Monday, March 14, 2011

Q & A: Unexplained Weight Loss in Hyperthyroid Cat on Methimazole

Bailey is a 14-year-old male neutered domestic short hair who was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism by another veterinarian about 3 years ago and has been on methimazole since then. He also has a history of chronic constipation that has been well controlled in the last year on enulose (Lactulose) only.

I last saw Bailey a year ago, at which point he was doing well clinically but had lost about 1 lb. since his last check. At that time, he was on 5 mg of methimazole BID. A geriatric profile at that time showed a total T4 of 3.3 μg/dl, a normal CBC and serum chemistry profile (creatinine = 1.5 mg/dl, BUN = 23 mg/dl), and a urine specific gravity of 1.065. I recommended increasing his dose of methimazole to 7.5 mg in the morning and 5 mg in the evening and rechecking in 4-6 weeks.

The owner did increase the daily methimazole dose but did not follow up with us until now. Bailey has lost an additional 3 lbs since July and has developed polyphagia, polyuria and polydipsia over the last month. On exam yesterday, my main physical exam finding was that he now has a fairly large mass in his left ventral neck area (about 3-4 cm, slightly firm and irregular), which I had not noted on the last exam. His blood work from yesterday showed a T4 of 1.9 μg/dl, and very normal renal function (serum creatinine = 1.1 mg/dl; BUN = 22 mg/dl, USG =1.030).

So, I'm suspicious that the thyroid mass is or has become a carcinoma at this point. But would you expect the cat to lose weight secondary to a thyroid carcinoma even if the T4 is within normal range? Could it be secreting another hormone to cause the weight loss?

I thought I should recommend full-body radiographs to try to rule out any metastasis or other obvious neoplasia, and then consider surgical removal and biopsy of the mass. I've read that it can be helpful to follow-up with I131 treatment after excision of a thyroid carcinoma, so I would speak to the owner about referral for that. Does that sound like a reasonable course of action to you or are there other things you would recommend doing first?

Thank you very much for any help or advice you can give me on this cat.

My Response:

There are many ways you could go in your workup of this cat. Most cats that I see who are loosing weight while on treatment with methimazole have high serum T4 concentrations, which can explain the weight loss. Obviously, that's not the case here, which makes this cat more interesting!

Large goiter in hyperthyroid cat
Many cats (in fact, probably nearly all hyperthyroid cats) will have an increase in goiter size with time; that makes sense since we aren't inhibiting thyroid tumor growth with the methimazole. We are only blocking thyroid hormone secretion with the drug.

Recently, a paper was published showing that on thyroid biopsy, some cats with long-standing hyperthyroidism had evidence of transformation of thyroid adenoma to carcinoma. I do believe that this happens more than we realize, and I now see almost a cat a month with thyroid carcinoma. Almost all cats with thyroid carcinoma that I see have been on methimazole for longer than 2 years.

So in your cat, the enlargement of the thyroid mass could indicate that the tumor has simply grown larger with time, or it could indicate malignant transformation. As you indicated, thyroid biopsy would be helpful in making that diagnosis. Many of these cats have extension or metastasis into the thoracic cavity so you might not be able to cure that cat with surgical thyroidectomy if that is the case. What I like to do in that situation is to perform a thyroid scan (thyroid scintigraphy) prior to surgery, which would tell us where the thyroid tumor tissue is located and help direct what needs to be removed or biopsied, if the cat does go to surgery.

That all said, why is your cat loosing weight despite a normal serum T4? With the polyphagia, the cat should be taking in enough calories. If there vomiting or diarrhea? (I am guessing no diarrhea because of the constipation.) Cats with weight loss that are eating normally must have either increased loss of glucose in the urine or impaired absorption of nutrients from the GI tract. To that end, I would recommend that you perform an abdominal ultrasound, in addition to your full-body x-rays, prior to either thyroid biopsy or thyroid scintigraphy. Urine culture should also be considered to exclude pyelonephritis.

As far as other hormones being secreted, I'd suggest that you also measure a serum free T4 and T3 concentration on this cat. It's possible that the serum concentrations of free T4 or T3 are still high and that could explain some of the cat's weight loss.


1) Harvey AM, Hibbert A, Barrett EL, Day MJ, Quiggin AV, Brannan RM, Caney SM. Scintigraphic findings in 120 hyperthyroid cats. J Feline Med Surg. 2009 11:96-106.


K said...

Hi. Can you suggest a success rate for goiter removal surgery? And have you ever used neoplasene on a thyroid mass?

I have a 16 year old cat with a (suspected) benign, innactive thyroid tumor. I prefer to use neoplasene rather than have her put under anesthesia. She handled the treatment with topical bloodroot salve quite well and didn't require pain meds unless I used a version with DMSO. She was purring and asking to be scratched in the region of the mass, so I think it was more itchy than painful. I got the mass down to lentil size but it has regrown and I am looking for a more potent solution.

Dr. Mark E. Peterson said...

No, I have not used neoplasene. If the tumor is inactive and benign, treatment may not even be essential. Almost all of these goiters are benign.

K said...

Thanks doc. I wish I'd known you'd responded last month. I went for a pricey surgical consult on Christmas Eve. The estimate for additional tests and surgery is about $5,000. Not surprisingly, that motivates me to do more research and I was led here to your response. It appears there's a 10% chance of death (it might have been your article which states this. My vet agrees). As you suggested, the mass likely will be self limiting and sonething she can live with. If I ever suspect it's causing an issue or has become carcinoma, I can drive to Los Angeles where there is a vet who has used neoplasene to treat many cancers. I am glad I found an honest vet who clearly explains the good and bad about neoplasene because the manufacturer paints it as a perfect 100% effective remedy. Since my cat is 16 and has a heart murmur, I think the safest route is avoiding anesthesia, so surgery will not be an option but neoplasene can be a backup plan for her (or any of my other seniors with high anesthesia risk).
Thank you for your blog. We appreciate it and you!

Jodi C said...

*losing not loosing.