Dear Dr. John:
Can you shed some light on the situation leading to my cat having to be put to sleep? I am pretty devastated. My cat was 14 years old a few months ago and I noticed he started to develop a swelling on his jaw. I did not think too much about it because my vet saw the cat every year and gave him his shots. For the past two years he had been urging me to bring the cat in for a dental cleaning because there were some rotting teeth. The cat had already lost a fair amount of teeth on his own. Not too long ago, the swelling started to smell and bleed so I took him in for a checkup. My veterinarian showed me an ugly area in the jaw and said the cat had cancer. Did this happen because I did not get my cat’s teeth cleaned when it was suggested? Could I have prevented this? I feel guilty now because I didn’t listen to the earlier recommendations due to cost. Help. — I.L.
The first thing I need to say: You should not feel guilty because you cannot stop cancer from developing. It is virtually impossible for dental disease and rotting teeth to lead to the cancer that your cat developed. But, dental disease may occasionally be a tipoff that something worse might be brewing in the area; thorough evaluation including dental X-rays may give clues. Rotting teeth can be painful and lead to infections so they should not be left to fall out. However, I do think that this is a good example as to why people should not wait too long to address a swelling of any kind in an animal, especially if the patient is older. There is a very slim possibility that had the problem been addressed earlier, at the first sign of a swelling, that some intervention such as surgery might have extended your cat’s life. Had you done so, it would only be by a small amount of time and the cost would probably have been far more expensive than a dental cleaning. The most common form of cancer in cats’ mouths is squamous cell carcinoma. It is usually seen in older cats. This highly invasive and rapidly growing tumor creates a swelling and at the same time eats away at the tissues there, causing bleeding, infection and what was likely seen by you and your veterinarian. I am glad you did not wait any longer to have the problem diagnosed and dealt with, but I am sorry for your loss.