the different types of lymphoma are considered to be non-specific. For example, vomiting, diarrhea, and intestinal problems are clinical signs of alimentary lymphoma but are also symptoms of food allergies. For this reason, it is imperative that cat owners provide their veterinarian with as much information about their cat’s health as possible. Take note of the earliest signs that you noticed. Understanding where and how your cat began showing signs that something was wrong will allow your vet to perform more specific tests. In all cases, routine lab testing such as a complete blood count (CBC), a urinalysis, and a biochemistry profile will be performed.

In order for your veterinary oncologist (a veterinarian who specializes in cancer) to accurately diagnose the type of feline lymphoma, several more tests will be necessary. Your vet may perform biopsies, x-rays, diagnostic imaging to identify the presence of a tumor, etc. Your feline will also be tested for FeLV and FIV. Again, diagnosing lymphoma in cats will, in large part, be much simpler if the cat owner is able to provide their vet with ample information regarding their cat’s overall health.

Lymphoma in Cats Biopsy

Fine Needle Aspirate

In some cases, your veterinarian may perform a procedure called a fine-needle aspiration. In this procedure, the vet will insert a needle into the area of concern and remove cells in order to examine them more closely. If the vet suspects gastrointestinal lymphoma, they will remove cells from the thickened region of the intestine. On the other hand, if renal lymphoma is suspected, they can remove cells from the enlarged kidney.

If lymphoma is diagnosed through a biopsy procedure, your veterinarian will be able to also diagnose whether it is high-grade or low-grade lymphoma. High-grade lymphoma is diagnosed if the cells appear to be rapidly dividing and have a high malignancy. Low-grade lymphoma in cats will often respond well to chemotherapy treatment. Additionally, when chemotherapy is used for low-grade lymphoma, longer periods of remission typically follow.

With that said, a fine-needle aspiration (biopsy) won’t always be possible due to the location of the lesion, making an accurate diagnosis of low-grade or high-grade not possible.

Immunohistochemistry Testing

Finally, if your cat is diagnosed with lymphoma, additional testing may be recommended in order to better strategize a treatment plan and help your vet predict how the cancer may behave in the body. One of these tests is called immunohistochemistry testing which examines different tissues and allows your vet to have more insight into your cat’s health status.

Treating Lymphoma in Cats

The different forms of lymphoma will not only dictate the associated symptoms and diagnosis, but also the appropriate treatment. Unfortunately, there is no single treatment for feline lymphoma and a total cure isn’t likely for most cats. Treatment is aimed to prove the cat’s quality of life for as long as possible. A veterinary oncologist will be able to tell you whether treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy may be a good fit for your cat’s individual diagnosis. In some cases, these treatments can make a huge difference for a cat diagnosed with lymphoma.

Additionally, depending on the type of lymphoma, surgical removal of the tumor may be recommended. In some cases, i.e. obstructions in the GI tract, surgery in addition to chemotherapy can prove to have long periods of remission. With that said, remission does not mean that your cat will be totally cured of the disease. We will discuss the important differences between the terms remission and cure momentarily.

Prednisolone for Cats

Cats diagnosed with low-grade lymphoma are often treated with a steroid called prednisolone and an oral chemotherapy agent called chlorambucil. Unfortunately, chemotherapy treatments and surgeries can prove to be quite expensive and are not always an option for pet owners. In these cases, prednisolone is often prescribed as a form of hospice care. Prednisolone will not cure feline lymphoma, but it can help reduce symptoms of the disease and give the pet owner more time with their furry companion.

Chemotherapy for Cats VS Chemotherapy for People

Thankfully, cats don’t have the same negative reactions to chemotherapy treatment as people do. Cats will rarely lose their hair or appear sick while being treated. In some cases, chemotherapy may cause your cat to experience bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and a decreased appetite. With that said, these side effects only occur in approximately 10% of feline patients.

CBD Oil for Cats: How it Can Help

If you’re a pet owner who loves staying up on the latest and greatest holistic advancements then you’ve likely heard of CBD oil for cats. Interestingly enough, CBD for animals is not necessarily “new” information. In fact, experts have been studying its incredible effects on animals for well over three decades. However, only recently has the product been made available for cat owners to purchase with a click of a button, and we couldn’t be happier.

Derived from the hemp plant, CBD is changing the ways that we can alleviate our feline’s ailments. In terms of feline lymphoma, CBD oil can help. How exactly? We’re glad you asked.

A Powerful Anti-Inflammatory

CBD oil contains powerful, all-natural anti-inflammatory properties. When we track the vast majority of ailments back to their root cause, we find they all have one major thing in common: inflammation. Cancer is no different. Inflammation is at the center of cancer development in people and animals alike. By implementing a supplement like CBD oil, we can help decrease present inflammation and support the body in preventing the development of future inflammation. This can make a world of difference for a cancer patient.

Managing Side Effects of Chemotherapy

cbd oil for cats

We previously mentioned that many cats do not face the difficult side effects of chemotherapy like people do. However, some cats will face vomiting, diarrhea, gastrointestinal problems, and a lack of appetite. In these cases, CBD oil can also help. CBD effectively reduces inflammation in the GI tract and serves as an all-natural anti-nausea and anti-diarrhea remedy. Therefore, if your cat has undergone chemotherapy, try CBD oil. Trust us, you won’t regret it!

Alleviating Anxiety

A cancer diagnosis is not only a difficult time for pet owners, but also for your beloved four-legged friend. All of the poking, testing, and treatment can cause your feline to experience high levels of anxiety. Not to mention, animals are highly sensitive. If something is bothering you, chances are your cat has picked up on it and it’s affecting them as well. In these cases, CBD oil can help tremendously. CBD oil proves to be an effective anti-anxiety remedy for people and animals alike. Not long ago, vets may have prescribed anxious cats a conventional, mood-altering, sedative anti-anxiety medication. However, now we can alleviate our pet’s stress levels through an all-natural form of treatment: CBD oil.

Lymphoma: Cat Life Expectancy

The prognosis for feline lymphoma ultimately depends on the type of lymphoma diagnosed as well as how far the disease has progressed prior to its diagnosis and treatment. Additionally, whether or not the cat tests positive for feline leukemia will also affect their life expectancy. Lastly, the form of treatment will have a direct correlation to the cat’s life expectancy. Sadly, chemotherapy isn’t always an option for cat owners and their cat’s prognosis will be affected.

Cure VS Remission for Feline Lymphoma

There is an important difference between the terms cure and remission. In cases of feline lymphoma, a total cure is highly unlikely. However, with the appropriate treatment, many cats can go into remission. The definition of remission is a temporary resolution of all clinical signs of cancer. In cases of low-grade lymphoma, many cats will experience 2-3 years of remission. In other words, they can live for 2-3 years without any signs of feline lymphoma.

Sadly, in cases of high-grade lymphoma, few cats will respond well to treatment. A mere 25-50% of cats diagnosed with high-grade lymphoma will go into a remission stage which typically only lasts between 2-9 months. Shortly after they will begin to experience symptoms of the disease once again.

Prognosis for Mediastinal Lymphoma

The prognosis for cats with mediastinal lymphoma who test positive for feline leukemia is sadly quite grim, averaging around 3 months life expectancy. In cases where the cat does not have feline leukemia, chemotherapy treatments show a partial response and can allow the cat to live up to 9-12 months longer.

Prognosis for Renal Lymphoma

Renal lymphoma carries the worst prognosis. Even with treatment, cats with renal lymphoma average a 3-6 months survival time. This is in large part due to the fact that renal lymphoma spreads rapidly, often to the brain central nervous system.

lymphoma in cats

Lymphoma in Cats: A Final Thought

A diagnosis of lymphoma can leave a doting cat owner in a world of uncertainty. We want our feline friends to live forever and a cancer diagnosis of any kind can put a heart-wrenching halt to the time we hoped to have together. From all of us at Honest Paws, we are sincerely so sorry that you are currently having to face this impossibly hard time.

With that said, moving forward with the best form of treatment is the next step for any doting cat owner. Additionally, implementing a supplement such as CBD oil can provide an even greater amount of support and help to ensure your feline’s happiness and wellbeing. Perhaps most importantly, give your cat as much love and care as possible during this time.

Finally, by fully understanding your cat’s “normal” day-to-day behavior, pet owners can better recognize when something isn’t quite right. If you notice any of the aforementioned symptoms, call your vet. While it may be nothing to worry about, the clinical signs may also be suggesting something more serious in need of medical attention. Don’t delay in getting your feline the help they need. It can truly make all the difference.


About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for