Pancreatitis in cats

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The pancreas is an organ in the body located close to the stomach. It produces enzymes that assist in the digestion of food and hormones such as insulin that regulate sugar levels. When inflammation of the pancreas occurs, this is known as pancreatitis. It can be acute or chronic in nature. The cause of pancreatitis in cats is not always known. It is often accompanied by inflammation of the liver and the intestine, a condition referred to as triaditis. It can therefore be associated with a range of symptoms that often overlap with symptoms of gastroenteritis, inflammatory bowel disease and other diseases. Learn more about pancreatitis in cats with our vet.

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What triggers pancreatitis in cats?

In most cats, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown (idiopathic). It appears to occur spontaneously, without any known trigger. However, in some cases it can be associated with other risk factors such as:

  • Restriction of blood supply (pancreatic ischaemia)

  • Trauma: for example, a road traffic accident or a fall from a height

  • Infectious agents and diseases: Feline Parvovirus, Toxoplasma gondii, Feline Herpesvirus and Feline Infectious Peritonitis

  • Increased calcium levels (hypercalcaemia)

  • Organophosphate insecticide toxicity: these can be found in some flea collars and garden products

  • Medications such as aspirin and glucocorticoids.

  • Hepatic lipidosis (a specific type of liver disease commonly seen in cats) or cholangitis (inflammation of the bile duct system). Pancreatitis is present in approximately 40% of cats with hepatic lipidosis and usually carries a poorer prognosis

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Symptoms of pancreatitis in cats

Symptoms can include:

  • Lethargy and loss of appetite - most common

  • Vomiting and abdominal pain - less common in cats with pancreatitis than dogs

  • Drooling (hypersalivation) - usually a sign of nausea

  • Weight loss

  • Fever is possible - often the body temperature will actually be low (hypothermia)

  • Dehydration

  • Diarrhoea - occasional

Diagnosis of pancreatitis in cats

Several tests are often recommended. These are used to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatitis, as well as to check for other underlying diseases, or risk factors, such as hepatic lipidosis. Tests include:

  • General blood tests (complete blood count, serum biochemistry profile) and urine analysis

  • Serum feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (fPLI). This specific blood test measures an enzyme called lipase, which is produced by the pancreas. It is pancreas‐specific and species‐specific

  • Imaging, such as abdominal ultrasound, is used to assess inflammation of the pancreas. This is an extremely useful diagnostic tool. However, it is largely dependent on the skill level of the vet and the quality of the ultrasound machine

  • Biopsy of the pancreas - a sample is taken under general anaesthesia and analysed by the laboratory

What can you do for a cat with pancreatitis?

Treatment of pancreatitis in cats aims to:

  • Provide supportive care

  • Eliminate triggers or risk factors

  • Replace electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhoea, as well as rehydrate. Both of these are achieved by providing intravenous fluids. Therefore, most cats with pancreatitis are require hospitalisation

  • Control vomiting and nausea with anti-sickness drugs. These are often given even if there is no vomiting, as nausea can be hard to recognise

  • Provide analgesia for abdominal pain. This is an important aspect of the treatment plan, even if the cat is showing no obvious signs of pain, as some degree of pain is always present

Most cats with pancreatitis, unlike humans, rarely have infectious complications such as the formation of an abscess or a bacterial infection. Therefore, antibiotic treatment is rarely indicated.

In some cases, additional medication may be required. For example, antacids may be used to protect the stomach lining. A high proportion of cats with pancreatitis can have low cobalamin (vitamin B12) concentrations, in which case, this can be supplemented with a weekly injection.

What should I feed a cat with pancreatitis?

Food should be gradually re-introduced as soon as possible. This should be done over 4-6 meals a day, for a few days. If your cat is refusing to eat, an appetite stimulant may be given. There is little evidence to support dietary fat restriction in cats with pancreatitis. Ideally, the diet should be easily digestible, high in protein, low in carbohydrate and with a moderate fat level. Depending on concurrent diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, a novel protein diet or hypoallergenic diet may be required.

How to prevent pancreatitis in cats

  • Feed a good quality diet appropriate for your cat’s age

  • Maintain a healthy weight for your cat

  • Avoid high-fat diets and table scraps or food that you would usually prepare for yourself

  • Minimise exposure to organophosphate insecticides or unnecessary medications

When to see your vet?

  • Lethargy

  • Inappetence or anorexia

  • Drooling

  • Vomiting

Further reading

Is my cat too fat or too skinny? A guide to body condition scoring in cats
Help! My cat isn't eating

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) in dogs and cats

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