My Cat Died Suddenly. Was it Lung Cancer?

CatChannel and CAT FANCY cat veterinary expert Arnold Plotnick, DVM, shares information whether lung cancer or heart failure might have contributed to a cat's sudden death.

By Arnold Plotnick, DVM | Posted: December 9, 2011, 3 a.m. EST

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Q: I recently lost my beloved cat, Buddy, suddenly to respiratory failure and what my vet diagnosed as lung cancer.

Buddy was an indoor-only, neutered, 9 year-old cat, in otherwise excellent health. He began losing weight toward the end of November and went to my vet on Dec. 3. My cat's vet gave him a complete exam, including full blood tests. Everything came back negative and she found nothing unusual during the exam. His heart and breathing sounded normal as well.  

My cat continued to act normal (eating, litterbox habits, etc), but in late January I noticed Buddy seemed to continue to lose weight and he had developed a type of snort occasionally when he exhaled. As my vet examined him, my cat began having trouble breathing. She took a chest X-ray and showed me white masses throughout his chest cavity and surrounding his heart. She said he had cancer that had spread throughout his chest cavity and that he probably had a few weeks left.

As bad as this shock was, nothing prepared me for what happened next. Before they could put him back in his carrier, my cat went into full respiratory failure. They gave him Lasix and oxygen, but his tongue and paw pads were completely blue. I had to make the heart-wrenching decision to end his suffering.

I’m so filled with the grief of losing my cat as I don’t understand how this could happen so quickly. I didn’t even have time to try any type of treatment. How common is cat cancer and does it usually claim its victim so quickly? I thought maybe it was his heart since I lost his littermate at the age of two from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but my vet said it wasn’t.

I have five other indoor cats and I’m very careful not to use anything harmful around them to clean with, etc. No one in my home smokes, so Buddy was never subjected to any type of chemicals. I also use wheat-based cat litter. I just don’t understand how this could have happened to such a young cat.  

A: I’m so sorry to hear about your cat. Without having examined Buddy or seeing the X-rays myself, it is difficult to comment on what happened, however, a few things cross my mind.  

Certainly, the description of “white masses” throughout his lungs and around his heart is consistent with lung tumors, however, pulmonary edema can have a similar appearance in cats. Pulmonary edema is basically fluid in the lungs. In dogs with congestive heart failure, pulmonary edema tends to appear mainly at the “hilus,” i.e. the area where the arteries, veins and main airways enter the lung. In cats, however, pulmonary edema can appear as patchy white areas scattered throughout the lungs. It can be easy to confuse these little patchy areas of edema with tumors.  

Given that one of Buddy’s siblings died of heart disease, I’m wondering if Buddy actually had heart disease and not lung cancer. The fact that his heart sounded normal at the time you first noticed that he was losing weight does not rule out heart disease. In fact, many cats with severe heart disease show no signs of their illness on examination — no heart murmur, no abnormal rhythm, no signs at all.

Cats are notorious for not letting anyone know that they’re sick until they simply cannot hide it anymore. This is because predators pick on the sickest in the herd, thus cats often don’t reveal they are sick until well into the course of their illness. Sadly, by the time Buddy was diagnosed, his illness was already too far along to reverse.  

The respiratory system doesn’t have very much reserve. Although he hid it well, it sounds like Buddy’s cardiopulmonary system was on the brink of failure. Unfortunately, the stress of veterinary visits – the exam, X-rays, blood tests – can push a fragile cat over the edge and cats may decompensate and go into respiratory failure. I am not suggesting that you should not have seen your cat’s vet. Obviously, you needed to. Nor does this suggest that your vet did anything wrong. The sad fact is that Buddy was gravely ill, whether due to heart failure or lung tumors. Some cats decline gradually after the diagnosis; others acutely decompensate. When it happens acutely, we’re never prepared, and the sudden nature of this can be hard to comprehend.  

You’re an excellent cat owner and it is clear that you took wonderful care of your cat. Again, my condolences on the loss of your sweet cat Buddy.
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Reader Comments

Mary    Brooklyn, NY

6/26/2014 10:40:01 AM

I feel for your lost of sweet Buddy , I just lost my 9 year old Luke and it sounds like his sudden death may be very similar to your Buddy my heart is so broken and I pray they are in g
Gods loving arms.

Cynthia    San Bernardino, CA

2/12/2014 4:32:44 PM

I know this is an old article, but I just want to say I know how you feel about feeling guilty because the same thing happened to my cat a few days ago. He was only 6 years old neutered in-door cat. However my roommates did smoke inside and I had to use air fresheners to keep tobacco smoke out. I wish I knew the exact source, but I keep blaming myself or what happened. My cat also got worse when I had to bring him in and died on the waiting table before he could be put down in my hands. I am still in shock. I miss him so much I just wish he didn't have to leave me so soon. Best wishes to you.

Joel    Chicagoland, IL

1/3/2014 10:47:52 AM

I know this was old but it was some comfort to read this today. My orange tabby Smoochy, the friendliest cat I have ever known, died on New Year's Day. We'd had him for 13 years and guessed his age to be around 15, having gotten him as a stray. Aside from losing some weight in the last several months, he showed no signs of being ill (I was just starting to consider the weight loss dramatic enough to take him in for a checkup, as he had been fat and slimmed down several times over the years and I know many cats get bony in old age). We had friends over on NYE and he was down socializing as usual. Then he spent all the next day either on the bed or in the closet, and when we came up at night we realized he'd peed on the bed and was lying in it, so we took him to the emergency vet. Expecting, at most, a diagnosis of a urinary blockage (serious but treatable), we instead learned he had advanced stomach cancer and was in shock/heart failure. We knew right away we weren't going to be taking him home, but he ended up passing away before the doctor could even give him the shot (she gave him a tranquilizer and I think it was just too much for his system). On Dec. 31 he seemed happy and realtively healthy. On Jan. 1 he was gone.

The last paragraph of this piece kills me. We couldn't have NOT gone to the vet but clearly going to the vet hastened his passing. So very sad. At least we got to hold him and say comforting words.

Steve    Staten Island, NY

3/30/2013 11:43:51 PM

We just lost our kitty, Sassy, the most cuddly cat I have ever met in this exact way. It happened so quick and we are devastated, but we are thankful to have had her in our life for those last few years. (We rescued her from a pound.)

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