Lentigo in Cats. What You Need to Know About These Benign Spots

What is Lentigo in Cats?

Lentigo refers to small dark pigmented spots that can appear on a cat’s skin, lips, gums, and nose as they age. They are sometimes called “age spots” or “liver spots” and are benign growths of pigment-producing cells called melanocytes in the top layer of the skin (1). Lentigines (the plural of lentigo) are flat, oval or round macules that range in color from black to brown to grey (2). They are often found around a cat’s mouth, lips, eyelids, ears, and nose.

Causes and Risk Factors

There are several potential causes and risk factors for lentigo in cats:

Ultraviolet Light Exposure / Sun Damage – While sun exposure does not directly cause lentigo in cats like it does for human freckles, UV radiation may play a role in lentigo development. Cats with white hair coats and light pigmentation may be at higher risk.

Advancing Age – Lentigo usually develops in middle-aged to older cats approximately 5 years and older. The pigment changes are progressive as cats continue to age.

Breed Predispositions – Lentigo is seen more often in cats with lightly pigmented hair coats, such as orange tabbies, calicos, tortoiseshells, and white or colorpoint cats like Siamese. This suggests genetic predispositions in certain breeds.

Hair Coat Color – White, orange, and light coat colors contain less pigment-producing melanocytes than black or brown coats. Lightly pigmented cats appear to be more prone to developing lentigo.

Diagnosis

Lentigo in cats is most often diagnosed through a visual examination by a veterinarian. The veterinarian will look for flat, pigmented spots on the skin, especially on areas with little hair like the nose, eyelids, lips, and ears. They will check the size, shape, color, and texture of the spots to determine if they are likely lentigo or something more serious like melanoma. According to the Spruce Pets, “Veterinarians often diagnose lentigo based on a thorough physical exam, the presenting clinical signs, and by checking for any other health problems that could cause skin changes.”

If the veterinarian suspects cancer, they may recommend a biopsy to confirm. This involves surgically removing a small sample of the abnormal tissue and sending it to a lab for examination under a microscope. A biopsy can help differentiate between benign lentigo growths and malignant melanoma. As noted on WagWalking, “It’s very likely your vet will order clinical testing to confirm that the spots aren’t a sign of melanoma or another illness if they suspect the spots may not be lentigo.” Biopsies provide the most definitive diagnosis.

Lentigo vs Melanoma

Lentigo spots are benign freckles or moles that develop in cats as they age, while melanoma refers to a type of malignant skin cancer. Though they may look similar at first glance, there are some key differences between lentigines and melanoma in cats:

Benign lentigines usually appear as single dark spots or patches on the skin or gums that do not change size or shape over time. They have clear, distinct borders. Melanoma lesions tend to be larger multi-colored growths that increase in size and may have irregular pigmentation and indistinct borders. They can develop into raised lumps or ulcers over time.

While lentigines are harmless, melanoma is locally invasive and can spread to other parts of the body. Lentigines do not cause any discomfort for the cat, but melanoma can sometimes be itchy or painful.

Warning signs that suggest melanoma rather than benign lentigines include: rapid changes in size or color, bleeding, discharge, ulceration, raised or enlarging lumps, loss of pigment, redness and inflammation around the lesions, and lesions developing in multiple locations. Any suspicious skin masses or changes to existing spots should be evaluated by a vet as soon as possible.

While lentigines are very common as cats age, melanoma is less common but more serious. Annual vet exams and monitoring skin changes can help identify concerning signs early. Biopsies are needed to definitively diagnose feline melanoma.

Treatment

As lentigo is generally benign, no treatment is required in most cases beyond observation. Since lentigo does not cause the cat discomfort or impair function, veterinarians typically recommend leaving the spots alone and simply monitoring them at home for any changes in size, shape, color, or appearance.

If a spot is concerning or continues to grow and change, a veterinarian may recommend surgical removal and biopsy to test for cancer. This allows examination of the cells under a microscope to determine if the growth is malignant.

If cancer is found after surgical removal and biopsy, additional treatment may be warranted depending on the type and stage of cancer. This could include radiation, chemotherapy, or additional surgery to prevent spread or recurrence. Early detection and removal provides the best prognosis if the spots do turn out to be cancerous.

Overall, lentigo can often be left alone with no treatment needed. But it’s important to monitor spots closely and have any changing or suspicious growths examined promptly by a veterinarian to determine if cancer treatment may become necessary.

Prevention

There are a few steps cat owners can take to help prevent lentigo in cats:

Avoid excessive sun exposure. Since sunlight exposure can trigger lentigo, keep cats indoors during peak sunlight hours and provide shady spots for them to relax outside. Use cat-safe sunscreen on ears and nose 30 minutes before going outside. Providing access to covered litterboxes can also minimize sunlight exposure.

Routine veterinary exams. Annual wellness exams allow vets to monitor cats closely for any new or changing spots. Vets can distinguish lentigo spots from more serious skin conditions.

Monitor for changes. Check cats regularly, especially older cats, for any new spots on lips, nose, ears, eyelids or gums. Look for spots that are enlarging, changing shape, bleeding or ulcerating, as these may indicate melanoma rather than benign lentigo. Report any suspicious spots to a vet promptly.

Prognosis

The prognosis for lentigo in cats is generally quite good. In most cases, lentigo is benign and not dangerous to a cat’s health [1]. The dark spots are primarily a cosmetic issue and do not cause pain, itching, or other symptoms in cats. As lentigo is not cancerous, it does not spread or get worse over time.

However, the prognosis may be more guarded for unspayed/unneutered cats, as they are at higher risk of developing lentigo. Frequent monitoring of the spots is important to watch for any changes in size, shape, or color that could indicate cancer [2]. But in general, lentigo is a harmless skin condition for cats that does not impact their overall health or quality of life.

Impact on Quality of Life

Lentigo is mostly a cosmetic issue for cats and does not cause them any pain or discomfort. The spots themselves are harmless and do not impact the cat’s health or quality of life. As lentigo spots can sometimes look similar to melanoma, it does mean increased veterinary visits and costs for monitoring and testing to rule out melanoma.

According to the Catster article, “Lentigo is a genetic condition in your cat that results in dark, freckle-like spots. The spots are either black or brown, and if your kitty will let you touch them, you’ll find they feel just like the rest of her skin or coat” (Source). So the spots themselves do not cause any irritation or problems for the cat.

The main impact is the potential for extra tests and veterinary costs to monitor the spots, as lentigo can mask melanoma spots which do require treatment. According to The Spruce Pets, “The only concern is that lentigo spots can mask melanoma spots, which makes routine veterinary exams critical for monitoring. If you notice a spot getting bigger, bleeds easily, or changes color or shape, be sure to point that out to your veterinarian.” (Source).

So while lentigo does not directly impact a cat’s quality of life, responsible pet owners will likely incur more frequent veterinary exams and testing costs to monitor the condition and rule out melanoma.

When to See a Vet

It’s important to monitor lentigo spots closely and report any changes or concerning symptoms to your veterinarian right away. According to WagWalking, some signs that warrant a veterinary visit include:

  • The spots are increasing in size, changing color, or growing in number
  • The spots become irritated, inflamed, bleeding, or ulcerated
  • Your cat seems bothered by the spots or is excessively grooming them

While lentigo is typically benign, any changes could indicate a more serious condition like melanoma developing. It’s critical to have your veterinarian examine and evaluate any changes.

You should also bring your cat in for annual wellness exams, where the vet can monitor spots and screen for lentigo or other skin conditions. Routine exams allow early detection and treatment if any problems do arise.

Don’t wait until you notice changes to inspect your cat’s spots. Be proactive by making regular vet visits to keep a close eye on their skin health.

Summary

Lentigines are usually benign dark spots on a cat’s skin, lips, eyelids or nose caused by localized overproduction of melanin. They are harmless flat moles that do not develop into melanoma. However, monitor lentigines for any changes in size, shape, or color, as that may indicate cancer. Seek veterinary assessment if melanoma is suspected, but otherwise lentigines do not require treatment.

In conclusion, lentigines are generally not dangerous for cats. While concerning in appearance, they are merely a cosmetic issue. Still, owners should routinely inspect them to ensure no cancerous changes. Seek veterinary guidance if the spots become irregular, enlarged, multi-colored, ulcerated, or bleed. Otherwise, the spots may be left alone with no ill effects on feline health. Through monitoring and vet checks, lentigines can be distinguished from melanoma for appropriate care.

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