Feline Pancreatitis: Everything You Need to Know

A not-very-well-known affliction that a handful of kitties may contract is feline pancreatitis.

Although it only occurs in less than two percent of the general cat population, according to studies, it’s the most common disorder of the feline exocrine pancreas.

So, how bad is it? What are the necessary steps that you can expect to take if your cat has it? And is it life-threatening? 

Join us as we shed some light on the topic.

black steady cat

Pancreatitis in Cats

The pancreas is the part of the body responsible for helping food to digest via the production of enzymes, and for producing insulin, which is for regulating blood sugar levels. In animals, the pancreas plays a dual role; being part of both the endocrine and digestive systems.

In other words, it is both an endocrine and exocrine organ.

Many things can cause the pancreas to act abnormally. If the endocrine portion malfunctions, insulin and other hormone production will be stifled.

A good example of this is cat diabetes, wherein the pancreas fails to create enough insulin. Exocrine disorders in the pancreas are also commonplace.

When the pancreas fails to produce enough digestive enzymes, a condition occurs called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.

An inflamed pancreas results in the flow of enzymes becoming disrupted and when this happens, the enzymes begin to digest the fat, protein, and carbohydrates in the organs and the pancreas itself.

Basically, the body starts to cannibalize itself. This is the condition that we call pancreatitis.

The nearest organs to the pancreas are the kidney and liver, and they can become infected when this progression takes place. If the abdomen becomes inflamed as a result, bleeding can occur which will very quickly lead to shock and possibly death.

If left untreated, feline pancreatitis can cause long-term and severe organ and even brain damage. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and have your cat checked by a vet if you suspect that it has the condition.

Why Do Cats Contract the Disease?

Both male and female cats of all ages are similarly vulnerable to the disease.

Additionally, breed doesn’t seem to be a factor as pancreatitis has been observed in many different types of cats; although Siamese cats have been found to have a higher probability of coming down with the sickness – possibly due to some unknown genetic component of the disease.

The fact is, nobody knows what the exact cause of pancreatitis is in cats. Some scientists believe that it’s triggered by a defect in a cat’s natural defense mechanism.

Others, that it can happen by simply having too much fat in the diet. Ingestion of toxins or other pesticides is believed to play a role in the occurrence of the disease.

Additional suspected causes include physical trauma, infection, and parasitism. However, it must be noted that the majority of pancreatitis cases cannot be linked to any one specific cause.

The progression of feline pancreatitis can be odd at times and strangely sporadic. A cat that has a perfectly normal pancreas may suddenly develop, for no apparent reason, a severe case of pancreatitis.

The cat may die from that single attack or it may recover and never have an issue with the disease again.

But what happens in most cases is that the cat recovers but continues to have minor bouts with the disease throughout its lifetime, which is called chronic pancreatitis. Over time, these intermittent attacks will take their toll on the organ and greatly weaken its ability to perform its function.

Feline pancreatitis often occurs concurrently with bowel and liver disease. In fact, this combination is so common in cats that it has its own name – “triaditis”.

It’s safe to say that if a cat has one of these three diseases, it most likely has the other two inflammatory diseases as well.

One last suspected cause that has been attributed to feline pancreatitis is via scorpion stings. It’s suspected that the venom from such a sting could trigger a reaction in the pancreas, causing it to become inflamed.

It’s a rare occurrence, though, since scorpions mostly only live in the desert and other remote areas.

cute seated cat

The Symptoms of Feline Pancreatitis

The clinical signs of cat pancreatitis differ from animal to animal and are usually quite different from the ones seen in other animals – dogs for instance. In general, poor appetite and lethargy, weight loss, dehydration, and diarrhea are the most common.

In some cases, depression, increased heart rate, and rapid breathing are also seen. Less common in cats are vomiting and abdominal pain.

However, it’s important to note that the symptoms are extremely non-specific. That is, these signs are also indications of plenty of other health issues besides feline pancreatitis.

Also, pancreatitis isn’t a one-time occurrence in cats, but more of a chronic problem that intermittently happens in several intervals over a period of time.

Some of the symptoms of feline pancreatitis can diversify – leading to damage in other parts of the body. Respiratory failure, inflammation of fatty tissue, and dehydration are a few of the most common after-effects.

Diagnostic Testing

Determining if a cat has feline pancreatitis is very difficult, and in some cases, doctors will have to make an assumption based on the physical examination results, the presence of any other diseases, the bloodwork, and ultrasound test data.

The standard diagnostic procedure is to first check the medical history of the cat and to conduct several lab tests (bloodwork, ultrasound, etc.). Radiography isn’t very useful for the most part, as the pancreas and any potential abnormalities cannot be easily seen on an x-ray, and any findings are sure to come across as normal.

It’s been suggested by doctors for many years now that two specific enzymes (amylase and lipase) found in serum could be used as pancreatic inflammation indicators. But multiple modern studies have concluded that these enzymes aren’t useful at all in diagnosing the disease.

This is because amylase and lipase are also produced by the kidney which will cause enzyme levels to falsely spike when a cat has kidney disease. It can be extremely misleading for a doctor or clinician, which is why the theory regarding enzymes was ultimately debunked.

Ultrasound is a tool that is frequently used for diagnosing feline pancreatitis and is helpful at doing so. Any trained professional that uses an ultrasound machine will be able to identify the pancreas in order to determine if it has normal size, weight, and density, or if there are any abnormalities detected.

Although ultrasound is a great tool for helping diagnose cats, it still won’t detect pancreatitis in more than 35% of the situations in which it’s used.

The most promising diagnostic test called the “serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity (fTLI) test” was made available several years ago and was able to accurately diagnose exocrine pancreatic insufficiency which is the state that a cat’s pancreas is in when it’s unable to produce enough digestive enzymes.

However, there are still discrepancies being found in the fTLI test results, and as a result, new tests are being worked on which hope to find a permanent solution.

The latest is called “serum pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI)”, which so far has been holding up well against experimental studies. It is currently the test of choice when diagnosing feline pancreatitis.

How is Feline Pancreatitis Treated?

Given how difficult it is to diagnose the disease, providing treatment can be just as frustrating.

There is currently no uniformly effective cure for feline pancreatitis. In the majority of cases, a cat that has been diagnosed with the disease will first be hospitalized for a couple of days in order to observe its behavior, be provided with supportive measures, and have additional testing done.

During this period of time, the cat will typically start with being fed by a tube leading directly to its stomach, if necessary, to ensure that it gets sufficient nutrition. The reason this step is usually implemented is that a cat is so weak and is not eating by the time it’s hospitalized.

This will continue until the cat’s spirit picks up and it’s able to proceed with eating by itself.

For cases that aren’t as severe, a cat can be brought to a veterinarian’s office for treatment. In general, treatment steps include symptomatic and supportive measures.

Fluid therapy, pain relief, and medication to control nausea and vomiting will be the first things that a good doctor will attempt to administer. In some cases, a plasma transfusion may be necessary.

Since feline pancreatitis is often closely associated with intestinal inflammation, corticosteroids may be prescribed by the veterinarian for a short period of time. The pet will usually be observed for any adverse or negative reactions to the treatment, as in many cases, certain medication can actually trigger continued inflammation.

A cat that is undergoing treatment needs to have its activity level limited to ensure proper healing. Fluid therapy is given to prevent dehydration.

Antibiotics can also be used as a preventative measure against infection. In some serious cases, surgery may be needed to remove severely damaged tissue, blockages or large build-ups of fluid.

If your cat has pancreatitis, intestinal inflammation or bowel/liver disease, you must be sure to pick the right food to feed it. A diet for cats with pancreatitis should contain the following characteristics:

  • Should be easily digestible
  • Should contain enough protein
  • Should have moderate fat levels
  • Canned is preferred, unless a cat will absolutely only eat dry

There are many different pet food manufacturers that create products which fit the specifications above, so check the labels and do sufficient research before deciding on a specific type.

Once chosen, make sure to check if your pet accepts the food. Cats will normally eat food that they like if they’re feeling okay.

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