Skin tags or cancer? How to differentiate in cats

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Skin tags or cancer? How to differentiate in cats - A gray cat lying on the floor

Abnormal skin growths are common in cats and can look like everyday skin tags frequently seen on people. However, skin tags are far less common in cats than many other types of growths and lumps, some of which can be cancerous. That’s why it’s important to get every new growth checked by a vet rather than assume a change in your cat’s skin is a skin tag. Read on if you have ever wondered:

  • What are feline skin tags, and why do cats get them?
  • How do I know if my cat has skin cancer?
  • What should I do if my cat has a growth on its skin?
  • How are benign and malignant lumps diagnosed and treated by a vet?
  • Can abnormal skin growths be prevented in cats?

Skin growths and cancer can occur in every part of the skin, including the hair follicles, skin surface, under the skin’s surface, and in sebaceous glands. It’s impossible to know what kind of growth is present or how invasive it is without diagnostic testing and a visit to a veterinarian.

What are skin tags in cats?

Skin tags are long, thin stalks of skin that are soft and typically the same color as the normal skin tone. They may be rough or smooth. Skin tags are benign and usually do not appear to bother affected cats. A tag can bleed or become irritated if injured, but is not expected to change color, shape, or size or spontaneously bleed.

Skin tags are uncommon in cats and often confused with warts, moles, ticks, and nipples that can all have a similar appearance. Other types of skin growths are more common in cats than tags and are often much more dangerous.

Why do cats get skin tags?

Skin tags are not well understood in cats and are uncommon. In other animals, skin tags more often appear in areas that are friction points, such as under the armpits. Since skin tags in cats are rare, it’s unclear whether friction is a contributing factor in cases of feline skin tags. Older cats are more likely to develop skin tags, and tags are rare in kittens.

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What does skin cancer look like in cats?

Cancerous lumps and growths are common in cats and can have a variety of appearances. “There is no way to tell the difference between a benign lump and malignant tumor just by looking at it,” states Dr. Jo Myers, a veterinarian at Vetster. “Microscopic examination of the cells is necessary to identify the type of growth and determine if it is benign or malignant.” Skin cancer may show up in clusters or as a solitary lump and be accompanied by hair loss, scabby sores, or flaky skin.Common malignant tumors in cats include:

  • Basal cell carcinoma - a firm, solitary, hairless, often ulcerated bump with or without a stalk
  • Squamous cell carcinoma - raised, sore-like, ulcerated lumps on the skin
  • Mast cell tumor - a small, hard, hairless bump on the skin surface that may be itchy

Squamous cell carcinoma and mast cell tumors are two of the most common types of cancer in cats. However, not all skin tumors are cancerous. Common types of benign tumors include

  • Lipoma - round, fatty tumors in soft tissue that freely move when touched
  • Benign basal cell tumor - a non-cancerous growth made up of basal cells
  • Granuloma - raised, circular, yellowish or pink nodules on the skin

Even if a growth is benign, it can still cause problems if it becomes infected, affects connective tissues, or hinders mobility. New growths on the skin need to be checked by a vet to determine if they are benign or malignant.

What causes feline skin cancer?

It is not fully understood why cats develop skin tumors and cancer. Sun exposure, certain chemicals, and various viruses can cause skin cancer in pets, just like in people. Some individual cats are simply more likely to develop certain cancers than others based on their breed and other genetic factors.

What should I do about unusual skin growth on my cat?

Since skin changes cannot be identified as cancer from appearance alone, it’s important to get any new growths checked by a veterinarian rather than assume an abnormal growth is simply a skin tag, mole, or other harmless lump. Small, solitary tumors and growths can be much more dangerous than they appear. All skin growths need to be checked, but seek immediate attention if:

  • The growth changes in size, color, or overall appearance
  • The growth is ulcerated or bleeding
  • There are other signs of illness, such as vomiting or loss of appetite

Aggressive tumors on the skin surface can invade surrounding tissue or spread to internal organs, causing widespread illness that becomes more difficult to treat. It’s best to get a change in the skin checked right away rather than wait.

Can I remove my cat’s skin tags at home?

Do not try to remove your cat’s skin tags at home because this may result in injury or infection. It’s best to see a vet to confirm the diagnosis and determine if removal is necessary. Skin tags are usually nothing to worry about and do not appear to bother affected cats, and sometimes they simply fall off on their own. If a tag becomes injured or appears to be irritating, a vet can remove it in a number of ways depending on its size and location. Your vet may also recommend testing the removed tissue to find out for sure what it was and determine if the abnormal cells were removed entirely.

How are skin lumps, tumors, and tags diagnosed and treated by a vet?

Veterinarians cannot diagnose skin growths simply by appearance. Diagnostic testing of the growth involves a needle aspiration and a microscopic examination of the tissue sample to look for cancerous cells. Masses can also be biopsied or removed and sent to a lab where more thorough testing can be done on the tissue sample. There are many options for mass removal depending on its location and size. If cancer is diagnosed, other treatment options may be recommended, such as additional surgery to remove the entire tumor, chemo, and radiation.

Can I prevent skin tags on my cat?

Prevention of skin tags on cats is not possible because it’s not entirely understood why cats develop them to begin with. Tags are far less common in cats compared to other benign lumps or cancerous growths. It’s important to ask a vet for help any time you notice an abnormal growth on your cat, even if it appears like a benign tag on the skin surface. If your cat has an abnormal skin growth, you can conveniently ask a vet for advice on Vetster from home in a virtual vet appointment.

FAQ - Skin tags or cancer? How to tell the difference in cats

Are skin tags common in cats?

Skin tags are uncommon in cats. If your cat has a skin lump, it is likely a more common form of growth. Only a veterinarian can determine the nature of skin changes, so it’s important to check with your vet if you notice a new skin growth for an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment. Malignant lumps are common in cats and can rapidly become dangerous.

How do you get rid of skin tags on cats?

It is not recommended for pet parents to try to remove a cat’s skin tags from home. Tags are uncommon in cats, and growths are much more likely to be something else. Misdiagnosis, injury, and infection often occur when pet parents attempt to remove skin growths from home. Instead, talk to your veterinarian to determine if the growth is actually a skin tag. If it is, odds are good it doesn’t need to be removed. If the tag is easily injured or appears to bother your cat, your vet can determine the best plan for surgical removal.

What does skin cancer look like on a cat?

Cancerous tumors and growths vary dramatically in appearance. They can occur under or on the skin surface at any location, vary in color and size, and look similar to benign growths such as moles and skin tags. A needle aspirate is helpful for identifying the types of cells in the growth, and a biopsy is needed for a definitive diagnosis. Have all new skin growths checked by a vet. A timely examination is even more important if the lump appears to be growing rapidly or changing.

What are the most common skin tumors in cats?

Squamous cell carcinomas and mast cell tumors are the most common cancerous lumps in cats. Common benign lumps and tumors in cats include lipomas, granulomas, and benign basal cell tumors. It’s important to get any new skin growth checked by a vet to determine its type and how to treat it appropriately.