As many as 1 in 1,000 cats develops a cancerous growth or sarcoma at the site of a vaccination, and a recent study has found possibly the best way of preparing for the possibility of the sarcoma and its recommended treatment—radical surgery.
The debate has been on for years about whether or not vaccination-site sarcoma is caused by the vaccine itself or one of the additives that are considered to make the vaccine safer or more effective. Because cancers often develop at the site of an injury some conjecture it’s caused by the needle puncture itself, while others dismiss the vaccine-cancer connection entirely and see the incidence as part of the average incidence of cancer in cats and that the cat was bound to develop the cancer through environmental or genetic causes even without the vaccine.
But while health studies for cats lie far behind those for dogs, organizations such as the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the Winn Feline Foundation (WFF) each accept that sarcomas at the site of vaccines are a reality and happen far too frequently to be ignored.
Historically, while these sarcomas may not appear until years after the vaccination, they are highly aggressive and the best treatment is radical surgery, or removal of the entire area containing the sarcoma. When vaccines were given in the neck or lower back surgical cure was hopeless, but as studies have given those in veterinary medicine more insights vaccine site recommendations changed considering ease of surgical removal of an affected site. In 2006 studies through the WFF recommended using the legs for vaccinations because removing a limb is safer than surgically excising a section of the torso.
Beginning in 1998 the AAFP has provided vaccination guidelines by examining the scientific literature available and providing a detailed review of that literature. They updated these guidelines in in 2000 and 2006 and have published new guidelines in 2013. In 2006, along with the recommended vaccination protocols they also recommended that vaccines be given in the legs by WFF, the AAFP further added a recommendation to use the lower legs, below the elbow or knee.
I’ve never encountered a vaccination-site sarcoma in any of my cats, but in my years of portraiture it’s been a common affliction in both dogs and cats. I’d mentioned in my portrait of Herbie that he’d lost his leg to cancer, and this was the suspected source of that cancer, and when I joke that as an artist I have the power to replace lost limbs, this is what I’m often referring to, as well as consoling portrait customers who have lost their pets to vaccination-site sarcoma.
Often by the time the cancer is found it has spread, even when the vaccine was in a limb, but even if not the surgery and aftercare are often painful for the cat and far too expensive for many people, and even with plenty of “tripod” cats around many caregivers are concerned a cat will not adapt to life on three legs. Cats end up being euthanized when they might have the chance to live many more years with a less complicated surgery.
Now a new study by researchers with Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program and the University of Florida shows that vaccinating in the tip of a cat’s tail is just as effective as in other areas of the cat’s body, and what’s more, they actually seem to tolerate it, at least as much as they tolerate vaccinations in general. Julie Levy, D.V.M., Ph.D., the Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine along with experts around the country took a poll of preferred vaccination sites with the thought of treatment and removal of vaccination-site sarcomas in mind, and the tail came up as a preferred site.
Cats are darned sensitive about those tails! Imagine trying to grab a tail and poke a tiny needle into it, much more difficult than holding a cat still to vaccinate into a leg. The team did a study of 60 cats brought in for spay and neuter services through the Operation Catnip TNR program at UF. Only tame and apparently healthy cats with a full-length tail were considered, and they also had to have a a caregiver who committed to returning the cat in one or two months for further evaluation.
At the moment this study has only been done on cats, and I haven’t heard of dogs being involved.
It will be exciting to see if tail vaccinations are adopted and if continued use shows they are effective. If a sarcoma were to occur, removal of the tail would be far less painful for the cat and more affordable for the caregiver.
Tail Vaccinations in Cats: Balancing disease protection and cancer treatment (Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program and the University of Florida)
Feline postvaccinal sarcomas: a 20-year history (Winn Feline Foundation)
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