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Health & Wellness

Tips for pet health: cats' swollen lymph nodes

Felines get them, too — here’s how to diagnose

Just like humans’ lymph nodes get inflamed when we are sick, cats, too, can experience enlarged or swollen lymph nodes due to illness. To help you understand how the body’s immune response to foreign invaders applies to cats, Fetch asked vet Dr. Aliya McCullough to break down why it happens.

What causes swollen lymph nodes in cats?

Swollen lymph nodes can occur due to any illness, be it severe or minor, in humans and cats alike. However, inflamed lymph nodes in cats are much more common due to severe illness.

Generally, cats with swollen lymph nodes feel poorly and will likely be lethargic and depressed. If the lymph nodes in the neck are enlarged, swallowing may be painful, leading to a decrease in your cat’s appetite.

While you may not notice enlarged lymph nodes, your vet will. Lymph nodes are present throughout the body, but can be felt in the neck, in front of the shoulder and behind both knees.

Illnesses that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

  • Viral disease
  • Bacterial disease
  • Cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Fungal disease

Diagnosing your cat's swollen lymph nodes

Lymph nodes that grow in size or are tender to the touch tell your cat’s vet that they are likely battling a serious illness. Here are some ways your vet will figure out what’s going on: 

  • Test their blood to ensure their organs are functioning properly or to check for abnormalities in the number of red and white blood cells.
  • Run a viral disease test to see if there’s any impact on your cat’s body.
  • If those two options don’t give clear results, your vet may take a sample of the lymph node to view under a microscope, to see if it’s caused by cancer or an infective organism.

There is no specific treatment for enlarged lymph nodes, as it is a symptom of disease and not a disease itself. The swelling will resolve when the underlying cause is also resolved. It’s important to remember that in cats, swollen lymph nodes can be very subtle and easy to miss. So if you notice signs of illness in your cat or if you notice their lymph nodes are larger or tender to touch, schedule an appointment with their vet right away.

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