Pancreatitis in Cats

Maine coon on a chair arm.

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Pancreatitis affects an internal organ called the pancreas. This condition can affect people, dogs, and even cats and is not only painful, but can be life threatening. There is still much that we don't know about pancreatitis in cats, but thankfully, the veterinary community's knowledge base has grown over the years, so there are things we can do to help prevent and treat this disease.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a condition or disease of the pancreas that literally means inflammation of the pancreas. This inflammation leads to a variety of issues that ultimately cause pain and digestive issues in cats.

The pancreas sits in the abdominal cavity of a cat's body next to its stomach. It is a thin, long, organ that is pinkish in color. Normally it assists in the digestive process by producing various enzymes as well as hormones that help regulate insulin. If a cat has pancreatitis, these normal functions may be affected and secondary problems in other parts of the abdomen may also occur. Common secondary problems include issues with the gallbladder, liver, and intestines, due to the close proximity of these organs to the pancreas.

Typically, pancreatitis is referred to either as acute or chronic, respectively meaning it either occurred quickly and then lasts for days or it has lasted months or sometimes years. Cats typically experience acute pancreatitis and this inflammation causes problems with the regular functions of the pancreas. Some cats that experience an acute pancreatitis will also have regular flare-ups of pancreatitis, which is then referred to as chronic pancreatitis.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

In cats, pancreatitis can cause a variety of symptoms.

  • Abdominal Pain - If your cat has abdominal or belly pain, it may cry out, hiss, or try to get away if you try to pick it up or seem to have difficulty getting comfortable when lying down. Your veterinarian can also feel your cat tense up if there is a sensitive or painful spot when they are feeling your cat's belly.
  • Vomiting - A cat may vomit for a number of reasons and pancreatitis is no exception. Vomiting may occur due to the abdominal pain or digestive issues secondary to the pancreatitis.
  • Weight loss - Cats with pancreatitis are usually losing weight because of the other symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia.
  • Lethargy - Just like when we don't feel well and aren't very active, a cat with pancreatitis will often be lethargic and not want to move around very much.
  • Diarrhea - Since pancreatitis affects the pancreas and the pancreas plays an important part in digestion, cats with pancreatitis often experience diarrhea.
  • Dehydration - If a cat with pancreatitis is lethargic, it may not want to drink much water and also have diarrhea. The combination of these two things can quickly lead to dehydration.
  • Fever - If there is inflammation in the pancreas, a cat will often have an elevated core body temperature.
  • Anorexia - A cat that doesn't feel well, has abdominal pain, and is vomiting usually doesn't want to eat very much.
  • Death - This is of course an extreme response to pancreatitis, but if an acute pancreatitis attack is severe enough, it can be deadly to a cat.

Causes of Pancreatitis in Cats

Surprisingly, very little is known about pancreatitis in cats. In other species, pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes (amylase, lipase, protease, etc.) that the pancreas produces are activated prematurely. These enzymes usually get activated in the small intestine after they travel out of the pancreas through the pancreatic duct, but with pancreatitis, these powerful digestive enzymes are activated in the pancreas earlier than they should be. This leads to the pancreas itself being digested, instead of the food in the small intestines, and causes inflammation as well as the other symptoms. It can also occur with physical trauma to the pancreas. In cats, however, there is no known definitive cause of pancreatitis.

Diagnosis

Aside from the physical symptoms, pancreatitis in cats is also diagnosed with the aid of blood tests. The white blood cell count, red blood cell count, organ function tests, and a specific test called a feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test (FPLI) are usually performed. X-rays and ultrasound may also be recommended by your veterinarian.

It can be difficult to diagnose a mild form of pancreatitis in a cat. It is thought that many cats with chronic pancreatitis often go undiagnosed because of this difficulty.

Treatment

Veterinary treatment is needed if a cat has an acute pancreatitis. In order to allow the pancreas to rest and heal, oral foods will need to be stopped so IV therapy will need to be started. Antibiotics and pain medicine will also be given alongside other medications to treat your cat's specific symptoms. Most cats will be hospitalized for several days while these treatments are being administered to them. Oral food will slowly be reintroduced as your cat starts feeling better and the symptoms of pancreatitis resolve.

If your cat has a chronic pancreatitis, it may experience flare-ups of symptoms that may be bad enough to require veterinary intervention. These flare-ups may also need at-home, symptomatic care, such as managing vomiting, syringing fluids, and administering oral medications.

Is Pancreatitis Contagious?

Even though no one really knows exactly why pancreatitis occurs, we do know that pancreatitis is not a contagious disease. This is not something you need to worry about another pet or yourself contracting.

How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Cats

Pancreatitis is a painful and damaging disease, so if there are things that can decrease the chances of it occurring in your cat, it is a good idea to follow those instructions. Since no one knows what the exact cause of pancreatitis is, your veterinarian will be the best person to offer suggestions on what your specific cat needs to decrease the likelihood of pancreatitis. They may suggest a specific diet or supplement that has been shown to support pancreatic health in cats or to keep your cat at an ideal body weight.

Chronic pancreatitis flare-ups, unlike acute pancreatitis, are something that you should be able to manage and control, though. Watch for any signs of changes in food intake, activity, and bowel movements if your cat has previously been diagnosed with pancreatitis. If your cat starts vomiting or showing abdominal discomfort, then you should contact your vet immediately to avoid further complications of diabetes mellitus and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Both of these diseases can be caused by uncontrolled, chronic pancreatitis in cats due to the damage done to the pancreas.