Curbing Cancer in Cats: Ways to Keep a Feline HealthyApr 30, 2021 ● By Julie Peterson
image courtesy of The Basket Cat
The absence of one back leg isn’t slowing down 13-year-old Cougar the cat. In fact, she is doing better than before, as that limb once had a painful tumor. Alyssa Baker Herbst, co-founder of the Autumn Farm Sanctuary, in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, was told that, even with chemotherapy, Cougar might only live three more months. Herbst sought out a veterinary oncologist at University of Wisconsin Veterinary Care for another opinion. Amputation was recommended and done in December 2020.
Cancer isn’t uncommon in cats; the Animal Cancer Foundation, in Port Washington, New York, states that one in five cats will be diagnosed at some point. This equates to approximately 6 million cats being newly diagnosed with cancer each year, according to the Comparative Oncology Program of the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
Diagnosis and Staging
Cats instinctively hide pain, so it’s up to pet parents to detect unusual behaviors or symptoms. Karen Shaw Becker, a holistic veterinarian in Chicago who writes Mercola Healthy Pets, recommends that unusual bumps, sores that won’t heal, weight loss, offensive smell, low energy and difficulty eating indicate the need for evaluation by a veterinarian to rule out cancer. If cancer is diagnosed, a referral to a veterinary oncologist is likely. Pet owners can also search for one at the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.
Blood work, biopsies or aspirates, imaging and a thorough exam may be needed to determine the extent of the cancer and any possible complications. These tests help ensure treatment is appropriate, tolerable and humane.
Treatments vary based on the type, site and stage of cancer, the age and wellness of the cat and what is available and accessible to the owner. Traditional remedies may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. While not without side effects, cats tolerate these methods relatively well.
Holistic therapies such as acupuncture, homeopathy, supplements and traditional Chinese veterinary medicine may also be used. “Herbal therapies can be used with traditional cancer treatment to relieve side effects and to improve outcomes,” says veterinary oncologist Amanda Beck, at the University Veterinary Hospital, in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Clinical trials are another option. The Veterinary Cancer Society, in Columbia, Missouri, provides information on current research trials that “may involve novel diagnostic methods or therapies including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgical procedures, hypo- or hyperthermia, immunotherapy and photodynamic therapy, among others.” While these trials may offer hope, each has very specific qualifications for participation and they may not be free.
Herbst did her own research after seeing the 2019 documentary Fantastic Fungi and learning about cancer patients using turkey tail mushrooms. “We found that dogs taking those mushrooms were living four times as long as dogs that got chemo,” she says. “We wondered if we could use that for Cougar.” Their veterinarian ensured they wouldn’t be harmful and determined an appropriate dosage.
Unfortunately, some feline cancers are extremely aggressive. It started in Doris Gassen’s cat, Meadow, with a few small bumps under the skin that quickly grew and multiplied. “About six days after they first appeared, they were open and draining,” says Gassen, in Madison, Wisconsin. The diagnosis of cutaneous lymphoma was made and palliative care was implemented. Meadow crossed the rainbow bridge within a few weeks.
Keeping cats at a healthy weight, giving them plenty of exercise opportunities and keeping them indoors more or entirely can all help reduce the risk of cancer. The feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to cancer, are usually contracted from feral cats outdoors.
Genetically modified organism (GMO) ingredients such as corn, soy, alfalfa and cottonseed in pet foods are also culprits, because they can contain high concentrations of glyphosates. The World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer declared glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, to be a probable human carcinogen, and research indicates that it does cause cancer in animals.
“Many experts who have studied animal dietary patterns in the wild agree that a whole-food diet composed of mostly meats, organs and bones, supplemented to a much lesser extent with vegetables, is the way to go for both cats and dogs,” says Ty Bollinger, the San Antonio-based author of The Truth About Cancer.
Keeping cats healthy throughout life with routine wellness care helps strengthen them against any illness or injury. And while quality of life for pets may be paramount, Cougar seems to be going for quantity, as well. “Clinically, Cougar is doing fantastic. She just can’t jump as high as she used to,” says Herbst. “She’s back to bullying the other three cats and hanging out with the dog. She’s feisty.”
Julie Peterson writes about health, wellness and environmental issues. Find her at