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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My Cat Died Suddenly. Was it Lung Cancer?

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Reader Comments

Sandra    International

3/31/2015 4:55:04 PM

My beautiful chocolate tabby was around 12 as we had him 9 years and was a stray. He lived a full, happy and healthy life, just wandering in the back yard and basking in the sun. Sudden on set of rasping cough and listlessness hastened us to the vet. Blood tests show anemia and xrays 30% functioning the rest white clouds. Possible tumours on lung and few spots elsewhere or age related heart disease. I sadly had to say goodbye there and then with the only consolation I held him and told him how much he was adored and would never be forgotton. RIP Milo you are a star x

Lori    Mason City, IA

11/16/2014 3:43:56 PM

I found it interesting. I'm going through something similar with my nine-year-old female spayed cat. She has coughed on and off for several years and current x-rays had the vet believing she has lung cancer. I was curious whether or not this kind of coughing is caused by fluid on the lungs? I want the most appropriate treatment for her.

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.

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