Pancreatitis is a relatively common but dangerous gastrointestinal disorder in cats. It occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed, and pancreatic enzymes become overactive and injure surrounding tissues. Symptoms may appear suddenly, and acute pancreatitis requires rapid veterinary attention.
The pancreas has two primary functions: regulating blood sugar and aiding in the breakdown of food by producing digestive enzymes. If the pancreas becomes inflamed (which is referred to as “pancreatitis”), these enzymes may become overactive and injure surrounding tissues.
Acute pancreatitis is a reversible pancreatic inflammation, while chronic pancreatitis causes recurrent or longer-lasting inflammation of the pancreatic tissue. Age, sex, and breed disposition are usually not a factor, although it more commonly affects middle-aged to older cats.
While it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the two forms, the clinical signs associated with acute pancreatitis sometimes are more severe. Acute pancreatitis can lead to systemic inflammation, shock, and death, and needs to be treated aggressively.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats
Depending on the severity of the pancreatitis, symptoms may vary and can appear suddenly. Some cats may not show visible signs of discomfort until the condition is severe. Symptoms are also often similar to those caused by other health problems. Here are some things to look out for:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Loss of energy
- Abdominal pain
Both acute and chronic pancreatitis can cause scarring of the pancreas, leading to problems with the functionality of other organs. The scarring also affects insulin and digestive enzyme production, which can lead to liver disease and diabetes. Cats that develop acute pancreatitis are at risk for developing life-threatening conditions like disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) as well as heart arrhythmias and difficulty breathing.
How Did My Cat Get Pancreatitis?
There is no one cause, which is why pancreatitis is difficult to diagnose. Potential factors that may contribute to the development of pancreatitis include:
- High-fat meals or table scraps
- Ingesting toxic materials (e.g. insecticides)
- Surgery or trauma to the abdomen
- High amounts of calcium in the blood
- Feline distemper
- Severe reaction to medicine
- Bacteria from the intestines
- Related diseases such as toxoplasmosis, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, inflammation of the bile ducts, and feline infectious peritonitis
However, in many cases, no underlying cause for the pancreatitis can be identified. Pancreatitis can affect cats of all ages, although it may occur more in middle-aged to older cats.
Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Cats
Because the cause of feline pancreatitis is relatively unknown, diagnosing the disease usually entails more than just a routine visit. Your veterinarian will conduct a full examination along with various specialized tests to identify what exactly is going on. In addition to gathering a complete history of your cat, the veterinarian may perform the following tests:
Two types of blood tests:
- Feline Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity (fPLI or Spec fPL): Pancreas-specific lipase is a form of lipase produced only in the pancreas. It can be detected with this simple blood test. The most recent version of the test can be performed in the office; it takes only a few minutes and indicates whether pancreatitis is present. Studies have shown that the test is highly reliable (detecting approximately 90% of cases) for diagnosing moderate to severe pancreatitis in cats. However, the in-house test can be influenced by other blood abnormalities, so your veterinarian may recommend submitting a confirmatory test to an outside lab.
- Feline Serum Trypsin-Like Immunoreactivity: This test measures the trypsin enzyme that enters the blood; if it’s higher than usual, the cat may have an inflamed pancreas, causing leakage of the protein. (Note that veterinarians have differing opinions on the accuracy of this test, and it is not performed nearly as often as fPLI or Spec fPL.)
Other tests include:
- Additional blood work: Tests for anemia, infection, inflammation, liver disease, kidney disease, and other blood-related conditions.
- An x-ray of the abdomen: Although an x-ray doesn’t produce a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis, it can be used to rule out other issues associated with abdominal pain.
- Abdominal ultrasound: Imaging of the abdominal organs, including the pancreas, can detect masses and other abnormalities such as free fluid, abnormal gas patterns, etc.
- Electrolyte tests: Ensure that your cat is not dehydrated or suffering from an electrolyte imbalance.
Treating Your Cat for Pancreatitis
The type of treatment administered for pancreatitis depends on the severity of the disease. If your veterinarian can pinpoint the reason for the pancreatitis, it will be addressed as well, although in most cases the precise cause is likely to remain unknown.
Treatment consists of managing the symptoms in order to reduce pain and discomfort. Types of treatment include:
- Medication: Cats that are in pain will be given pain relievers such as buprenorphine or hydromorphone. Anti-inflammatory medication is sometimes prescribed for chronic cases, and antibiotics for secondary infections. Vomiting and/or loss of appetite are common with pancreatitis, so anti-nausea medications and appetite stimulants are often needed. Most cats do not have diarrhea with pancreatitis; those that do can take medication which will reduce that symptom.
- Supplements: A vitamin B12 deficiency is common with pancreatitis and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, so your cat may be given vitamin B12 injections. Cats with chronic pancreatitis often develop diabetes, so they will need insulin shots to control blood sugar levels.
- Fluid therapy and electrolytes: For the body to heal itself, the pancreas needs to rest, and some veterinarians feel that the best way to rest it is to “turn it off.” Under medical supervision, oral fluids and food are withheld while intravenous fluids are administered to maintain normal electrolyte balance. The fluids also help with dehydration, correct potassium abnormalities and blood sugar levels, and flush toxins from the cat’s body. However, other veterinarians believe that it is beneficial to offer small amounts of a bland, easily digestible food early in the recovery process.
- Hospitalization: In severe cases, hospitalization may be required for the restoration and maintenance of hydration, to control pain and vomiting, and possibly the administration of antibiotics. Nutritional support is important for cats, as they can develop secondary liver disease within a few days of not eating, unlike dogs and people.
Is There a Cure for Pancreatitis?
Sometimes, yes. Mild-to-moderate cases of pancreatitis often resolve with treatment. The prognosis depends on the severity of the disease and the cat’s response to initial therapy.
Is Pancreatitis Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
This disease is not contagious.
What Is the Cost for Treating Pancreatitis?
The cost will vary based on factors like geographical location, whether your cat is seeing a general veterinarian or a specialist, the degree of care required, length of hospital stay (if required), surgery (if required), medications, supplements, and therapy. Taking all of these into consideration, the total cost can run from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
Recovery and Management of Pancreatitis
It is very possible for a cat diagnosed with pancreatitis to lead a relatively normal and healthy life. The vast majority recover without any long-term consequences. Cats suffering from chronic pancreatitis will require long-term treatment and care. They do well on steroid therapy, although it is something they may need for the rest of their lives.
Pancreatitis cannot always be prevented, but there are ways to reduce a cat’s risk of developing the disease.
Is There a Vaccine for Pancreatitis?
There are no vaccines that prevent pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis in cats is a common but dangerous condition that occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. It can come on suddenly, and may be fatal if left untreated. Common symptoms include loss of appetite, lethargy and dehydration. While it cannot always be prevented, you should avoid feeding your cat high-fat treats or table scraps, and contact your vet immediately if you notice any of the warning signs associated with pancreatitis.