What is it?
Inflammation of the pancreas in the cat's abdomen is a remarkably common condition, and if mild may not result in any apparent symptoms. However, severe cases are serious and even potentially life-threatening.
What causes it?
The pancreas has two functions - producing pancreatic juice to help digest food, and producing hormones (such as insulin) to manage blood sugar levels. In pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes inflamed - either because of injury, a tumour, infection or an inflammatory disease. Cats are most prone to Chronic Pancreatitis; this occurs when there is a relatively mild original injury (in fact, we don't usually ever find out what it was), that causes the gland to leak pancreatic juice. This starts to digest the inside of the gland, causing a little more injury, causing more leakage, and so on. This often grumbles on for weeks or months, with no obvious symptoms, but may eventually become severe enough to be apparent.
What cats are at risk?
All cats - in fact, studies suggest that as many as 45% of apparently normal cats actually have mild chronic pancreatitis!
What are the symptoms?
They tend to be very vague and intermittent, making chronic pancreatitis hard to diagnose. Most commonly, weight loss, depression, lethargy, and reduced appetite, occasionally causing intermittent vomiting. Sometimes, the damage will become so severe that Acute Pancreatitis develops, with profuse vomiting, complete anorexia, jaundice, severe abdominal pain, dehydration and collapse.
How is it diagnosed?
There is a blood test (Feline Pancreas-Specific Lipase) that has revolutionised our ability to diagnose the condition - it can sometimes even be carried out by your vet while you wait.
How can it be treated or managed?
In Acute Pancreatitis, hospitalisation, intravenous fluids, and assisted feeding (typically with a feeding tube) are required. Chronic Pancreatitis, however, usually has to be managed, with a highly digestible but low-fat diet, pain relief, and sometimes anti-inflammatory medication.
Can it be prevented?
No - we do not yet fully understand the underlying causes, and there is no effective preventative treatment or management known.