Feline Pancreatitis

Pancreatis is a condition which can damage the liver and intestines of your cat and cause other serious health problems as well.

While cats suffer less often from this disease than dogs do, a cat with pancreatis is nevertheless in need of immediate treatment. As the name suggests, pancreatitis is a disease of the pancreas, an organ located in the right side of the abdomen. It is responsible for the production of enzymes which help the body to digest food, and specialized cells in the pancreas produce insulin. In a healthy pancreas the digestive enzymes are transported to the small intestine where they become activated and ready help in breaking down food into raw materials which the body can use.

However, pancreatitis causes the digestive enzymes to be activated early. If the pancreas becomes inflamed for any reason, the by-products of the inflammation cause the enzymes to be activated early and behave as if they are already in the gut. So the enzymes wake up within the pancreas itself, and immediately start work which causes damage to the pancreas and even more inflammation. When the damage to the pancreas is substantial, the enzymes may spill out into surrounding tissues such as the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder and the intestines, and this results in further damage.

In cats, pancreatitis takes several forms:

  1. An acute form, which tends to happen suddenly. This causes the pancreas to become inflamed and there is visible oedema (when the body retains too much fluid), but relatively little damage.
  2. A hemorrhagic form, when (as described above), the inflammation causes substantial damage to the pancreas and also attacks nearby organs.
  3. Chronic pancreatitis where cats recover from the acute form of pancreatis but subsequently suffer from recurrent bouts of the disease.

What are the symptoms and how is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Cats suffering from pancreatitis often have bouts of vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. However, not all cats do this, and a cat with vomiting, pain and fever may be suffering from one of many other maladies from sunstroke to food poisoning. So look out for two of the most common symptoms also observed in cats with pancreatitis: loss of appetite and lethargy. If your cat has all of these symptoms put together, the problem may well be pancreatis.

An additional problem with pancreatis is that no-one knows what the underlying cause is in cats. A vet will diagnose pancreatitis based on clinical signs, a blood test and x-ray or an ultrasound examination. An ultrasound shows if the pancreas is enlarged and also more localized areas of inflammation.

Cats with pancreatitis have an increased level of white blood cells (WBC) which is discovered by a blood test, and this can help to confirm the diagnosis. (By itself a high WBC count can be caused by several factors.) Probably the most helpful diagnostic tool for pancreatitis is the Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity (PLI) test. Lipases are produced by enzymes, and the PLI test is a radioimmunoassay that detects a lipase that is unique to only the feline pancreas. Feline PLI is higher in cats with pancreatitis than in healthy cats.

(For more information about the PLI test, here's an article in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine published in 2004 (v18p807.pdf). There is also an excellent booklet entitled 'Diagnosing and Managing Feline Pancteatitis - a round-table discussion' which you can download.

Managing cats with pancreatitis

Your vet will be able to advise on the best treatment, which will be based on the severity of the disease. Unfortunately, the cause of pancreatitis is generally unknown, and at present there is no medicine which is able to attack the problem itself. Therefore most of the treatment is about managing the symptoms, and making the side-effects of the disease as harmless as possible.

The swelling of the pancreas can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, and there are other drugs to treat nausea and loss of appetite. If your cat becomes dehydrated she may need fluid injections or IV treatment. In more severe cases, it may be advisable to rest the pancreas for a while. This involves hospital treatment where the cat is taken off food completely and is put on an IV drip to maintain normal fluid and electrolyte balance. This will turn off the pancreas which means is that the pancreas stops producing the enzymes which are causing the damage and have time for recovery.

Another problem with chronic pancreatitis that it can lead to diabetes mellitus because damage to the pancreas can disrupt the production of insulin. Also if the damage is irreparable, an affected cat may not be able to produce sufficient digestive enzymes to handle her food intake. This condition is known as 'pancreatic insufficiency' and can be treated with a daily dose of enzyme tablets or powder in the food. If there is damage to the liver or another organ, this has to be treated separately, and the treatment depends on the extent of the damage.

Your vet will monitor the cat for a time to ensure optimal management of the disease. The good news is that most cats with mild pancreatitis recover fully. It is harder to predict the outcome after a severe bout of the pancreatitis, and a great deal depends on how much damage is done to the pancreas and related organs in the course of the illness.

Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.

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