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Ask the Doctor November 2019 Issue

Dear Doctor: Worried about the effects of chemotherapy

vnlit | Bigstock

Chemotherapy will not make your cat feel even worse.

Q. My cat has been diagnosed with gastrointestinal lymphoma, and the veterinarian says he will need chemotherapy. I’ve seen my father go through chemo, and it was no picnic. I’m worried about putting my cat through this. Will it really help?

Leila Lovercheck

San Antonio, Texas

Dear Ms. Lovercheck,

A. Your concern is understandable. A lot of owners fear chemotherapy for their cats because of the potential undesirable side effects that it wreaks on the human body during cancer treatment. However, cats generally tolerate chemotherapy very well. The doses used in veterinary patients are a half to a third lower than those used in humans, and there are less severe side effects when compared to human cancer patients — typically no loss of hair (except maybe the whiskers). And when nausea occurs it is rare, typically mild, and can be managed with medications given at home.

The reason is that people get chemotherapy to extend life for as long as possible. Our pets get chemotherapy to extend quality of life for as long as possible, with the goal being palliation of signs and symptoms associated with the cancer.

If you still feel hesitant, you can try chemotherapy to see if your cat responds. When chemotherapy works to contain gastrointestinal lymphoma, it starts working quickly. When it doesn’t, it becomes apparent soon, and the treatment can be discontinued. In fact, the response to chemotherapy has actually been found to be prognostic; the better the response, the better the prognosis. (If the lymphoma is what’s termed low-grade as opposed to high-grade, you can give the chemo orally at home instead of bringing in your pet for intravenous chemotherapy administration.)

Successful chemo for low-grade cancer extends a cat’s good-quality life by 16 months to 2 years, on average, and sometimes much longer. That’s not a small chunk of time for a cat. Successful chemo for the high-grade lymphoma will work for an average of 6 to 9 months.

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