I’d never thought much about feline pancreatic disorders beyond diabetes, which I know quite a bit about thanks to my own diabetic kitty. But a year or so ago, my best friend took her cat to the vet because she was lethargic, not eating well, and generally just not doing right. Diagnostic tests revealed that my friend’s cat had pancreatitis, which, if left untreated, can become fatal. Here are facts on this often underreported cat health issue.
The pancreas is a V-shaped organ nestled snugly behind the stomach and next to the first section of the small intestine. The pancreas produces insulin, which helps metabolize sugar and convert it into energy, and enzymes, which aid in the digestion and absorption of fats.
Pancreatitis is, in short, an inflammation of the pancreas. When the pancreas gets inflamed, it starts leaking those digestive enzymes I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, digestive enzymes work on your cat’s guts as well as they work on your cat’s food, and the digestion of your cat’s internal organs can cause increasing inflammation and pain. If left untreated, a cat with pancreatitis can develop systemic infections and die from multiple organ failure as a result.
One thing that makes pancreatitis so hard to diagnose is that it manifests in vague "ADR" symptoms: lethargy, weight loss, dehydration, low body temperature, and loss of appetite. As the pancreatitis gets more severe, a cat may develop vomiting and abdominal pain, increased heart rate, and difficulty breathing. Pancreatitis becomes life-threatening when the enzymes produced by the pancreas begin digesting the pancreas itself.
Because pancreatitis mimics so many other conditions, your vet will need to rule out other symptoms by performing a standard complete blood count and blood chemistry, and a urinalysis. She may also want to run another blood test called the fPLI (feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity), which specifically checks for pancreatitis, and ultrasound or CT scans of the abdomen.
Pancreatitis treatment is primarily supportive: replacing lost fluids with subcutaneous or IV fluids, controlling vomiting and nausea, providing nutritional support — sometimes via a feeding tube — and relieving pain. The goal of treatment, which usually involves several days of hospitalization, is to prevent further complications or organ damage.
A number of factors are thought to contribute to the disease, but most cases are idiopathic — that is, there’s no way to identify the cause. Some of the factors that seem to play a role include parasitic infections, viral infections, irritable bowel disorder and diseases of the bile duct, physical injuries, and toxins such as organophosphates. Siamese and domestic shorthair cats seem to be at a higher risk than other breeds.
The prognosis depends a lot on how severe the disease was when the cat received treatment. If it was mild, the odds of a complete recovery without further complications are good. However, if a cat also has diabetes, liver disease and/or small intestine disease, the odds of a full recovery are not as good. If the pancreatitis was moderate or severe when it was detected, a cat may have recurrences. Some cats even develop chronic pancreatitis, which can lead to diabetes or pancreatic insufficiency.
So, what can you do to prevent pancreatitis? Do the best you can to keep your cat healthy. Feed him the best diet you can afford and bring him in for regular checkups so that problems such as diabetes or bowel disease, which might contribute to pancreatitis, are caught early. If your cat "ain’t doin’ right," don’t be shy about calling the vet: You know your cat better than anyone else.
Have you ever had a cat who developed pancreatitis? How did your vet treat the problem? What kind of supportive care and aftercare did you do? Share your story in the comments.
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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.