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Chemotherapy for Cats: What to Expect

cat getting chemotherapy
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If your cat is diagnosed with cancer, it can be mentally and emotionally difficult. If your cat needs chemotherapy, it can be downright overwhelming! 

This article will cover what to expect during chemotherapy for cats to help you feel prepared and confident, including the treatment process, costs, and recovery, along with how to keep your cat comfortable during the process.

What is Chemotherapy?

Cat chemotherapy describes medications that are used to treat cancer. Whether used by itself or in conjunction with other cat cancer treatments such as surgery and radiation therapy, chemotherapy can shrink tumors, kill or slow the growth of cancer cells throughout the body, reduce inflammation, and manage symptoms associated with cancer (such as pain or nausea).

Chemotherapy can be helpful for many types of cancer in cats. However, it is most commonly used in cancer that can’t be treated with surgery (such as lymphoma) or when cancer metastasizes (spreads). 

Depending on the situation, it may be one single drug or a combination of drugs, and it can be administered several ways, including injection, intravenous, and pill form. The good news is that the side effects of cat chemotherapy are minimal compared to the side effects that humans experience.

Chemotherapy for Cats: Step by Step

If your cat is receiving a single injection of chemotherapy or receiving it in pill form, your veterinary provider will administer the injection and/or send you home with detailed instructions that include how to give pills and monitor for side effects.

Since the process for intravenous chemotherapy is a bit more involved, we’ll go over it step by step.

Step 1. Pre-Treatment Appointment

First, your veterinarian will have an appointment with you before starting therapy to discuss what drug(s) will be administered and how often, how long treatment will last (it can vary), and any associated costs.

Step 2. Treatment Prep

When your cat goes in for treatment, the support staff will check their vitals, such as weight, temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate. If everything looks ok, your cat will be prepped for treatment by a veterinary technician. This includes shaving and sterilizing their arm and placing an intravenous catheter. 

Because chemotherapy can cause bone marrow suppression in some cats, blood may be drawn from the catheter to check your cat’s blood cells before treatment. Your cat might also receive pre-treatment with medications to reduce nausea or allergic reactions to chemotherapy drugs.

Step 3. Chemotherapy Infusion

Once the catheter is secured, your cat will receive an IV infusion of fluids and chemotherapy drugs. Infusions can take 45 minutes to several hours to complete. Most treatment centers will allow you to stay with your cat while they are receiving treatment.

Step 4. Post-Treatment Care

After treatment, the veterinarian or veterinary technician will go over any side effects to look out for (pain, nausea, appetite loss, etc.) and schedule your cat for their next treatment, if appropriate. This is the best time to ask your provider any questions for home treatment.

Step 5. At-Home Care

During chemo treatment, you should be able to continue your at-home relationship with your cat without interruption. It is safe for most people to pet, hug, and kiss cats who are undergoing chemotherapy, with the exception of pregnant or nursing mothers, who should avoid contact with the cat for 3 days after treatment. If you are pregnant or nursing, be sure to let your veterinary provider know.

Extra care should be taken with litter boxes, as chemotherapy drugs are excreted via urine and feces. Use gloves for 3-5 days after chemotherapy treatments when cleaning your cat’s litter box. It is safe for cats in multi-cat households to continue sharing boxes.

If you are giving chemotherapy drugs at home, follow all instructions from your veterinarian, including safe handling practices.

Cat Chemotherapy Side Effects

Cat feeling lethargic

Chemotherapy targets fast-growing cells, causing adverse side effects for some cats. In general, side effects of chemotherapy in cats are milder and less prevalent than in humans and can be easily controlled with medication. The most common side effects include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drooling
  • Excessive tiredness after treatment
  • Bone marrow suppression
  • Increased thirst and urination in cats treated with steroids
  • Whisker thinning
  • Shaved hair that grows back more slowly

If your cat is receiving chemotherapy, it is important to provide them with a quiet, warm place to rest. In addition, you should also:

Monitor appetite. Decreased appetite is common after treatment for the first day, but if your cat’s appetite remains poor for longer than 48 hours, or if they’re vomiting, contact your vet. You can entice cats to eat by feeding canned food that has been slightly warmed in the microwave or by adding chicken broth or toppers to their food.

Monitor the litter box. If you notice diarrhea, or if your cat is straining in the litter box without producing feces or urine, call your veterinarian.

Monitor energy level. It is normal for cats to have lower energy immediately following treatment, but if it lasts longer than 24 hours, contact your vet.

Monitor hydration. Provide ample fresh water and ask your veterinarian how to check your cat’s hydration status and temperature. Give your vet a call if you notice signs of dehydration or a fever.

Is Chemotherapy for Cats Worth It?

The decision to pursue chemotherapy is a highly individualized choice, and no matter what your veterinarian thinks, it’s entirely up to you. Choosing to go with chemo depends on several factors, including:

  • If the type of cancer your cat has will respond well to chemotherapy
  • Whether you are treating to cure (remission), slow cancer growth, or provide palliative care (manage symptoms when a cure is not possible)
  • Your cat’s age, overall health, and quality of life with and without treatment
  • Your financial situation

If your cat has been diagnosed with cancer and chemotherapy has been recommended, first make sure that you are working with a veterinarian you trust and is receptive to questions from you. If you aren’t comfortable, you have the right to get a second opinion. Be sure to ask your provider about the following:

  • Prognosis with chemotherapy and without
  • Possible risks and side effects of treatment
  • Other treatment options
  • If a local veterinary oncologist is available to administer treatment (oncologists have access to the latest treatments, research, and drugs)
  • Overall cost, including follow-up care (examinations and lab tests)
  • What is best for your cat

Cat Chemotherapy Cost

Depending on the treatment, the cost of chemotherapy varies. Intravenous drug therapy is the most expensive treatment, and you will pay more to work with a board certified oncologist vs. a local veterinarian. 

In general, chemotherapy for cats costs $1,000-$5,000.

Cat Chemotherapy Success Rate

The success rate of chemotherapy depends on what type of cancer your cat has been diagnosed with, how far the cancer has spread, and the overall health of your cat. 

Some cancers have an excellent success rate of treatment with chemotherapy, but with others, all chemotherapy can do is slow the progression of the disease or help your cat feel better. The variability of success underscores how important it is to ask your veterinarian questions before starting therapy.

Cats and Chemotherapy: Other Tips and Advice

Cat getting pill

In addition to educating yourself about the type of cancer your cat has and the options for treatment, it’s also very helpful to enlist support from your community. A cancer diagnosis is hard, no matter if it’s a pet or a human. Having a supportive group of humans beside you as you walk through this journey can be incredibly helpful. 

Many pet parents have found utilizing an online service like CareCorrals can help create a circle of support, empathy, and love. If you find that you are struggling mentally or emotionally, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional or join a support group.