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What You Need to Know About Your Cat’s Lymph Nodes

These organs are crucial to a cat's immune system; here's how they work and what can go wrong.

Dr. Arnold Plotnick  |  Dec 6th 2016


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our November/December 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

I’m sure you’ve heard of them, but do you really know what they are or what they do? I’m talking about the lymph nodes, important structures that we don’t think about much but that play a crucial role in a cat’s ability to fight off infections.

What are they?

Lymph nodes are small, oval-shaped organs dispersed throughout the body. They are a part of the lymphatic system, a branch of the immune system that plays an important role in the development of the body’s immune response. The lymphatic system consists of vessels that run throughout the body, in a similar fashion as arteries and veins. Instead of blood, however, the fluid that flows through the lymphatic system is called lymph, which is rich in protein and white blood cells.

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Cells of the immune system circulate throughout the lymphatic vessels in the body. As lymph flows through these vessels, it passes through at least one set of lymph nodes, and often several sets, before ultimately emptying into the general circulation, where it mixes with blood. The lymph nodes are the major sites in the lymphatic system where the immune cells gather.

What do they do?

The main job of the feline immune system is to protect and defend the body against harm by fighting off invading substances, which we call antigens. When an antigen invades the body, it eventually encounters the lymphatic system and eventually a lymph node. Here, it stimulates a discrete population of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) in the node. This causes those lymphocytes to multiply and transform, or become “activated.”

These activated lymphocytes mount an immune response to the antigen, for example, by producing antibodies that neutralize the antigen. When the lymphocytes in the lymph node multiply, the lymph node becomes enlarged. The medical term for enlargement of the lymph node is lymphadenopathy. We humans usually refer to this as “swollen glands.”

Checking them out

Cat being examined at a veterinarian clinic. Photo by Shutterstock

Photo by Shutterstock

As a veterinarian, I perform hundreds of physical examinations every year. Every veterinarian performs a physical examination in his or her own style, making sure to evaluate all of the body systems. Assessment of the size of the lymph nodes is unquestionably a part of every veterinarian’s physical assessment.

Enlargement of the lymph nodes is often discovered as an incidental finding during physical examination of the cat. Now and then, a cat owner brings the cat to the vet because of symptoms related to lymph node enlargement, for example, difficulty swallowing due to enlargement of the lymph nodes in the back of the throat. Sometimes a cat owner will bring me their cat because they detected a lump, which turns out to be a lymph node, while patting or stroking the cat.

The effects of age

The cat’s age is important when considering the significance of lymph node enlargement. Kittens and young cats are exposed to a variety of antigens early in their lives, and an increase in lymph node size is an expected response by the immune system. As cats mature, lymph node size usually decreases, and the nodes often become more difficult to feel in older animals. However, in geriatric cats or cats who have lost weight due to illness, the loss of body fat around the lymph nodes may make the lymph nodes appear more prominent than expected and are easier to feel.

When there’s trouble

As noted above, stimulation of the immune system by invading antigens is a common cause of lymph node enlargement. Sadly, cancer is an equally common cause. The cancer can arise from the lymph node itself. This is called lymphoma and is the most common cancer found in animals. Cancer arising in other parts of the body can also spread to the lymph nodes. This is called metastatic cancer, and the cancer is said to have “metastasized” to the lymph nodes.

Figuring out the cause of lymph node enlargement may require a variety of tests, including blood and urine analysis, X-rays, and ultrasound. Ultimately, a definitive diagnosis often requires obtaining a sample of cells from the node itself. This is usually achieved either by aspiration cytology or by surgical biopsy.

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Illustration by Shutterstock

Aspiration cytology is a procedure in which a needle, attached to a syringe, is inserted into the lymph node. Suction is applied to the syringe so that cells from the lymph node are sucked or “aspirated” into into the hub of the needle. The contents are then sprayed onto a microscope slide and are sent to a laboratory for interpretation. The advantages of this procedure are that it’s noninvasive and inexpensive. A disadvantage is that the aspirate may not yield enough cells to make a diagnosis.

Biopsy of the lymph node is the definitive test in evaluating lymph node enlargement. Depending on the size and location of the node, either the entire node is removed (this is called “excisional biopsy”), or a small piece of the lymph node is removed (“incisional biopsy”). The specimen is evaluated by a pathologist. Treatment is based on the biopsy results: Infections are usually treated with antibiotics; cancer is treated by chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, or a combination of these.

About the author: Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is the former Ask the Veterinarian columnist for CAT FANCY magazine, and is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Crispy. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.