Swollen Mammary Glands in Cats: What You Need to Know

Swollen mammary glands in cats

Swollen mammary glands in cats, known as mammary hyperplasia, can have several possible causes. The most common reason is hormonal changes, especially in intact female cats. During their heat cycle or pregnancy, a cat’s estrogen levels rise, which can stimulate mammary tissue growth. This often results in temporary swelling that will decrease once hormone levels return to normal. However, the mammary glands may become permanently enlarged over time with repeated heat cycles and pregnancies.

Intact female cats can experience a false pregnancy where their body behaves as if pregnant when it’s not actually the case. The cat’s mammary glands swell in preparation to produce milk for kittens that will never come. False pregnancies tend to resolve on their own in a few weeks, but the swelling may recur with future heat cycles. Spaying eliminates this problem.

Unfortunately, swollen mammary glands can also indicate the presence of mammary tumors, especially in older female cats. Mammary tumors are usually malignant and fast-growing, so any swollen glands that persist for more than a month should be evaluated by a vet immediately. Early detection and treatment of mammary tumors is critical to successful outcomes.

Bacterial infections of the mammary glands, known as mastitis, can lead to painful swelling and inflammation. Mastitis usually only affects nursing mother cats, but can sometimes develop in females with mammary tumors or cysts. Mastitis requires immediate veterinary treatment with antibiotics to clear the infection, treat pain, and prevent abscess formation.

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The bottom line is that any persistent or abnormal swelling of the mammary glands in cats should be checked out by a vet. Early diagnosis and treatment of the underlying cause—whether hormonal, neoplastic or infectious—can help ensure your cat’s health and comfort.

Swollen mammary glands in cats

Signs Your Cat Has Swollen Mammary Glands

If you notice any abnormalities with your cat’s mammary glands, it’s a good idea to have your vet examine them. Some signs that your cat may have swollen mammary glands include:

1. Lumps or Masses

The most obvious sign is if you feel any lumps, masses or swelling around your cat’s nipples. Gently palpate each nipple area to check for any unusual lumps or swelling. Swollen mammary glands often feel like grape-sized masses, but they can range from small, pea-sized lumps to much larger growths. They may feel soft, firm or even hard. Multiple masses in the same nipple area can also indicate swollen mammary glands.

2. Discharge

You may notice a clear, milky or bloody discharge from one or more nipples, even if your cat isn’t currently nursing kittens. A dark green or black discharge can also indicate an infection and requires immediate vet attention.

3. Pain or Irritation

If your cat seems painful or irritated around the nipple area, especially when you palpate the area, it may indicate her mammary glands are swollen or infected. She may cry out, try to bite or scratch when you touch the area. Cats are masters at hiding pain, so subtle signs of discomfort require close observation.

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4. Swollen Lymph Nodes

Swollen lymph nodes around the mammary glands can indicate an infection or other condition requiring treatment. The lymph nodes you’ll want to check are located in front of the shoulders, behind the elbows, and in the groin area. Swollen lymph nodes feel like oval-shaped masses under the skin and have a firm, rubbery texture.

If your cat is exhibiting any of these signs, it’s best to have your vet examine her mammary glands as soon as possible. Early detection of any abnormalities is critical to successful treatment and the best chance at recovery. Your vet can determine if the swelling is due to a benign condition or a more serious issue requiring biopsy, surgery or other treatment.

Treating Swollen Mammary Glands in Cats

Swollen mammary glands in cats can be distressing, but the good news is there are several treatment options available. The course of treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the swelling.

1. Antibiotics

If an infection is present, your vet will likely prescribe oral antibiotics to help clear it up. Antibiotics may be needed for up to 2-4 weeks to fully eliminate the infection. Be sure to give the medication as directed and finish the entire course.

2. Anti-inflammatories

To help reduce swelling and discomfort, your vet may prescribe anti-inflammatory medication such as corticosteroids. These are available as oral medication or topical creams that can be applied directly to the swollen area. Anti-inflammatories provide relief from inflammation and pain.

3. Surgical removal

If the swelling is caused by a mammary tumor, surgical removal of the tumor and affected mammary gland(s) may be recommended. A biopsy of the tumor can help determine if it is benign or malignant. Removal of malignant tumors is typically more aggressive to ensure all cancerous cells are eliminated.

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4. Lancing and draining

For severe swelling caused by an abscess, lancing and draining the abscess may provide immediate relief. Your vet will insert a needle into the abscess to drain the built-up pus and fluids. They may insert a catheter to allow for continued drainage. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatories are also usually given.

5. Cold compresses

Applying cold compresses to the swollen area can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Do this for 10-15 minutes at a time, a few times per day until the swelling subsides. Be sure to place a towel between the cold compress and your cat’s skin.

With treatment, prognosis for swollen mammary glands is often good. However, mammary tumors do have potential to recur, so regular monitoring and checkups are important. Providing your cat pain relief and a quiet, stress-free environment can aid in their recovery.