Swollen Lymph Nodes (Lymphadenopathy) in Cats

Key Takeaways

Lymphadenopathy, or enlarged lymph nodes, is swelling of the lymph nodes due to infection, inflammation, or the presence of tumor cells in the nodes. 

• Lymph nodes are small organs which are part of the lymphatic system

• Lymph nodes enlarge and swell in response to infection

• Tumor cells in the lymph node also cause them to increase in size

• Enlargement of lymph nodes can indicate numerous underlying conditions, ranging from mild inflammation to aggressive cancer

• Other symptoms often observed alongside enlargement of the lymph nodes include loss of appetite, fever, weakness, weight loss, and pain

• Diagnosing the underlying cause of enlarged lymph nodes often requires physical examination, blood work, diagnostic imaging, and sampling of the lymph node

• Treatment and prognosis depend on the underlying condition identified

A Closer Look: What is Lymphadenopathy in Cats?

Lymph nodes are found in different regions of the body, and not all are easy to locate. The five categories are:

• Submandibular: located in the neck area beneath the jaw • Prescapular: located in front of the shoulders

• Axillary: located on each side of the chest under the armpits • Inguinal: located on the abdomen near the groin

• Popliteal: located on each rear leg on the opposite side of the knee

Enlarged lymph nodes are associated with many different types of conditions. This immune response is divisible into three categories based on the underlying cause:

Reactive hyperplasia: the immune system reacts to a stimulus, causing lymph node enlargement

Lymphadenitis: occurs when inflammatory cells move into the lymph node to fight the ongoing infection 

Neoplastic infiltration: the enlargement is the result of the proliferation of cancer cells. 

Normal lymph nodes are firm, and move slightly under the skin when touched. Most lymph nodes in cats are approximately the size of a pea. Under normal conditions, only the submandibular and popliteal lymph nodes are easily felt. The inguinal, axillary, and prescapular lymph nodes are difficult to find unless they are enlarged.

Possible Causes

Potential causes of enlarged lymph nodes: 

• Viral infection, such as Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV), Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) • Fungal infections

• Bacterial infection, such as bartonellosis • Parasitic infections • Allergies and other immune-mediated disorders

• Cancers: leukemia, lymphoma, or metastasis of other tumors

Risk Factors

Lymphadenopathy is a common response to many disease processes, although the condition itself is uncommon in cats. On their own, swollen lymph nodes do not indicate what disease process is occurring, so prompt investigation by a veterinarian is required to identify the root cause of the swelling. Causes of enlarged lymph nodes range from mild conditions to potentially life-threatening disease. It is impossible to know conclusively what the underlying cause of the swollen lymph nodes is without further investigation by a veterinary professional.

Testing and Diagnosis

The first step in diagnostics is a physical examination. Other diagnostics to determine the root cause include:

• Blood tests • Urinalysis • Diagnostic imaging • Surgical biopsy • Aspiration cytology

• Test for FeLV and other infectious diseases 

Treatment and prognosis depend on the underlying condition.

Similar symptoms

Salivary glands may be mistaken for submandibular lymph nodes, due to their similar texture, size, and location. Mammary tissue may be mistaken for enlarged inguinal lymph nodes.

Associated Symptoms

Symptoms associated with enlarged lymph nodes:

• Pain when lymph nodes are touched • Weight loss • Loss of appetite • Difficulty swallowing • Weakness

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