Pancreatitis is defined as inflammation of the pancreas, an abdominal organ that is critical to proper digestion and to production of insulin. It is a serious and potentially painful condition in cats that can be acute or chronic and requires immediate medical attention. There is no known age, breed or gender predisposition for feline pancreatitis. Cats with chronic pancreatitis often have concurrent inflammatory bowel disease and/or cholangiohepatitis (inflammation of the liver and bile duct tissues).
How Pancreatitis Affects Cats
Feline pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. There are no known breed, age or sex predispositions to this disease in cats. Signs of acute pancreatitis occur suddenly and are generally severe. Chronic pancreatitis normally causes more mild symptoms that wax and wane over time, frequently involving repeated flair-ups that require repeated treatment. The actual signs in cats are usually nonspecific and include fever, lethargy, icterus (yellowness of the sclera, skin and mucous membranes), inappetance, weight loss and dehydration. Vomiting and pain are noted in about one-third of the cats with pancreatitis. Some cats have a decreased body temperature and/or difficulty breathing. If a cat has not eaten for several days, there is an increased risk of fatty accumulation in the liver, called secondary hepatic lipidosis. This condition can be very serious in cats.
Causes of Pancreatitis in Cats
The causes of pancreatitis in cats are not well understood. There seems to be some connection between chronic feline pancreatitis and concurrent inflammatory bowel conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and cholangiohepatitis. Whatever the particular inciting cause, the physiological pathway of pancreatitis is the same. Some insult causes premature activation of pancreatic digestive enzymes, which in turn causes progressive local and systemic tissue damage, including autodigestion of and by the pancreas itself. Pancreatitis may be associated with factors such as high fat intake, obesity, chemical toxins, certain drugs, physical trauma to the pancreas, diabetes mellitus and kidney, intestinal or liver inflammation or dysfunction.
Treating Feline Pancreatitis
The treatment for pancreatitis focuses first on treating the underlying cause of the cat’s clinical signs, if that cause can be identified. Next, treatment is focused at relieving pain, balancing electrolytes, resting the pancreas and providing nutritional support. Pancreatitis can cause severe abdominal pain, and affected cats are assumed to be painful whether or not they show clinical signs of abdominal distress. Administration of injectable and other forms of pain medication are normally a part of the treatment protocol. Intravenous fluids are important to keep the cat well-hydrated, to prevent or reverse shock and to balance circulating electrolytes. To calm the pancreas and stop further inflammation and irritation, some veterinarians will recommend nothing per os (“NPO”), which is medical jargon for no food or water taken orally, for at least 24 hours. However, the current recommendation is to only restrict food and water intake in cats that are actively vomiting. If the cat will eat, it should be fed a low-fat, highly digestible and palatable diet offered in small amounts multiple times daily. Good nutritional support is especially important in cats; if they are anorexic for prolonged periods, they are at a heightened risk for developing a serious condition called secondary hepatic lipidosis.
Another key component of treating pancreatitis is the administration of antiemetic drugs, which are designed to calm the vomiting and other gastrointestinal symptoms associated with this disease. The mainstay of pancreatitis therapy is hospitalization with intensive supportive care. A hospital stay for at least 24 hours, and in some cases up to 5 days or more, is typically necessary to maintain intravenous fluid and medication treatments. Blood tests should be periodically taken to assess electrolyte balance and to monitor the progress of pancreatic recovery. Once an owner takes its cat home, a special diet and strict feeding instructions should be followed. The cat should not be given any extra treats or food outside of the restricted diet and probably will need to be fed small meals multiple times a day for the rest of its life.
The prognosis for cats suffering from pancreatitis depends directly upon the severity of clinical disease. The vague symptoms of feline pancreatitis have caused some difficulty with proper diagnosis in the past. However, as more veterinarians are recognizing this condition and as new diagnostic tests are developed, many cats with pancreatitis are now receiving the treatment they need in time for a complete recovery. Pancreatitis can be diagnosed through blood tests, and once a diagnosis is confirmed immediate hospitalization is typically required. Affected cats will need to remain in the hospital until blood tests confirm that their pancreatic enzyme values have normalized. Pancreatitis can be lethal if it is not timely treated.