Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Obese tabby cat lying on bed.

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Fatty liver disease is a disease that affects a cat's liver. It can be life threatening and causes a variety of symptoms commonly seen with gastrointestinal issues. Knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of this serious disease, as well as how to prevent it, can help save a cat's life.

What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Cats?

Fatty liver disease is also known as hepatic lipidosis and feline fatty liver syndrome. It is typically only seen in cats but has been reported on rare occasion in dogs.

The liver is an organ that performs a variety of jobs including processing fat to make energy within a cat. If the liver becomes overwhelmed with trying to break down fat to make energy, it is unable to process the fat quickly enough. This results in too much fat in the liver and causes fatty liver disease. If fatty liver disease is left untreated it is fatal due to the inability of the liver to function.

Signs of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Weight loss
  • General weakness
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Fatty liver disease may initially be a hidden disease since it affects an internal organ but a cat that doesn't have a healthy liver will often vomit and have diarrhea despite already having stopped eating. A lack of energy and overall weakness is also often seen in any cat that isn't feeling well, including those with fatty liver disease. Due to the anorexia, vomiting, and diarrhea, weight loss also occurs and a yellowing of the skin and eyes is seen if the disease is left untreated. This yellowing is referred to as jaundice and can occur because of a variety of diseases affecting the liver and/or gall bladder.

Close up of a cat ear with jaundice.
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Causes of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Any type of disease or situation that may cause a cat to suddenly stop eating can cause fatty liver disease. Reasons why a cat may stop eating include a dislike in a new food, environmental stress, various diseases that cause inappetance, and more. When a cat stops eating, its body searches for fat sources from within and the liver attempts to process this fat for energy. In cats, especially those that are overweight, this fat can overwhelm the liver rendering it unable to do its job. Since the liver is such an important organ, if it is unable to function, death is unfortunately the result if aggressive treatment is not received.

Diagnosing Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

If you suspect your cat has fatty liver disease or it has stopped eating, it should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible. A veterinarian will perform a full physical examination, take a full history, and obtain a blood sample to perform a complete blood count and check organ function. Specific enzymes in the blood provide information that a veterinarian uses to help them determine whether or not the liver is functioning well. These enzymes may provide an indication that your cat has fatty liver disease or another problem causing the same symptoms.

In order to definitively diagnose a cat with fatty liver disease, an ultrasound and biopsy of the liver may be needed to verify the presence of fat in the liver cells. Occasionally surgery is needed to visually inspect the liver and obtain a sample for testing.

Treatment of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

The best way to treat fatty liver disease is with food and IV fluids. Since cats with fatty liver disease are not eating, they will need to be force fed or have a stomach tube inserted. This is usually in addition to having an IV catheter placed to provide fluids. Various medications and supplements may be used to support the liver and decrease the symptoms of fatty liver disease. The treatment typically continues until a cat is eating on its own and the liver enzymes have normalized on blood work. If left untreated, fatty liver disease is usually fatal.

How to Prevent Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

In order to prevent fatty liver disease from developing in your cat, ensure your cat is not overweight but eats regularly. Limiting food intake and increasing activity will help a cat lose weight but you never want your cat to stop eating altogether or fatty liver disease is likely to result.