A Guide to Understanding Pancreatitis in Cats

Cat at the veterinarian

The pancreas is a small organ responsible for important functions. When it becomes inflamed, this condition is called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis in cats is a common disease and can have lasting consequences on their health if left untreated. This guide provides an in-depth pancreatitis definition and explains what symptoms and causes you should be looking for as well as when to take your cat for veterinary care.

Understanding Pancreatitis in Cats

Located in the abdomen near the stomach and small intestine, the pancreas or duodenum is a part of the gastrointestinal system and is responsible for digestive and regulative functions in the body. For example, it secretes the digestive enzymes amylase and lipase to help the body digest fats and starches and produces insulin and glucagon to help regulate blood sugar levels. These enzymes and hormones are activated when nutrients reach the small intestine. 

If a pancreas becomes inflamed, this condition is referred to as pancreatitis. An inflamed pancreas will release enzymes before food reaches the small intestine. Without nutrients to attach to, the enzymes instead will start to digest the pancreas and possibly other surrounding organs, including the liver.

Pancreatitis can occur on an acute or chronic basis. Acute pancreatitis develops suddenly and may vary in severity, while chronic pancreatitis is defined as a long-term condition with possible acute flare-ups. While the pancreas can recover in acute cases, untreated pancreatitis can cause lasting damage. Scar tissue may replace pancreas cells, inhibiting the organ's function and potentially leading to conditions like diabetes. 

Some cats have a condition called triaditis, which includes concurrent chronic pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cholangiohepatitis or inflammation of the liver and biliary system.

What are the symptoms of feline pancreatitis?

While symptoms in dogs are more obvious, pancreatitis in cats symptoms are more subtle and difficult to detect. They may show symptoms that overlap with many other conditions, such as:

  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Change in body temperature

If your cat is showing obvious symptoms or if you’re concerned for any other reason, it’s a good idea to consult with your vet.

What are the causes of pancreatitis in cats?

Pancreatitis in cats is not fully understood and will vary from cat to cat. However, a common theory is that pancreatitis is often caused by underlying conditions such as infectious disease, inflammatory illness, or trauma. 

How is feline pancreatitis diagnosed?

If your cat’s symptoms are concerning, it might be time to take them to the vet. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for your vet to accurately diagnose feline pancreatitis as many of the symptoms are nonspecific and may be attributed to other underlying conditions. As such, much of the diagnostic process involves ruling out other possible conditions. 

During the diagnostic process, the vet will determine if the symptoms and clinical signs are likely to be attributed to pancreatitis and order the appropriate blood tests. The pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) and the specific feline pancreatic lipase (SPEC fPL) tests help identify if amylase and lipase levels are elevated, which may indicate pancreatic inflammation. If they are not elevated, the vet may order other tests that help to diagnose other possible underlying conditions. A radiograph or ultrasound examination can also help rule out other conditions.

Treatment for Pancreatitis in Cats

Since feline pancreatitis is not well understood, treatment more often manages and alleviates symptoms rather than curing them altogether. Less severe acute cases may require pain and anti-nausea medication to relieve pain and vomiting until pancreatitis subsides. More severe cases may necessitate supportive care in a veterinary hospital to receive intravenous fluids for dehydration and to ensure that blood levels are properly regulated. Some cats will need blood transfusions, depending on the pancreatitis severity.

Other treatments include antibiotics, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory steroids, and cobalamin supplementation. Some cats also need appetite stimulants and feeding support to help them recover. This is because cats with pancreatitis may also have intestinal inflammation and may not absorb vitamins as effectively. In addition, some cats with pancreatitis are also affected by hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease, which is caused by a significant reduction in calorie intake and can make recovery more difficult. 

How long is the recovery time?

Mild cases of pancreatitis can be resolved within a few days with the help of pain and anti-nausea medication. More severe cases can require several days to a week in a veterinary hospital and an extended recovery once home. Unfortunately, cats with chronic pancreatitis may have repeated acute flare-ups and may struggle to recover. In other words, the recovery time is largely dependent on the severity of their condition.

What kind of diet should I feed my cat for pancreatitis?

While dogs with pancreatitis usually respond positively to low-fat diets, cats are not as sensitive. Cats with pancreatitis are often placed on digestible and moderate-fat diets to help regulate their gastrointestinal system. Your vet can help you design high-quality and nutritious meals and treats, especially if your cat has other health problems. Small and more frequent meals may also help relieve stress on the pancreas. 

If your vet suspects that your cat has inflammatory bowel disease, they may recommend a hypoallergenic diet. Cats with chronic pancreatitis may need to be fed a special diet indefinitely or until their pancreatitis is fully gone. If your cat shows any signs of health issues or other forms of stress, don’t hesitate to talk to your vet. 

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