UP CLOSE AND PURRSONAL WITH SKIN CANCER
By Mary Anne Miller
I first noticed the cat in the tall pasture grass. A pair of green eyes peered out at me as I walked toward the barn. Both ears looped over, hanging at an awkward level. As I slowly turned to walk toward the stray cat, it bolted. I could see it move off into the woods. That night, I set out my trap. The woods were not safe for small creatures.
At midnight, with blanket and flashlight in hand, I went to check the trap. Before I could get to the edge of the pines, I could hear the thrashing of an animal in distress. My light picked up a pair of green eyes glowing at me. The white cat challenged the wire repeatedly, running and crashing into the sides. My presence intensified the efforts. The ears were openly bleeding. Dropping the blanket down over the trap, I carried the thrashing animal into the house. Readied hours before, the cat room stood awaiting its newest occupant. I set down the trap, releasing the cat.
The cat rushed towards me. I braced for attack, thanking my stars that my tetanus was up-to-date. Instead of attacking, the cat twirled between my ankles. I saw she was a female. After getting head-bumped several times, I reached down to pet her. She hissed and swiped at me, claws at the ready.
Sitting down on the floor reaching for my Kitty First Aid box, I bribed her over with my first aid staple Kitty Kaviar. Her ears needed immediate attention. I didn’t fancy making an hour and forty-five minute drive to the emergency clinic with her. “Twirl” came over to me accepting my bribe. Talking to her, I gently scruffed her neck; cotton balls, Hydrogen Peroxide and Betadine were at the ready, but she wasn’t cooperating. After a few attempts to clean her ears, I gave up. This job needed a professional.
At the clinic the next morning, my vet took one look at her ears and shook his head. He told me she more than likely had a form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant form of skin cancer, prevalent in white cats. A biopsy confirmed his suspicions. Twirl had squamous cell carcinoma. He gave her three months before her ear flaps would be eaten away.
Two weeks later, three year old Twirl had both her ear flaps amputated. They took them down almost to her skull. Weeks before the operation, even putting ointment on her ears daily, I could see the slow deterioration of her ear flaps. She fought the pain, while taking the meds I offered her. She understood for the first time in her life, someone was helping her. I bought window tinting film and carefully placed it over the windows upstairs. According to the vet, Twirl could not be exposed to any sunlight. If there was sun, I was to apply sunscreen on her ears. She could still have a cancer cell in the base of her ears. The cancer could return. So Twirl became an upstairs kitty.
This disease usually affects white and light-haired cats but even dark haired cats with light ears can become its victims. Squamous cell carcinoma first appears as a scabby wound on the ear flaps, neck or nose. These early lesions can appear on a kitten as young as three months old. Quickly multiplying, this rapid growth, known as feline solar dermatitis, takes hold destroying the delicate skin. This growth creates hot spots on the sensitive pinna of the ear. Any further exposure to the sun causes the capillaries underneath to rupture becoming infected. White cats lack the proper pigmentation on their ears to protect them so they fall victim to the UV rays more easily than other cats. Blue-eyed, white cats are extremely susceptible to skin cancer.
The cancer can be either basil cell carcinoma (a benign cancer) or squamous cell carcinoma (malignant). Untreated, these lesions grow into thick bloody wounds running on the edges of the ears. Once the skin starts to peel back, the cat will scratch her ears exacerbating the problem. Over time, the scabs resemble bloody, cauliflower lumps or crater-like masses. In severe cases, there is a definite odor emanating from the ears. An early warning sign on white kittens: the tips of the ears droop over. If you have a white cat who routinely takes sun baths, I urge you to be cautious and apply sunscreen several times a day to the ears. Squamous cell is quite invasive. The cancer can spread into the nasal cavities, up into the mouth and into the lymph nodes and lungs. Once it has taken hold inside the body, the cancer becomes resistant to most drugs and therapy.
Twirl’s absence of ears causes her to appear in a perpetual state of aggression. Merging her in with the clowder resulted in several severe cat fights almost instantaneous upon introduction. In order to keep her safe from future fights and to protect her from being exposed to any more sunlight, Twirl now lives a privileged life upstairs. She is well-cared for and loved. If I am not careful, her head-bumps have a tendency to knock me off my feet. She may not have normal, cat-like ear flaps, but through her whole ordeal, she has shown me she possesses an amazing heart.
Mary Anne Miller is a freelance writer, a member of The Cat Writers’ Association and a stray cat advisor. Her website www.kitten-rescue.com shows her love for bottle babies and their welfare. She currently lives in rural Oregon with her husband, two horses, two dogs and her clowder. She is currently working on her first cat book.