Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Obese tabby cat lying on bed.

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Fatty liver disease, also known as hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver syndrome, is a disease that affects a cat's liver. It is the most common acquired liver disease in cats and it can be life threatening. In most cases, it is the consequence of anorexia and dramatic weight loss in overweight cats. Knowing how to recognize the signs of this serious disease, as well as how to prevent it, and when to seek veterinary medical care, can help save a cat's life.

What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Cats?

Fatty liver disease commonly occurs in overweight cats that are stressed and not eating well. It is typically seen in cats, but has been reported on rare occasion in dogs.

The liver is an organ that performs a variety of functions including processing fat to make energy. If the liver and its cells becomes overwhelmed with trying to break down fat to make energy, it is unable to process the fat quickly enough. This results in expansion of liver cells with fat and impairment of liver function. If fatty liver disease is left untreated it is fatal due to the inability of the liver to function. Clinical signs vary, but may include weight loss, anorexia, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, jaundice, and weakness.

Signs of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Weight loss
  • General weakness
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
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 loss of appetite, 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 function properly.

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.

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.