CASE STUDY: Oral Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC) in Cats

Oral squamous cell carcinoma is the most common oral cancer in cats, accounting for up to 80% of oral feline cancers. Oral SCC usually appears in older cats (age 12-13 years) although I have worked with kittens only a few months old who had tumors so aggressive that they visibly increased in size daily. A recent study documented risk factors of living in a rural environment, outdoor access, secondhand smoke exposure, and a predominately wet food diet with risk increased by low quality wet foods with chemical additives (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9308430/) but many cats develop SCC who do not have these risk exposures.

These lesions can appear anywhere in the mouth or on the tongue, are typically aggressive and fast-growing, and readily invade surrounding areas such as the jawbone or the skull. If caught early, then surgical removal provides a chance for definitive treatment but most SCCs are found late in the disease process when a great deal of tissue destruction has already occurred. Because cats have small mouths and small jaws, there is a limit to how much tissue can be removed without impairing eating, swallowing, grooming, and salivation.

Therapeutic options at this stage are limited. Even with surgery and radiation, typical survival times are 2 to 4 months.

Why do I know all this? Because in August 2020 I took Ellie, a 7 year old lynx point Siamese cross, to the vet for a dental. She was hyper-salivating, constantly grooming, and her breath smelled. I thought she needed her teeth cleaned. I dropped her off and as I was pulling out of the parking lot the vet ran out of the office and stopped me.

“This cat needs to be euthanized today.”

“What?!?!”

“She has a massive squamous cell carcinoma covering over half her tongue and going down her throat. It is ulcerated and infected. It is too big for surgery or radiation. There is nothing that can be done.”

I was stunned and not prepared to make this decision.  I told the vet I could not do this today and asked if he could give me meds to make her more comfortable. He did and said to bring her back after we spent the weekend saying goodbye.

Instead of spending the weekend saying goodbye, I spent the weekend figuring out how to help her — scaling down what I had just started using for a 1200 lb horse with cancer to cat doses. Ellie is a sweet, playful, joyful cat — she had no idea that this thing in her mouth could kill her. There was nothing to lose. I did not take her back to the vet on Monday.

We started. Over the next 7 months the lesion in her mouth regressed and then disappeared. She was happy, roaming the property, hunting, playing, sitting on my lap in the evenings.

In 2022 she had a terrible eye injury and I took her back to the vet. We agreed it looked like she would lose her eye because the damage was almost through the globe. I asked him to look in her mouth and he was puzzled. I reminded him of the SCC more than 2 years ago. He looked, found nothing, and then said this was not possible and this could not be the same cat. He flipped through her chart.

“This is my hand-writing.”

“Yes.”

He still didn’t believe it. I took her home. She didn’t lose the eye in a sequence of near miraculous events— that is another story.

Now we are in 2023. She seems well. I know the lesion is gone. I back off the therapeutics.

Big mistake. Cancers like to come back. She starts to hyper-salivate and over groom.

Back to vet. It is back. It is huge and aggressive. It is destroying her tongue and going down her throat and it is too big for any traditional intervention. We are back in immediate euthanasia territory. Different vet, however – she knows me and she did not even suggest it. Below is Ellie’s tongue on July 31, 2023.

Ellie’s tongue on July 31, 2023.

Ellie is the same sweet, happy, lynx point Siamese cross, now age 10.

In the intervening years I have worked with many animals with cancers, I have learned a great deal, and I have a better arsenal. And this cat — my cat — is not going to have her life shortened or ended by some ridiculous cells that have no self-control.

This is personal.

I deployed an improved arsenal and in the next month her symptoms receded and by the end of the year I can tell it is mostly gone.

We returned to the vet on April 29, 2024 for the express purpose of taking a picture of Ellie’s tongue. That picture is below.

Ellie’s tongue on April 29, 2024.

The lesion is 85% gone. The damaged area is filling in with normal tissue. There is a central channel of abnormal cells but they are minimal compared to where we started. I have increased the potency of her regimen and we will recheck in 4-6 months. She is currently symptom-free.

She is in year 4 of not just surviving SCC, but thriving and having her life as she wants it.

The video below is from 12/3/2023, four months after the recurrence diagnosis, and features Ellie in a deadly battle with the most dreaded of opponents – the wily green bean. One indicator of the body returning to health is the energy level and mood of the animal — Ellie is a joyful and energetic predator. This is why I always ask about the animal’s mood. Joy is health. Joy is a life that is worth living even if health is not perfect.

Ellie in December 2023, feeling well.

This one is personal — but these battles are all personal. Is this a horribly expensive regimen that no one can afford? No. It costs about $75 a month. As the owner you need to be disciplined about giving certain things on certain days but this quickly becomes routine. This approach can be used in parallel with your vet’s recommendations or as a solo therapy.

Need help with a cat? Put your animal’s information in the contact form or in an email (address is on website) so that we can determine whether this approach could work.

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