Q: Please review the various causes of abdominal lymphadenopathy in cats.
A: Dr. John R. August gave an excellent lecture entitled "Abdominal Lymphadenopathy in Cats: A Diagnostic Challenge" at the 2008
American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum in San Antonio.
Here are some relevant points from his lecture:
Abdominal lymphadenopathy, or masses that may be confused with enlarged lymph nodes, are common clinical findings in sick
cats, either on physical examination or via ultrasonography. Many inflammatory, infectious and neoplastic diseases can cause
enlargement of regional lymph nodes in the abdomen. Assessment of lymph-node size and cytologic or histopathologic characteristics
may provide important information when more invasive diagnostic methods are not available. As with all sick cats, the history
and physical examination are necessary to identify additional clinical abnormalities that may clarify the cause of the lymphadenopathy.
Causes of lymphadenopathy
Lymph nodes that are palpable in healthy cats and dogs include the mandibular, superficial cervical, axillary, superficial
inguinal and popliteal nodes. Lymphadenopathy is defined as enlargement of a solitary node, a regional group of nodes or of
all lymph nodes. Causes of lymph-node enlargement in cats include:
REACTIVE HYPERPLASIA, resulting from proliferation of lymphocytes and plasma cells from antigenic stimulation
LYMPHADENITIS, resulting from an influx of inflammatory cells due to local infection
NEOPLASTIC INFILTRATION, either from primary lymphoid neoplasia or from infiltration from metastatic neoplastic disease.
Abdominal lymphadenopathy in cats may represent a response to a local disease process within the abdominal cavity or may be
a component of a systemic disease accompanied by generalized lymph-node enlargement.
Organomegaly, most often associated with small-intestinal masses, but also due to splenomegaly or hepatomegaly, may accompany
abdominal lymph-node enlargement, complicating the accurate identification of lymphadenomegaly on palpation.
Reactive mesenteric lymph-node hyperplasia is a common ultrasonographic abnormality, but less common physical finding, in
cats with inflammatory bowel disease. The degree of thickening of the small intestine and the degree of lymphadenomegaly correlate
well with the severity of the disease. Clinical signs include vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, reduced appetite and poor body
condition and haircoat.
Intestinal tumors occur commonly in cats, accounting for 35 percent of all feline tumors. Approximately 74 percent of all
feline intestinal tumors are the result of lymphoma, with intestinal adenocarcinomas being the cause of an additional 17 percent
of intestinal neoplasia.
An abdominal mass is detected by palpation in 86 percent of cats with intestinal lymphoma, with lymphoblastic lymphoma being
more likely to induce discrete masses. The small intestine is the most common site of lymphoma in cats, followed by the stomach,
ileocolic junction and lastly the colon.
Diffuse intestinal thickening is more common in low-grade lymphocytic lymphoma. Concurrent mesenteric lymphadenopathy is noted
ultrasonographically in 33 percent to 50 percent of cats with alimentary lymphoma, intestinal masses or thickening in about
40 percent of affected cats, and splenomegaly, hepatomegaly or abdominal effusion in a smaller number of cats.
Abdominal lymphadenopathy is a prominent feature of feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), especially the non-effusive form
of the disease. In a series of 156 cats with FIP, 26 (16 percent) had an unusual manifestation of the disease, characterized
by the presence of an isolated intramural intestinal mass, with local lymphadenomegaly.
The nodular pyogranulomatous intestinal lesions were found most commonly in the colon (45 percent), ileocolic junction (31
percent) and small intestine (16 percent). Only one segment of intestine was affected in each cat. At surgery, many of the
lesions were mistaken for primary intestinal neoplasia. Ultimately, all affected cats developed multisystemic signs of FIP,
suggesting that the localized lesions were the result of temporary containment of infection by a partial cell-mediated immune
response to the pathogenic coronavirus.
Several other infectious diseases may be associated with abdominal lymph-adenomegaly in cats, manifested either as regional
lymphadenopathy or as part of a generalized lymph-node enlargement. Histoplasma capsulatum infections in cats commonly cause
peripheral and abdominal lymphadenopathy and may be difficult to differentiate from those caused by non-effusive FIP or retrovirus
infections in some cats. Clinical signs include weight loss, pyrexia, dyspnea, tachypnea, splenomegaly, hepatomegaly, anemia
and ocular, osseous and cutaneous lesions.
Acute infections or recrudescence of latent infections with Toxoplasma gondii may cause signs similar to those resulting from generalized histoplasmosis, and may include the development of focal intestinal
masses and mesenteric lymphadenopathy.
Infections with tuberculous myco-bacteria (especially Mycobacterium bovis) in cats may cause primary intestinal disease with concurrent ileocecal and mesenteric lymphadenomegaly and splenic and hepatic
involvement. Non-tuberculous mycobacterial (Myco-bacterium avium complex) infections in cats may cause visceral disease, with thickened intestines, mesenteric lymphadenopathy and hepatosplenomegaly
as prominent signs.
Methicillin-resistant staphylococcal infections occasionally may cause disseminated disease in cats, including abdominal lymphadenomegaly.
The role of Ehrlichia species in causing overt disease in cats remains unclear; however, reported clinical signs are similar to those described
earlier for histoplasmosis, with the exception of the pulmonary changes.
Signalment and history
Abdominal lymphadenomegaly in juvenile or young adult sick cats most likely is associated with an infectious disease; for
example, FIP, histoplasmosis or toxoplasmosis. Infiltrative intestinal diseases, whether inflammatory or neoplastic, are more
likely to be the cause of visceral lymphadenopathy in mature or senior cats. Exceptions to these observations are common,
however. Young pure-bred cats acquired from catteries within the past several months, and whose clinical signs include prominent
abdominal lymph-node enlargement, should be evaluated carefully for feline infectious peritonitis.
The geographic location of where the cat has been living should be determined, because some diseases that cause abdominal
lymphadenopathy (for example, infections caused by Histoplasma capsulatum and Francisella tularensis) are regional in their distribution.
A physical examination is an important part of the complete evaluation of the cat found to have abdominal lymphadenopathy
on cursory examination or via ultrasonographic evaluation. The presence of persistent fever suggests an infectious, inflammatory
process, although this abnormality may be noted in neoplastic disease.
A thorough ocular examination is an important and often overlooked component of the comprehensive evaluation of affected cats,
because several infectious diseases causing lymphadeno-megaly may induce inflammatory ocular changes that provide important
diagnostic information. Detection of peripheral lymphadenopathy, in addition to visceral lymphadenomegaly, is suggestive of
a disseminated infectious or neoplastic disease.
Pain on palpation of enlarged abdominal lymph nodes is more likely to result from lymphadenitis than from reactive hyperplasia
or neoplastic infiltration. Concurrent thickening of intestinal loops may be associated with inflammatory, infectious or neoplastic