Ask a Vet: What Is Lymphoma in Cats? Can It Be Treated?

A veterinarian holds a stethoscope to a cat's chest
A veterinarian examines a cat. Photography by Shutterstock.

Lymphoma in cats is one of the most common feline cancers, and many cat owners have experienced the pain of a diagnosis of lymphoma in their companions. Because feline lymphoma is so common, many people have questions about it. What causes it? How is it diagnosed? Can it be treated?

The basics about lymphoma in cats

A large tabby cat at the vet.
Cat and vet. Photography by Shutterstock.

In fact, lymphoma is not a single disease. It is a description that applies to a number of types of cancer. All forms of lymphoma are cancers of the immune system, and involve cells of the lymphatic system. The immune system exists throughout the body, and lymphoma can therefore manifest in many different ways. The symptoms and prognosis for cats with lymphoma depend upon the organ or organs affected, and on the aggressiveness of the underlying cancer.

In dogs, palpably swollen lymph nodes are the most common symptom of lymphoma. Such palpable lumps do not occur as commonly in cats with lymphoma. Instead, lymphoma generally manifests with more subtle symptoms.

The different types of feline lymphoma

One of the most common forms of lymphoma in cats is intestinal lymphoma. In this condition, the intestines become infiltrated with cancerous lymphatic cells. Poor appetite, weight loss, vomiting, and diarrhea may occur. The intestines may become palpably thickened. In some instances, lymph nodes adjacent to the intestines will become markedly enlarged, leading to an intra-abdominal mass that can be palpated by veterinarians.

There are several different types of intestinal lymphoma, and they vary in their aggressiveness. However, one of the most common types appears to occur as a complication of inflammatory bowel disease. This type of lymphoma generally is relatively slowly progressive; it therefore carries a better prognosis than many other types of cancer.

Because the immune system exists almost everywhere in the body, lymphoma can occur in just about any organ. Cats may experience lymphoma of the nose, which can cause sinus congestion, nasal discharge, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Lymphoma can occur in the chest, causing coughing and labored breath. Lymphoma can infiltrate the eyes, compromising vision. Lymphoma can occur in the kidneys, causing kidney failure (however, lymphoma is not the most common form of kidney disease in cats). Lymphoma has been documented to occur in the skin, causing rashes and other cutaneous irregularities.

What causes lymphoma in cats?

A cat looking sad, sick or confused.

The cause (or, more properly, causes) of lymphoma has not been definitively determined, but there appear to be multiple risk factors for the various forms of lymphoma. Inflammatory bowel disease already has been mentioned as a risk factor for intestinal lymphoma. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) also are known risk factors. However, most cases of lymphoma occur in cats who are not affected by either virus. It is likely that hereditary factors play a major role in most cases. Exposure to carcinogens likely contributes to some forms of lymphoma.

Lymphoma, like most cancers, is more common in older cats. However, there unfortunately are forms of lymphoma that strike young individuals as well.

How is feline lymphoma diagnosed?

Lymphoma is most commonly diagnosed through tissue samples. In some instances, biopsies are taken of suspicious sites; biopsies of the nose and intestines are often accomplished through endoscopy. Biopsies involve removal of small pieces of tissue for analysis by pathologists. In other instances, ultrasound may utilized to guide needles into the spleen, liver, or intra-abdominal lymph nodes. This technique, called aspiration, is similar to biopsy but is less invasive. Blood and urine tests rarely can reveal lymphoma; however, most cats with lymphoma undergo such testing, as well as radiography (X-rays), to rule out other diseases.

Lymphoma is a malignant disease process, and I am always saddened when I diagnose it. However, owners of cats with lymphoma should take solace in the fact that many forms of lymphoma respond well to treatment.

How to treat cancer in cats:

In humans, lymphoma was formerly one of the deadliest cancers. Over the past 20 years, significant improvements in treatment have rendered it one of the most survivable cancers. Veterinary medicine has piggybacked on some of the advances in human medicine.

Most forms of lymphoma are treated with chemotherapy. Although many people cringe at the thought of chemo, be aware that cats generally tolerate chemotherapy much better than humans. In fact, many cats experience few to no chemo side effects. Recent advances in the understanding of lymphoma have enabled veterinary oncologists to type each cat’s disease, and then tailor chemotherapy protocols to the individual situation.

It is possible for many cats with lymphoma to go into complete remission. I have known many cats who enjoyed remission (disease free) periods of several years.

Such favorable outcomes are not universal, but they are sufficiently common that I always recommend that owners of cats with lymphoma see a veterinary oncologist. Lymphoma is common and, if not treated, deadly condition. However, for cats who receive proper care, a diagnosis of lymphoma often is not a catastrophe.

Thumbnail: Photography by Shutterstock.

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22 thoughts on “Ask a Vet: What Is Lymphoma in Cats? Can It Be Treated?”

  1. Thank you for this article. I just lost my precious cat Gem at the age of 13 1/2 from what the vets say they thought was GI Lymphoma. Gem was a healthy- that I know of- 12 year old – went to the vet to have her nails trimmed- then started vomiting her food- Science Diet, and tiki cat tuna- nothing else so it could have been the food- she had been eating since I got her as a kitten. She also had to have 4 teeth pulled- and that we speculated could have been causing it. After having her teeth pulled it seemed like it all really started. Not wanting to eat- could it have been the loss of teeth- her appetite was a rollercoaster- but no other symptoms. She then went from an almost 9lb cat to 7lbs- then down to 6.50 lbs- even when eating but now only wellness formula wet food- no matter how much she ate up to 60zs a day or more, She then wanted dry food again so I gave that to her.
    No Hyperthyroid- and she was too small to biopsy even though many blood tests. Gem hated the vet so I was not going to put her through anything invasive- due to the stress it would create for her. Even so because of her weight she was being checked mutliple times between when this started and 3 weeks ago when she died. Her weight had gone down to 5 lbs in June- then up to 6.50 lbs in July – I am home so was feeding her ahi tuna tiki cat wet up to 8ozes a day. Although not running around and more tired she still jumped up- still told me what to do- woke me up in morning still interacting. Then one day I noticed her stumble sideways after jumping out of litter box. She was panting. This is after I gave her prednilozone twice at vets advice. She also said Gem had a slight heart murmer but that doesnt always mean anything. I stopped giving it to her and took her to vet. She checked kidney values and did eye test- she was ok she said. Talked to me again about the possibility of Lymphoma. Then 3 weeks ago I noticed her having trouble breathing- I thought maybe it was stress on the first day- then thought maybe a respiratory infection the second day and called vet. By the third morning it was really bad but no wheezing or open mouth breathing and she had eaten through the night. I took her to the vet thinking she’d treat her and we’d come home with antibiotics. Because of covid all these appointments are drop off and talk on phone while waiting outside. The vet said her breathing was really bad-I knew that stress of being there was playing into it all- and that they needed to do an xray- they xrayed her and found fluid surrounding her lungs in chest cavity. She said the treatment would be to try to drain- in oxygen box- and that she could die during treatment, that even with draining it was not a long term treatment. I had to make the decision to put quality of life first again and euthanize her. She died when the vet gave her the sedative. I was allowed in for the euthanasia so did get to say goodbye to her but she was gone. I was in shock. I was so focused on her weight and the fact that she’d had no other symptoms but her weight that I didn’t consider anything else. I thought for some reason her eating loads and gaining weight again ment we were over a hump. Because they always say- they dont eat drink and hide away if they are sick or in pain. She slept more but nothing else- but the weight fluctuation. In hind sight why didnt I ask the vet what to expect if she had lymphoma and I was not putting her through treatment. I wish that the vet had given some guidance and not just treatment options and vague information. Im not blaming the vet she did what she could, but there should be some kind of counseling included with vet care because sometimes the information is so much- fast and furious you dont get the full picture. I also dont know why I didnt realize myself what was happening until it was too late. The up and down went on for 1 1/2 years. This is a loss I will never get over.

    1. I’m so sorry for your lost and thankful for your sharing. My elder cat is in ER and just had his chest fluid drained last night and is stable. I, too, had to make a decision on him and I understand. I’m waiting for more test results today and consultation with oncology. My cat is 13 and has been with me since five month old, he is my baby.

      1. thank you Wendy, I hope your cat has been helped and is still with you! I am still researching what I didn’t know.
        thecatsite is a good source of information, with threads by other cat owners about their situations. It has helped me alot.

  2. Thank you for this piece. I’ve spent months obsessively researching intestinal lymphoma in cats in the lead-up to and following my cat’s diagnosis. This is the first I’ve learned that it can cause palpable enlarged lymph nodes in the abdomen. Something I will watch out for as I monitor for signs of relapse. (We’ve been lucky to have apparently put it into remission.)

  3. Pingback: Cat Dandruff: Is It One thing to Fear About? – Cute funny cat kitten pictures videos

  4. Margaret Nelson

    My older cat was diagnosed with stomach lymphoma on 2/14/2019. He
    was put on prednisolone, 5mg, twice
    a day. Prednisolone stopped his vomiting in the beginning but now
    the vomiting has returned. Was prescribed Metoclopramide to treat
    the vomiting. Very concerned about
    using this drug after reading its side
    effects. Has anyone used this drug for
    their cat’s vomiting?

    1. My cat is currently on both, but isn’t keeping anything down. It is very disheartening.
      She was responding well at first but is now rejecting medicine. Had her dosed via if with hopes for improvement, but even with added doses of cernia is unable to stomach anything.

  5. Hi I have a 10yr old male cat who has just been diagnosed with bowl lymphoma and a few small nodes in stomach. He has lost all his weight over 8 weeks. After blood test and scan he diagnosed anaemia also. His liver kidneys and all organs are a ok . He has started my cat on steroids hoping to shrink the size of the bowl walls . Is this good practice or should he have chemo .can the steroids work or am I being given false hope . Please advise if any one can answer my questions I love my cat and I have his mum and brother also . He is eating and drinking and still quite active apart from the weight loss you would not know he was poorly.x

  6. Took my cat to the vet 10 days ago because he has been losing weight shedding hair, and constipated. He was put on a kidney diet 3 years ago. Blood results always acceptable(every 6 months). 5years ago he also had problem with loss of weight. Refused to eat. He was diagnosed with neck lymph ode problem. Was operated on removing both lymph nodes. He recovered from this without further medication. OK back to the current problem. My vet suggested he needed to go to the veterinary hospital because he was dehydrated. So off we went. The vet said because he was eating and drinking he did not think it necessary to put him on the drip. Did a blood test and that was also OK. On further inspection found mouth ulcer and suggested antibiotic cure /injection for 15 days/ and suggested that we should perhaps do an ultrasound at a later date to find out why the weight loss.
    2 days after receiving the antibiotic cure my cat refused to eat, had diahorea and was vomiting. Back to the vets, now today 10 days later we have new blood tests, not good he is in renal failure. Ultrasound done also not looking good, kidneys rather small and out of shape, intestines looking enlarged and the lymph nodes abdominal large. All signs of intestinal lymphoma. Without a biopsy not a definite diagnosis. Because of the renal failure we have at this moment gone for build up of fluids left him at the hospital on drip. He is an elderly cat 16 years but was doing fine seemed happy enough always talking to us. Do you have any advice. Am I doing the right thing by my cat

    1. Hi there Pamela,

      Thanks for reaching out! You are doing the right thing by communicating with your vet and taking your cat to him. Please continue to do this and we hope your cat feels better!

      1. Thank you, we brought socks home yesterday, after 3 days on drip and lots of medicines. He still as yet does not seem interested in food. Do you have any ideas, suggestions

        1. Hi Pamela,

          Thanks for reaching out! We suggest staying in touch with your vet and working with them. These articles might provide some insight, but definitely let your vet know that your kitty doesn’t seem all too interested in food. Hope your cat feels better:

  7. My cat Abbott was diagnosed with lymphoma, hardening of the ventricles and a stroke yesterday. He had to be put to sleep. All those factors plus his heart murmur made it impossible to treat him. He was 15

  8. Yesterday my 1,8 years old male cat died from intestinal limphoma.he was completely healthy, no FelV or another fatal viruses, al his brother and sisters are healthy. Vaccination shot had been done at 1 of April. At 20 of April he meet with another female. He began to lost his weight a week after. He changed his taste habbits. He refused from dry food and liked hen’s bones very much. He stoled it. He eat only wet food. But he continued to lost weight, and his hair was not good . My female cat began to beat him. He was afraid of her. And he had been sitting in the shelf all the time. We didn’t thought that theese were a features of serios decease, because his excrements were very good, eated a lot of wet food, no vomitting. So i lost two months before diagnos had been done. Cat died after diagnos 7 days. He had intestinal limphoma. But i think that not only intestinal, because i noticed a strange behavior – he look at his food for 5 minutes before eating. Even in his last day his excrements was good. So, i resume that owners must pay attention to all changes in behavior one cat or another cat’s relation to this one, especially female with kittens( even if they 3 months or more). And i think that vaccination shot was decisive factor in his decease , because veterinar did vaccination Rabisin and Purevax IN ONE SHOT. As i knew later she would do it in two shots in different places of body. I beg your pardon for my not good English, it is not my native language. Thank you for attention.

  9. My 14 year old male cat is in the NIVES (Northeast Indiana Veterinary Emergency Speciality) Hospital as I write this. He probably has lymphoma, but is undergoing further testing by fine needle aspirate this p.m.. Not sure what the protocol will be, but I do get some strength from your outlook that does not have to be a death sentence. Thank you! I did have a Black Lab that succumbed to lymphoma after being in remission for 6 months. She was treated at the University Animal Hospital with chemo and oral meds. Thanks again for your opinion on this dreaded disease.

    1. Jaime Lyn Morelock

      Hi, I was dealing with my (baby) cat and suspected lymphoma. I spend 800 in 4 weeks to the vet tring to save him, and find out what was causing this, not until the US taking him to get at 7:30 at night to be out to sleep, did the vet also confirm he thought rowdy possibly had some cancer pertains to the Gi! I am heart broke! If he thought that why was that not suggested test along with the other 3/4 we payed for, I was sure his job was to tell me what he thought it was, and not to keep his opinion to his self. Floored! Sorry to ramble but anyways…I was curious as to how much your treatment was, and what it was? I hope this finds you and your baby well, and for the better regardless of outcome. Thank you

  10. Thank you for an excellent piece of information. My 13 year old cat probably has lymphoma, I am awaiting further test results. Can you direct me to a veterinary oncologist, please? I live on the island of Tasmania, Australia.
    Many thanks.

    1. Hi Emily,

      Thanks for reaching out. We unfortunately don’t have a vet directory on your site. Your best bet is to Google search veterinary oncologist Tasmania, Australia. Best of luck and hope your kitty feels better!
      This piece might help as well:

  11. My cat has a swollen spleen and some swollen lymph nodes. No weight loss. Doesnt appear sick. Good blood work. Been this way for 7 mos. Will Leukeran shrink spleen?

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