The Cat Pancreas Demystified


Editor’s note: Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our July/August 2016 issue. Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

The pancreas, often weighing no more than 6 to 8 ounces, plays a huge, multifaceted role in maintaining your cat’s health. What’s amazing about it is that the pancreas acts like two organs in one.

On the one hand, it is an endocrine organ that produces essential hormones, such as insulin and glucagon, which control the level of sugar in the blood. These hormones are released from the pancreas directly into the bloodstream.

The pancreas also functions as an exocrine organ, releasing enzymes into the small intestine that are essential for proper digestion of the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates found in food. These enzymes are released through little ducts that open directly into the intestine, rather than into the bloodstream.

So, where is the pancreas?

Illustration by Shutterstock

Shaped like an upside-down V, the left lobe of the pancreas is nestled up against the stomach, while the right lobe runs alongside the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).

There are several ways that things can go wrong with the pancreas. Let’s consider a few.


The most common disorder is diabetes, which occurs as a result of inadequate or improper secretion of insulin. Although any age of cat may be affected, middle-aged and older males are at increased risk. Obesity is a predisposing factor. Interestingly, Burmese cats are four times more likely to be stricken with diabetes compared with domestic shorthaired cats.

Photo by Dr. Arnold Plotnick
Burmese cat photo by Dr. Arnold Plotnick

The classic clinical signs are excessive thirst (polydipsia), increased urination (polyuria), extremely good appetite (polyphagia), and weight loss. Some diabetic cats exhibit weakness in their rear legs, a condition called diabetic neuropathy.

The diagnosis is usually straightforward, and the presence of a high blood sugar in conjunction with sugar in the urine confirms the diagnosis.

Treatment of diabetes involves administering twice daily injections of insulin under the cat’s skin. Diets that are high in protein and low in carbohydrates are also an important part of the management of diabetes. In fact, a small percentage of diabetic cats can be managed solely with a change in diet. Most cats, however, require insulin injections. In some diabetic cats, early diagnosis and aggressive dietary and insulin therapy may cause the diabetes to resolve.


Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is another common disorder. The clinical signs of pancreatitis vary widely and can include poor appetite, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and abdominal pain. For years, veterinarians have grappled with diagnostic tests for pancreatitis.

The disorder cannot be diagnosed based on historical or clinical signs alone because the signs mimic many other diseases in cats. Some cats with pancreatitis might have an elevated white blood cell count, a mildly elevated blood sugar, and a mildly decreased calcium level, but these findings are non-specific and inconsistent. X-rays are rarely helpful. Ultrasound is better but is costly, and results are subjective and highly dependent on the skill of the ultrasonographer. The lack of a simple, reliable blood test specifically for pancreatitis has caused the disorder to be under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed.

Cat being examined at a veterinarian clinic. Photo by Shutterstock
Cat being examined at a veterinarian clinic. Photo by Shutterstock

Fortunately, the recent development of the feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity, or fPLI, test has greatly increased our ability to diagnose this frustrating disorder. Normal cats have low levels of fPLI circulating in their bloodstream. Cats with pancreatitis typically show dramatic elevations of their fPLI levels.

Treatment of pancreatitis is mainly supportive. Intravenous fluid therapy is necessary to ensure that the pancreas is well-perfused with blood. If nausea or vomiting is present, the use of anti-nausea drugs is warranted. Abdominal discomfort is a common component of pancreatitis, and the use of pain medication typically is part of the treatment plan. Cats who won’t eat might require an appetite stimulant to promote proper nutrition. The prognosis for cats with pancreatitis varies, although most cats do recover.


A less common pancreatic disorder in cats is exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, or EPI. In this disorder, the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes. Cats eat their food, but they can’t digest it, so they lose weight. They often compensate by eating more but to no avail.

Affected cats usually have greasy, foul-smelling diarrhea. In dogs, EPI is usually a genetic condition, with German Shepherd Dogs being predisposed. In cats, the genetic form is rare.

Photo by Shutterstock

Feline EPI is usually a sequel to chronic pancreatitis. Repeated bouts of pancreatitis result in scarring of the pancreas. As scar tissue accumulates in the pancreas, the organ becomes less able to produce digestive enzymes, and cats develop EPI.

A blood test, the feline trypsin-like immunoreactivity test — called fTLI, not to be confused with the fPLI test — easily diagnoses the disorder. If the fTLI test comes back low, the cat almost certainly has EPI.

Treatment, fortunately, is simple. Pancreatic enzyme powder, added to the food, corrects the enzyme deficiency. Cats will gain weight, and the diarrhea will resolve. Affected cats require supplementation for the remainder of their lives.

About the author: Dr. Arnold Plotnick is the founder of Manhattan Cat Specialists, a feline-exclusive veterinary practice on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is also an author of The Original Cat Fancy Cat Bible. Dr. Plotnick is the former Ask the Veterinarian columnist for CAT FANCY magazine, and is a frequent contributor to feline publications and websites, including his own blog, Cat Man Do. He lives in New York City with his cats, Mittens and Crispy. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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