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feline health problems

Pancreatitis in cats

Feline pancreatitis is tricky. Here’s how to evaluate your cat and decide whether to call your vet. 

Updated August 31, 2020

Created By

Griffin Miller,
sad cat

Pancreatitis is incredibly uncomfortable. That's why hiding and lethargy are two key symptoms. | 📸 by greyloch

The essentials

  • Pancreatitis in cats is common — It’s also usually a recurring condition.
  • Signs are nonspecific — Look out for a loss of energy and appetite.
  • Try to get them eating — Nutrients are essential to recovery. Not eating can make matters worse.
  • Avoid inflammatory foods — High-fat foods can make things worse. Always check with your vet before making any dietary changes.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed and leaks digestive enzymes into pancreatic tissue. It’s a common, painful condition in cats that can lead to bleeding, shock, or death if not treated.

The difference between chronic pancreatitis and acute pancreatitis

Chronic pancreatitis is a recurring condition that requires ongoing care. Acute pancreatitis occurs suddenly in cats with no history of the condition. Whether your cat has come down with an acute case of pancreatitis or has battled symptoms for years, there are steps to take to better understand and prevent it from interfering with your feline’s wellbeing.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas has two functions: the endocrine function and exocrine function. The endocrine function uses special cells to produce the insulin necessary to control blood sugar. The exocrine function produces a liquid filled with enzymes (pancreatic enzymes) that pass through the pancreas into the small intestine, where they aid in the digestion of fats, carbs, and proteins. When the exocrine function gets overwhelmed, those enzymes can seep into the pancreas itself and surrounding tissue. The result leads to severe inflammation of the pancreas. This type of pancreatic inflammation is what we all know as pancreatitis.

Signs of feline pancreatitis

Although pancreatitis can affect cats in different ways, the most common signs are lethargy and a refusal to eat. Those may sound like pretty vague symptoms, but signs of feline pancreatitis are generally nonspecific, says Richard Goldstein, DVM, of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In fact, if your cat normally has a healthy appetite, it’s a good idea to bring them to the vet even after just one day of refusing to eat.

Refusal to eat is the biggest sign of a potential pancreas-related condition in cats. Vomiting and nausea may also be seen because they will experience some intestinal discomfort, which explains the drop in appetite. Think about it — if you had terrible abdominal pain, you probably would rather lay in bed than eat a large meal! The same is true for cats. Although a refusal to eat is the biggest indicator, there are some more subtle symptoms to look out for.

Vets must always carry a suspicion of pancreatitis in cats that refuse to eat so as to rule it out first. Severe pancreatitis can be dangerous, so keep an eye on your cat’s appetite and don’t hesitate to seek a vet appointment if they’re not eating like they normally do.

Some cats hide when in discomfort. They may find a safe place, lay down, and refuse to move. If this kind of behavior is unusual for your cat, take note. Some cats with pancreatitis still manage to eat, they just eat less than they normally would. This pattern may result in a little weight loss, which is a sign to look out for.

Clinical signs of pancreatitis in cats

  • Hiding
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

Causes of pancreatitis in cats

To understand the cause of pancreatitis, consider the nuts-and-bolts of how it happens. The pancreas is a vital organ that aids in digestion — when it’s not working properly, the enzymes it produces are activated prematurely, effectively digesting the pancreas itself.

The Veterinary Centers of America conclude that pancreatitis appears to occur spontaneously or as a secondary effect of underlying conditions.

Underlying conditions that may lead to pancreatitis include:

  • Fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis). An abnormal accumulation of fat in the liver, hepatic lipidosis usually occurs in overweight cats when there’s a significant drop in food intake. The cat’s body mobilizes all of their stored fat to compensate for the decreased food intake, overwhelming the liver. Even though fatty liver disease may be a predisposing factor to pancreatitis, it usually arises secondary to pancreatitis, since pancreatitis decreases appetite.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease. A chronic condition that most often affects middle-aged to older cats, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a persistent irritation of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Diabetes mellitus. Cats with undiagnosed or uncontrolled diabetes can develop pancreatitis. Occasionally this is how diabetes is first diagnosed. Signs of diabetes include weight loss with an increase in appetite, increased thirst, and increased urination. However, if they develop pancreatitis, their appetite will decrease.
  • Triaditis. Feline triaditis is the simultaneous inflammation of the liver, pancreas, and intestines.

It’s also thought that high-fat diets and stressors like adding a new pet or moving to a new home may be factors in causing pancreatitis. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to remove every stress from your cat’s life, but it’s something to be aware of. If you introduce a new pet to the family and your cat suddenly stays hidden, refuses to eat, and seems unusually low-energy, it may be time to see the vet.

 

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Did the humans another frighten… Turns out my pancreas isn’t too happy, so I had to have some fluids and some medicines and I’ve made them change my diet to nuggets of gold too… a King deserves a feast that costs thousands but also doesn’t hurt my precious digestive system 😼 I am doing a lot better now, lying around at home with mum, her waiting on me hand and foot as usual… what can I say?! I like to keep you all on your toes!! 😸🐾 . . Milo has been diagnosed with pancreatitis 😭 He displayed the following symptoms – – No appetite (not eating anything offered let alone normally) – No drinking – Stopped pooping altogether – Extreme lethargy (lying around all day, not getting up for his usual activities) – Unexplained high temperature He has dropped 0.5 kilos and was not responding to any anti emetic treatment. After 72 hours he was referred to the Small Animal Hospital where he was put on a drip and diagnosed with pancreatitis after his blood work came back abnormal. It took quite a bit of investigation to work out what was wrong but thankfully again my vets are incredible and they took the greatest care of my baby! Just wanted to remind furmums to stick with their gut and if you think that something isn’t quite right keep bringing them back! 💕 . . . #milogram #milosjourney #milosrecovery #oneeyedcat #catillness #catrecovery #catpancreatitis #catdiet #catmum #catlovers #catlove #sickcat #dshtabby #tabbycats #petstagram #petdiaries #catstagram #catsofinstagram #catlife #catconditions

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Diagnosis of pancreatitis

Diagnosing pancreatitis in cats starts with a medical history review followed by a thorough physical exam. Since pancreatitis can be a recurring ailment, if your cat has experienced it before, they may be more likely to have it again. Most vets will perform blood tests, and some may recommend an ultrasound. Unfortunately, the only way a definitive diagnosis can be made is through a biopsy. Usually, such a procedure is inadvisable and will only be carried out in extreme cases.

Dr. Goldstein explains, “…you just have to make the assumption of pancreatitis based on the physical examination of the cat, the presence of any concurrent diseases, bloodwork and ultrasound—and then you begin treatment.”

Treating your cat’s pancreatitis

Treatment of mild to moderate pancreatitis involves a lot of nurturing — ensuring your cat is comfortable, well-hydrated, and eating. Although some suggest a high-fat diet may be one factor that leads to pancreatitis, there isn’t evidence to suggest a low-fat diet is essential. In essence, getting your cat to eat anything is better than letting it go without food at all (but a low-fat diet is best!)

In severe cases, hospitalization may be required. It’s critical to keep your cat hydrated and supported by nutrients, usually through a feeding tube. Antibiotics may be required, also. Within a few days of being hospitalized, many cats will regain appetite and can be safely discharged.

Prevention

Pancreatitis is a fickle thing in cats — it can happen spontaneously for reasons we can’t completely understand and it can go away (or come back) just as quickly. The best step you can take to prevent severe pancreatitis is careful monitoring. If your cat has a history of pancreatitis or intestinal problems, be diligent when it comes to their behavior. If they’re eating less than usual or behaving differently, take them in for a checkup. It’s also important to keep your cat on any prescription food your vet has recommended to prevent a flare-up of pancreatitis in the future. Maintain nutritional support by avoiding any table scraps or fatty foods as well.