What is pancreatitis in cats?


Pancreatitis is a common gastrointestinal disorder in cats, and, quite literally, means inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is a small organ located close to the stomach. It is responsible for producing enzymes that are involved in digesting food. If the pancreas becomes inflamed or damaged, it can’t function normally causing the digestive enzymes to be released inside the pancreas itself, rather than into the stomach resulting in self-digestion. The amount of digestive enzyme released will impact how severe the symptoms are.

What causes pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can be caused by a number of things, although in some cats no reason is found. It can be associated with inflammatory bowel disease and inflammatory liver disease – a combined problem termed ‘triaditis’ which occurs due to the close proximity of the liver, guts and pancreas. Pancreatitis can be seen secondary to trauma, infection, parasite burden or due to a reaction to certain drugs. A slightly higher incidence of pancreatitis has been reported in Siamese cats.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

The symptoms can be quite vague and can include lethargy, reluctance to eat, abdominal pain, weight loss, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Sometimes, if the liver is affected too then your cat may also be jaundiced. You may see a yellowish tinge to the whites of your cat’s eyes, skin and gums. Symptoms can be acute, occurring within 24-48 hours, but some cats suffer from chronic relapses. Unfortunately if cats don’t eat for a period of time, usually 3-5 days, then they can go on to develop something called Hepatic Lipidosis. This is quite serious, and occurs when excessive fat is deposited in the liver and can lead to liver failure.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

After taking a thorough review of your cat’s recent history, your vet will perform a full physical examination. Checking for signs of abdominal pain, nausea, dehydration and fever. As the clinical symptoms of pancreatitis can be quite vague and often can be seen with lots of other illnesses, your vet will want to run some tests. An ultrasound of the abdomen can be performed to see if the pancreas looks inflame. As well as reviewing other nearby organs like the liver and intestines. A blood test is recommended to check the levels of feline pancreatic lipase enzyme, as well as assessing their general organ function. They will pay particular attention to liver and kidney parameters as well as electrolytes.

How is pancreatitis treated?

Mild cases may recover with supportive treatment including bland food, pain relief and medication for nausea. Nausea can be hard to detect in cats, so anti-emetics are often considered in all patients with a suspicion of pancreatitis. In more severe cases, cats may need to be admitted to hospital and placed on intravenous fluids to correct dehydration, any electrolyte imbalances and support them while they’re not eating. To reduce the risk of hepatic lipidosis, if they are still not eating then a feeding tube may be considered, so we can safely ensure their nutritional requirements are met. Pain relief forms a big part of the treatment plan, and often involves opioid painkillers.

What is the prognosis like?

Most cats improve within a few days. Depending on what or if a cause was found, your vet will be able to discuss any long term management that they may require with you. This may involve a diet change on to a prescription low fat gastrointestinal diet. Cats’ that have had pancreatitis, are likely to have repeated episodes in the future and may require monitoring.

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