Pancreatitis is remarkably common in cats – and is sadly underdiagnosed. This is largely because it is a condition that is often subtle, and masquerades as other diseases. If your cat is losing weight, suffering from lethargy, lack of condition, vomiting, diarrhoea, or  other vague and non-specific symptoms, then he or she may well be suffering from pancreatitis. In fact, we know that up to 45% of cats suffer from chronic pancreatitis. And, in many, the owners aren’t even aware that they’re unwell!

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a key digestive organ, located in the abdomen near the stomach and the small intestine. While one part of the organ produces insulin to control blood sugars, the larger part of it produces digestive enzymes for breaking down food in the digestive tract. Pancreatitis just means “inflammation of the pancreas”. But unfortunately, when inflamed, the pancreas tends to release these digestive juices and start digesting itself. Cats being stoical creatures, in many cases the symptoms are relatively mild, at least initially. But it’s one reason why any change in eating or appetite usually needs veterinary attention.

What will the vet do?

Your vet will examine your cat, especially feeling their abdomen in case of any pain. And they will usually take blood samples for testing. Most importantly, though, they will ask you about the symptoms, changes in appetite or behaviour, and any other significant history. The “standard” blood tests may or may not show specific changes, but there is also now a specific blood test for feline pancreatitis, called feline pancreatic lipase (fPLI for short). This is accurate in acute (sudden) cases,  but occasionally gives a “false negative” in chronic and milder cases, in which situation a sample may need to be sent to an external lab where additional tests can be run. Some vets will use ultrasound to scan the pancreas, but not always, as it is difficult to find and interpret the images of this elusive organ.

So how can it be treated? 

How aggressive the treatment needs to be depends on how severe your cat’s bout of pancreatitis is. 

A very ill cat, or one who has not eaten or drunk for 24 hours

This is usually a sign of a more severe case, and your cat will probably need hospitalising. Then they can be put on a drip to rehydrate them, and given pain relief (this is a very painful condition!) and anti-sickness medication. If they don’t respond quickly, it may be necessary to insert a feeding tube (either up the mouth, or through a small incision on the side of the neck, made under a short anaesthetic) to give them liquid food. Most cats, if treated early enough, make a full recovery and then go home to a normal life. Sometimes, other conditions such as liver disease are involved, but if they can be nursed to the point where their appetite returns, the prognosis is usually good.

A less severely affected cat whose appetite is reduced but who is still drinking and nibbling on food

These cats may be managed as outpatients, with symptomatic support (painkillers and anti-sickness treatments) and dietary adjustment.

Change in diet

Once a cat has had pancreatitis once, they are at higher risk of developing it again in the future. In addition, overweight cats are at higher risk! One key trigger for an episode of pancreatitis is a high fat diet, so a special low-fat diet may be prescribed in the short term, or even permanently, to reduce the risk of recurrence. 

What are the long term effects of pancreatitis on my cat?

Repeat bouts of pancreatitis (acute flare-ups) and longer-term low-grade disease (chronic pancreatitis) are common in cats. However, this causes progressively more and more damage to the pancreas, and may eventually damage the parts that produce insulin. This can result in diabetes mellitus, or even inability to produce digestive juices, and a failure to digest fats in food. These are both excellent reasons for trying to get on top of the conditions as rapidly as possible if and when it develops – so if you are at all suspicious, it’s always best to get your cat checked out by your vets sooner rather than later!

Further reading: