Swelling of the Salivary Gland in Cats

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
By Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Mar. 16, 2023

In This Article


What Is Swelling of the Salivary Gland in Cats?

Cats have five major salivary glands. They are located on the face just behind the corners of the lips and extend from under the eye downward, close to the lower jaw. The salivary glands produce saliva and secrete it through small tubes called ducts into the mouth.

Salivary glands are an important part of a cat’s digestive system. When the salivary glands or their  ducts are damaged, a condition called a salivary mucocele (sialocele) forms. Saliva then leaks into  surrounding tissues, including the fat layer under the skin and under the gums.

Although any of the five salivary glands can be affected, those under the tongue and on the jawline are most commonly involved. A salivary mucocele is relatively uncommon in cats but if it does occur, it can cause significant problems.

If you notice any swelling on your cat’s face, neck, or under their tongue, have your cat examined by their veterinarian as soon as possible.

Health Tools

Not sure whether to see a vet?

Answer a few questions about your pet's symptom, and our vet-created Symptom Checker will give you the most likely causes and next steps.

Symptoms of Swelling of the Salivary Gland in Cats

Clinical signs of a salivary mucocele vary, depending on which glands are affected and the extent of  damage. Often the first sign is a soft, nonpainful, slow-growing swelling on the neck, with or without excessive drooling. The swelling can be noticed on the side of the face as well, but often the saliva pools downward and the swelling is first noticed on the neck.

When the salivary glands under the tongue are affected, you may notice your cat is having trouble eating, chewing, or swallowing. Sometimes the swelling under the tongue is not noticed until your cat accidentally injures the area (usually when eating) and it begins to bleed.

When the salivary glands closer to the throat are damaged, this can be much more serious, causing difficulty breathing.

The least common salivary gland to be affected is under the eye, which can cause a swelling similar to that from an infected tooth root. A salivary mucocele is generally nonpainful, but the gland can become infected, causing pain and even a fever.

A tumor can also cause the swelling to be painful, and often it is harder in texture than a mucocele alone. You may notice your cat dropping food while eating, not eating as much, or not eating at all.  When cats get a mucocele on the neck or the lower jaw, there are often no signs other than the visible swelling.

Causes of Swelling of the Salivary Gland in Cats

A salivary mucocele can be caused by trauma, or also an inflammatory process that causes a blockage or rupture of the salivary gland capsule or the salivary ducts.

While the actual cause of the trauma is rarely identified, it is often from bite wounds or chewing on foreign material or objects. Accidental trauma from ear canal surgery can also cause a salivary mucocele, since the surgeon will be examining the areas around the salivary gland.

A salivary mucocele can also be caused by or can be confused with a tumor of the salivary glands, or the spread of a cancer from another part of the body to the salivary glands. Any disruption to the salivary glands or salivary ducts causes the saliva to leak out into the surrounding tissues, causing a significant, non-painful, slow-growing swelling.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Swelling of Salivary Gland in Cats

Salivary mucoceles are primarily diagnosed during a physical examination. Your cat’s veterinarian can differentiate a salivary mucocele from abscesses, tumors, and other types of cysts by using a needle to draw a sample of fluid from inside the mucocele. The condition can be identified by looking at the sample under a microscope. In some cases, the sample might need to be sent to a lab for analysis.

If the swelling is at the center of the neck, your veterinarian will lay your cat on its back to determine which side of the face the affected salivary gland is located. In some cases, your cat might have to be sedated, especially if the gland is under the tongue or in the back of the throat.

Treatment of Swelling of Salivary Gland in Cats

Surgical removal of the affected salivary gland is often the recommended treatment. If your cat’s mucocele is located under the tongue or on the neck, it can sometimes be managed by your veterinarian by periodically draining the area, but only if surgery is not an option due to a preexisting medical condition or other circumstances.

Draining a salivary mucocele with a needle is only a temporary solution and will likely cause it to become infected. Complete surgical removal of the gland and the duct is most important with salivary muscles in the throat, as without removal your cat may have trouble breathing.

For a salivary mucocele to be cured, the gland and all its ducts must be surgically removed. If the gland is infected, your veterinarian will start your cat on antibiotics. Pain medication might also be needed if the gland is infected, caused by a tumor, or after a surgical procedure. Anti-inflammatory medications are also considered.

Recovery and Management of Salivary Gland in Cats

If your cat is recovering from surgery for a salivary mucocele, it’s important to follow all of the veterinarian’s discharge instructions, including giving all medications as prescribed.

Sometimes a drain needs to be placed after surgery to continue to remove the fluid trapped in the tissues surrounding the area. This will have to be periodically reassessed by your vet and then removed once the drainage is complete.

It’s also important to have your cat wear an Elizabethan collar or cone to keep them from damaging the affected area or removing the drain. It may also be recommended that your cat only eat soft food to avoid damage to the surgery site.

For a salivary mucocele caused by trauma, as long as the gland is removed, your cat has an excellent chance for a full recovery and chances of reoccurrence are minimal. If the mucocele is only drained with a needle, it will come back in a matter of time, sometimes within hours to days. In general, salivary mucoceles in cats are extremely uncommon.

Featured Image: iStock.com/kzenon

Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri J. Morrison, DVM


Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health