Bowen’s Disease. The Mysterious Skin Cancer Threatening Cats

What is Bowen’s disease in cats?

Bowen’s disease, also known as squamous cell carcinoma in situ, is a type of skin cancer that affects cats. It involves abnormal, precancerous growth of squamous cells on the skin surface. These abnormal cells are located in the epidermis, which is the outer layer of the skin.

Bowen’s disease is considered “carcinoma in situ”, meaning the cancerous cells are present only in the epidermis layer and have not spread deeper into the skin. The lesions appear as thickened, scaly patches on the skin that may look like a scab. Multiple lesions can develop in different areas of the body.

While Bowen’s disease itself is not cancerous, it is often a precursor to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer that can be aggressive in cats. For this reason, Bowen’s disease requires treatment. Without treatment, lesions may develop into invasive squamous cell carcinoma.

What causes Bowen’s disease in cats?

The main cause of Bowen’s disease in cats is exposure to sunlight and UV rays. Just like humans, prolonged sun exposure can damage the DNA in a cat’s skin cells and lead to cancerous changes over time.

Other risk factors include:

The development of Bowen’s disease is a slow process that begins with DNA damage from UV rays. Over time, precancerous lesions appear that can eventually progress to squamous cell carcinoma if left untreated.

What are the symptoms of Bowen’s disease in cats?

The most common symptom of Bowen’s disease in cats is lesions on the skin. These lesions typically start out looking like small, firm, red bumps on the skin. Over time, the lesions can grow larger, becoming crusted or ulcerated, and the edges may become raised and inflamed.

Lesions from Bowen’s disease often occur on areas with little or no hair, such as the nose, eyelids, ears, mouth, chest, abdomen, and groin area. However, lesions can appear anywhere on a cat’s body. Cats with light-colored or thin coats may show more obvious skin lesions than those with dark, thick coats.

In some cases, the lesions may crust over and heal on their own over a period of weeks or months. However, the lesions often persist, continue to grow, or new lesions may emerge in other areas. This can indicate the cancer is progressing.

Seeing any new lumps, bumps, or skin changes in a cat should prompt a veterinary visit to have the lesions evaluated and tested. Early diagnosis and treatment is key for the best outcome with feline Bowen’s disease.

How is Bowen’s disease diagnosed in cats?

Bowen’s disease in cats is typically diagnosed through a combination of a veterinary examination and biopsy.

During the exam, the veterinarian will look for lesions on the skin that could potentially indicate Bowen’s disease. These lesions often appear as flat, scaly patches that may crust or bleed. They are most commonly found on the head, neck, or legs of cats.

To confirm a diagnosis of Bowen’s disease, the vet will take a small sample of the suspicious skin cells for biopsy. This allows examination of the cells under a microscope, which can identify the abnormal squamous cells characteristic of Bowen’s disease.

It is important to biopsy the lesion, as Bowen’s disease can resemble other skin conditions like ringworm or autoimmune diseases. Only a biopsy can definitively diagnose Bowen’s disease versus other possible causes for skin lesions in cats.

Cats with Bowen’s disease may also have bloodwork or imaging done to check for any spread of the cancer to other parts of the body. However, a biopsy of the skin lesion remains the primary diagnostic tool.

With an early diagnosis and treatment, cats can have a good prognosis with Bowen’s disease. So it is important for cat owners to monitor their pet’s skin and alert the vet to any abnormal lesions so they can be evaluated promptly.

How is Bowen’s disease treated in cats?

The main treatments for Bowen’s disease in cats are surgery, radiation therapy, and other options like cryotherapy or chemotherapy.

Surgery is commonly used to remove lesions caused by Bowen’s disease. The tumors and surrounding healthy tissue are surgically excised to help prevent recurrence. Surgery provides good long-term control of the disease if the entire tumor can be fully removed.1

Radiation therapy may be used alone or alongside surgery to treat lesions and kill cancer cells. This helps reduce chances of metastasis and recurrence. Radiation can be effective at treating tumors that cannot be completely removed through surgery.

Other treatment options include cryotherapy to freeze lesions with liquid nitrogen, topical chemotherapy creams, photodynamic therapy, and oral chemotherapy drugs. These may be used alone or combined with surgery and radiation to combat the disease.

The treatment plan is tailored to the individual cat, taking into account factors like age, health, lesion location, and degree of metastasis. Often a combination approach is taken to most effectively treat Bowen’s disease in cats.

What is the prognosis for cats with Bowen’s disease?

The prognosis for cats with Bowen’s disease is generally good if it is caught and treated early, before the cancer has a chance to significantly spread or metastasize. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, Bowen’s disease is “highly treatable if detected early — but lethal if it goes unnoticed. That’s why a prompt diagnosis is crucial.”1

With early detection and treatment, success rates for treating Bowen’s disease are often over 90%. The primary treatment is surgical removal of the lesions. As long as the cancerous lesions are fully removed and have not spread deeper into the tissue, the prognosis is good.

However, Bowen’s disease does have a tendency to recur in some cats, even after seemingly successful removal of the lesions. There is a chance of new lesions developing over time, so cats treated for Bowen’s disease need to be carefully monitored by their veterinarian for any recurrence of symptoms or new lesion development.

If the disease recurs or is not caught early enough and spreads deeper into the skin and tissue, the prognosis worsens significantly. Once the cancer metastasizes and spreads to other areas of the body, it becomes much harder to treat and cure.

So the takeaway is that Bowen’s disease generally has a good prognosis if caught and treated early, but owners need to be vigilant about monitoring their cat closely post-treatment to watch for potential recurrence of this serious skin cancer.

How can cat owners prevent Bowen’s disease?

There are a few steps cat owners can take to help prevent Bowen’s disease in their cats:

Limit sun exposure. Since extended sun exposure is a risk factor for Bowen’s disease, keeping cats indoors during peak sun hours can be beneficial. Try to limit time outdoors between 10am-4pm when UV rays are strongest.

Get regular vet checkups. Annual vet exams provide an opportunity for early detection. Ask your vet to examine your cat’s skin closely for any abnormal growths or lesions that could indicate Bowen’s disease.

Monitor for symptoms. Check your cat’s skin regularly for crusty, scaly patches or abnormal growths. Look for lesions around the head, neck and nose. Contact your vet promptly if you notice any suspicious skin changes.

While not completely preventable, these measures can help reduce your cat’s chances of developing Bowen’s disease through early intervention and risk reduction.

How common is Bowen’s disease in cats?

Bowen’s disease is not very common in cats. According to one study, Bowen’s disease represents around 3-10% of all feline squamous cell carcinomas (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8116147/).

Certain breeds may be at higher risk for developing Bowen’s disease. White cats and cats with thin hair coats seem to be predisposed, likely due to increased sun exposure. Breeds with white coats like Persians and Himalayans have a higher incidence of Bowen’s disease (https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/squamous-cell-cancer-dangerous).

Are certain cat breeds more prone to Bowen’s disease?

Some cat breeds do appear to be at higher risk for developing Bowen’s disease compared to others:

Research has shown decreased rates of Bowen’s disease in Siamese, Himalayan, and Persian cat breeds. This is likely related to the protective pigment in their coats that helps shield their skin from UV radiation.

On the other hand, light-colored cats with little pigmentation in their skin or hair are more prone to sun damage and skin cancer. Breeds like white cats and cats with colorpoint coats tend to be at increased risk for Bowen’s disease and other skin cancers compared to darkly pigmented breeds.

Outdoor cats also have higher rates of Bowen’s disease since they get more sun exposure over their lifetimes compared to indoor cats. Indoor cats have a much lower risk of developing Bowen’s disease.

In summary, cat breeds with light skin/coat color and cats with outdoor lifestyles appear predisposed to Bowen’s disease due to greater UV radiation exposure. Darkly pigmented breeds like Siamese have protective factors that reduce their risk.

What is the outlook for cats with Bowen’s disease?

The outlook for cats with Bowen’s disease depends on the location and extent of the lesions. Many cats diagnosed with Bowen’s disease can have lesions successfully removed with surgery and recover well. Small localized lesions that are completely excised typically have an excellent prognosis.

For more extensive or recurrent lesions that cannot be fully removed, the prognosis is more guarded. Ongoing monitoring and treatment is required, as there is a risk of new lesions developing over time. Left untreated, lesions may progress to invasive squamous cell carcinoma. With appropriate management though, cats can often still have a good quality of life for months to years.

Regular veterinary exams, monitoring of the skin, and early intervention for any new lesions are important for maximizing prognosis. Cat owners should routinely check their pet’s skin for any new lumps, scabs or sores and contact the vet promptly if any are found. While Bowen’s disease is challenging to cure, working closely with a vet to find the optimal treatment approach can provide the best outcome for an individual cat.

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