Pancreatitis is a condition that creates serious inflammation in your cat's pancreas. This disease is painful, causes the pancreas to flare up when inflamed, and it can be life-threatening. There is still much that veterinarians don't know about pancreatitis in cats, but information about the disease continues to evolve so that you and your vet can help your pet feel better.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a condition that means the pancreas is inflamed. 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.
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 regular flare-ups of acute pancreatitis will be considered to have chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats
In cats, pancreatitis can cause a variety of symptoms. Common secondary problems can affect organs in close proximity to the pancreas. such as the gallbladder, liver, and intestines. Symptoms associated with pancreatitis are often the same as other digestive problems, which include the following:
If your cat has abdominal or belly pain from pancreatitis, it may cry out, hiss, or try to get away if you try to pick it up. Your cat may also seem to have difficulty getting comfortable when lying down. Your veterinarian can also feel your pet tense up if there is a sensitive or painful spot when feeling the belly.
A cat may vomit for many reasons and pancreatitis is no exception. Vomiting may occur due to the abdominal pain or digestive issues that are secondary to the pancreatitis.
Cats with pancreatitis usually lose weight in response to the other symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and anorexia.
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.
Since pancreatitis affects the pancreas and the pancreas plays an important part in digestion, cats with pancreatitis often experience diarrhea.
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. You can quickly tell if your cat is dehydrated by gently pulling up the skin between its shoulder blades. If it stays "tented" and does not snap back into place, your cat may be dehydrated.
If there is inflammation in the pancreas, a cat will often have an elevated core body temperature. Though it's best to let your vet take your cat's temperature with a thermometer, you can watch for signs of a fever. Signs of a fever can include lethargy, loss of appetite, dehydration, an elevated heart rate, and breathing that may resemble fast panting.
A cat that doesn't feel well, has abdominal pain, and is vomiting usually doesn't want to eat very much.
Causes of Pancreatitis
Surprisingly, very little is known about pancreatitis in cats and there is no known definitive cause of the condition in the feline population. In other species, pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes (amylase, lipase, protease, etc.) that the pancreas produces are activated prematurely. These enzymes are usually 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 which causes inflammation as well as the other symptoms.
Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Cats
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. Aside from the physical symptoms, pancreatitis in cats is also diagnosed with the aid of blood tests. Your vet may order the following tests:
- White blood cell count
- Red blood cell count
- Organ function tests
- Feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test (FPLI)
- X-ray and ultrasound
Veterinary treatment is needed if a cat has acute pancreatitis. In order to allow the pancreas to rest and heal, your vet may recommend the following treatments and protocols:
- Oral foods will need to be stopped so IV therapy can 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.
- Oral food will slowly be reintroduced as your cat starts feeling better and the symptoms of pancreatitis resolve. It's also been suggested that feeding cats with pancreatitis a moderately fat-restrictive diet can help heal your pet from mild forms of the condition.
If your cat has 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.
Prognosis for Cats With Pancreatitis
If an acute pancreatitis attack is severe enough, it can be deadly to a cat. Chronic pancreatitis flare-ups, unlike acute pancreatitis, can be manageable. 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 (insufficient synthesis and secretion of digestive enzymes). Both of these diseases can be caused by uncontrolled, chronic pancreatitis in cats due to the damage done to the pancreas.
How to Prevent Pancreatitis
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 the exact cause of pancreatitis in cats is still undetermined, your veterinarian will be the best person to offer suggestions on what your specific cat needs to decrease the likelihood of pancreatitis. Your vet 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.
Disorders of the Pancreas in Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual
Feline Pancreatitis: Serious. Cornell Feline Health Center
Pancreatitis in dogs and cats - digestive system. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Feline pancreatitis. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in dogs and cats - digestive system. Merck Veterinary Manual.