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December 9, 2008

Lesions on tip of cat's ear can snowball, lead to death

Can you guess what color a cat named Snowball might be? I ask because it is relevant.

According to Tamara, Snowball's "house servant" (Tamara's words), the 10-year-old cat has a problem with her left ear. The problem started with some crusting/ scabbing on the ear's tip. Tamara said she used to be able to rub off the crust, exposing slightly reddened skin. Over time, however, the crusting has spread down toward the base of the ear and the very tip edge now seems to be eroding. Tamara has tried treating with Neosporin, vitamin E oil and cortisone cream.

I am sure that most of you realize that Snowball needs to see her veterinarian. I suspect there is no over-the-counter remedy.

The veterinarian will probably scrape the skin from the affected area and examine it under a microscope. This can show the cells involved with the lesion, as well as possible skin parasites that may be causing the problem. Another quick and easy test is a culture for the fungus that causes ringworm. This involves removal of a hair from around the lesion area; they're placed on a special culture medium to try to grow the fungus that causes ringworm. I suspect these tests will not reveal the cause of Snowball's skin problem. Still, this information is valuable in ruling out these conditions.

I suspect Snowball has squamous cell carcinoma. This is an aggressive cancer and, depending on the location, can quickly lead to death.

This is especially true if it occurs in a cat's mouth, although squamous cell carcinoma of the ear can erode away the entire ear and then spread to the rest of the head.

Fortunately in Snowball's case, the lesions are, or at least were, on the edge of the ear tip. Tamara did note progression, so I am unsure if they have spread.

For a definitive diagnosis, we will need a biopsy.

If the problem is indeed squamous cell carcinoma, all is not lost. Because of the location and assuming it has not progressed too far toward the base of the ear, it may be curable. The cure will involve resection of part of the ear, including visibly healthy tissue as a margin from the tumor. Snowball may not appreciate her reflection in the mirror as much as before surgery, but it is a small price to pay.

I mentioned earlier that Snowball's coat color may be relevant. This is because white cats show a higher incidence for squamous cell carcinoma.

Another curious point is that outdoor cats are far more at risk for this disease than those living indoors. This is because of increased sun exposure. Snowball, however, is an indoor cat, thus providing yet another illustration that there are few absolutes.

Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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