Brain Tumors in Cats – Not Always a Death Sentence

Updated: May 29, 2015
Published: November 10, 2014
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You brought your cat to the veterinary clinic with vague signs, perhaps some loss of energy and odd behavior. These symptoms weren’t all that concerning, but now you’ve been shocked by the news that your cat likely has a brain tumor. This has to be the end of the road for her, right? Not necessarily.

The most common type of brain tumor in cats is a meningioma. One study found that 56 percent of reported brain tumors in cats were meningiomas. Actually, calling the condition a “brain tumor” is a bit of a misnomer. The abnormal cells forming the mass don’t originate in the brain but in the membrane that covers it (the meninges). The tumor’s location on the outer surface of the brain, slow growth, and tendency to form solitary masses are the reasons why meningiomas can be treated with relative ease.

Don’t get me wrong; meningiomas are often deadly.  They press on and disrupt nearby parts of the brain and when large enough increase the pressure within the skull, which can have catastrophic consequences. My point is simply that if a cat has to have a brain tumor, a meningioma is the best type to have.

The clinical signs of meningiomas generally come on slowly, gradually worsen over time, and can include:

  • depression or confusion
  • head tilt, loss of balance
  • poor vision
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a change in voice
  • seizures
  • weakness
  • strange behaviors, including withdrawal from daily activities
  • gain or loss of appetite
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • pacing/circling
  • head pressing
  • collapse
  • paralysis
  • coma

Diagnosing a meningioma requires a complete physical and neurological examination, a general health work up (e.g., blood chemistry, complete blood cell count, urinalysis, feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus testing) to rule out other conditions, and advanced imaging – either a CT scan or an MRI.

Surgical removal is the best form of treatment for cats with meningiomas. I bet some of you are rolling your eyes thinking “brain surgery for cats, yeah right,” but remember that meningiomas typically lie just under the skull and don’t invade the underlying brain tissue. While this is not a procedure that a veterinarian in general practice should attempt, it really isn’t all that complicated for an experienced, board-certified veterinary surgeon.

Results can be quite good after surgery for a meningioma. Once study found the median survival time to be 26 months, not too bad given the fact that most of these cats were older to begin with. Another study showed that 78% of the cats who survived for longer than 26 months after surgery had no evidence of tumor recurrence – in other words, they had essentially been cured.

Obviously all cats are not candidates for brain surgery and the cost can often be prohibitive, but owners should still be aware that definitive treatment is an option for some cats with meningiomas.

Jennifer Coates

Image: Shebeko / Shutterstock