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Pancreatitis in Cats

Cat sick with pancreatitis
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Severity: i Medium - High
Life stage: All

Although pancreatitis is a condition that affects humans and dogs, we used to think that pancreatitis in cats was relatively uncommon. In recent years, however, the evidence has begun to suggest otherwise. 

In fact, a 2016 study found that 45 percent of clinically healthy cats undergoing necropsy (the equivalent of a human autopsy) at one veterinary school showed at least some evidence of pancreatitis. Granted, these cats had other medical conditions that may have predisposed them to pancreatitis, but this was still a surprising statistic and an eye-opener for many in the veterinary community.

In this article, we’ll explain what pancreatitis is, how cats develop this condition, and what veterinarians do to treat pancreatitis in cats. 

What Is Pancreatitis?

The term “pancreatitis” means “inflammation of the pancreas.”

The pancreas is an organ within a cat’s abdomen, sitting tucked up against the stomach and small intestine. This organ has two unique functions:

  • It produces insulin, which is released into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar.
  • It produces digestive enzymes, which are released into the intestines to aid in digestion.

There are two different forms of pancreatitis: acute and chronic pancreatitis. In the case of acute pancreatitis, inflammation develops suddenly. Cats with acute pancreatitis may become seriously ill within a very short period of time. Chronic pancreatitis, in contrast, refers to pancreatitis that persists over months to years. Chronic pancreatitis in cats is often accompanied by low-grade inflammation, which results in chronic, subtle signs.

Causes of Pancreatitis in Cats

In most cases, we don’t know what causes pancreatitis in cats. A limited number of cat pancreatitis cases have been associated with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii and other infectious organisms. 

Toxins, dietary factors, trauma, and autoimmune disease may also play a role in this condition. However, most cases of pancreatitis are “idiopathic,” which means they do not have a known cause.

Pancreatitis is often associated with inflammation of the liver and intestines. This condition is sometimes referred to as “triaditis,” due to the triad of organs involved (pancreas, liver, and intestines.) The cause of this condition is also unknown.

Although diabetes will not cause pancreatitis, a diabetic cat experiencing pancreatitis may have a harder time regulating glucose levels.

There is currently no known relationship between pancreatitis and age, breed, gender, or body condition/weight.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

Cat refusing to eat food

Signs of pancreatitis in cats may vary, depending on the severity of your cat’s pancreatic inflammation. In mild, chronic cases of pancreatitis, clinical signs may be subtle and vague, such as a slight decrease in appetite or mild lethargy. 

In the case of acute pancreatitis, cats may develop sudden signs of illness, which may progress to shock and even death.

The most common sign of clinical pancreatitis is loss of appetite and vomiting. Increased salivation and teeth grinding may also occur, due to underlying nausea. Diarrhea and abdominal pain may also be observed, although these findings are less consistent.

Pancreatitis symptoms in cats may include:

  • Loss of appetite or anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Nausea
  • Increased salivation
  • Grinding teeth
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Shock

If your cat is showing signs of pancreatitis, seek veterinary care.

Diagnosing Feline Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can prove challenging to diagnose. Unfortunately, there is no single, definitive diagnostic test for this condition.

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam. During this exam, they will assess your cat’s hydration status, listen to your cat’s heart and lungs, and palpate for signs of abdominal pain or other abnormalities. Cats with pancreatitis may be dehydrated and may show signs of weight loss and abdominal discomfort, although some cats may appear completely normal on a physical exam.

Next, your veterinarian will likely perform screening blood tests, including a complete blood cell count (CBC) and serum biochemistry profile. Abdominal X-rays may also be recommended. These tests may be normal in cats with pancreatitis, but they help your veterinarian rule out other conditions that may cause similar signs.

The best test for feline pancreatitis is a blood test called feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity or fPLI. This test can be performed in-house by some veterinary practices, or it may be sent to an outside laboratory. 

While this test is the most specific test available for feline pancreatitis, it is not a very sensitive test and it may miss some cases of pancreatitis. Therefore, a normal fPLI test does not completely rule out the possibility of pancreatitis.

Abdominal ultrasound can also be a useful diagnostic tool, especially in the case of suspected acute pancreatitis. This test can allow a veterinarian to visualize inflammation of the pancreas and surrounding tissues. However, ultrasound is often less helpful in diagnosing chronic feline pancreatitis.

Your veterinarian will recommend the best diagnostic tests for your cat, interpreting the results of these tests in light of your cat’s physical exam and other findings. In some cases, veterinarians must rely upon their experience and clinical intuition in determining whether or not to treat a cat for pancreatitis.

Treating Pancreatitis in Cats

Cat being checked by vet

Early treatment of pancreatitis in cats is essential for improving outcomes. This is especially true in cases of acute pancreatitis, which can quickly become life-threatening.

Treatment for pancreatitis is primarily supportive in nature. In most cases, treatment is focused on reducing nausea and abdominal pain while preventing dehydration. 

In mild cases, treatment can be provided on an outpatient basis, using anti-nausea medications, pain medications, and subcutaneous fluids (administered under the skin). In cases of acute pancreatitis or severe chronic pancreatitis, your veterinarian will likely recommend hospitalization. While hospitalized, your cat will receive injectable medications and intravenous (IV) fluids.

Rarely, antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications may be used to treat pancreatitis in cats.

When treating pancreatitis, restoring your cat’s appetite is a primary goal. Your veterinarian may recommend a prescription diet to meet your cat’s nutritional needs while minimizing the risks of exacerbating gastrointestinal inflammation. If your cat is especially reluctant to eat, your veterinarian may prescribe appetite stimulants.

Recovery times for pancreatitis in cats may range from a few days to several weeks, depending on the severity of your cat’s pancreatic inflammation. If you have additional questions about how to treat pancreatitis in cats, talk to your veterinarian.

How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Cats

Unfortunately, there is no sure-fire way to prevent pancreatitis in your cat. However, there are some measures that may decrease your cat’s risk.

Ensure your cat eats a healthy, well-balanced diet and limit their access to fatty treats. Rich table scraps have been shown to increase the risk of pancreatitis in dogs, and some veterinarians suspect the same may be true for cats.

Limit your cat’s exposure to potential toxins, including poisonous plants and pesticides. Additionally, reduce your cat’s risk of infectious disease through appropriate vaccination and keeping your cat indoors.

Finally, work with your veterinarian to keep your cat healthy. Regular wellness visits allow the early detection of medical problems, which can result in early treatment. If your cat is showing signs of illness, even if they are subtle, contact your veterinarian to arrange for an evaluation.