Close-up photo of cat

Key takeaway

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas that can be fatal if left untreated. Common symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy, making it difficult to diagnose and treat. However, many cats recover from mild to moderate forms of pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis in cats occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed and digestive enzymes produced in the pancreas spill into the pancreas and abdominal cavity. Unfortunately, pancreatitis is difficult to diagnose in pets. The signs of pancreatitis, such as vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy, are similar to many other minor and major illnesses.

Pancreatitis is fairly common in cats, which is why it’s important to know everything you can about the disease. This article will discuss what pancreatitis is, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options, so you can ensure your cat lives a long, healthy life.

Graphic: What Is Pancreatitis in Cats?

What Is Feline Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an organ in your cat's abdomen located between the left kidney and intestines.1 While it's a small organ, it has many vital functions for maintaining your cat's health. Some functions the pancreas is responsible for include:

  1. Regulating blood sugar levels
  2. Producing enzymes to aid digestion through the intestinal tract1

As mentioned, pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. It occurs when the enzymes produced in the pancreas for digestion start to digest the organ, causing tissue destruction and the release of toxins into the body. These toxins can affect and destroy the health of other organs near the pancreas, such as the intestines, liver, and stomach. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic, depending on the level of damage to the pancreas.1 Additionally, pancreatitis can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Causes of Cat Pancreatitis

Unfortunately, we still don't know what causes pancreatitis in cats.1 However, there are several risk factors, including:

  • Lack of blood supply to the pancreas: Disrupted blood supply to the pancreas can be associated with many different things, including blood clots and drops in blood pressure that may or may not be symptoms of other diseases.
  • Trauma: Falling from a height, being hit by a car, or other trauma to the abdomen may cause pancreatitis.
  • Infection: Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and feline herpesvirus may affect the pancreas' ability to function properly and cause inflammation.
  • Toxins: Ingesting toxins may damage the pancreas.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: If the intestine affected by inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) allows for bacteria growth, it can go into the pancreas and trigger inflammation.
  • Drugs: There are no drugs that have been proven to cause cat pancreatitis, but it happens in humans and dogs.
  • Other diseases: Pancreatitis is commonly associated with other conditions in cats, including liver disease, gallbladder disease, and diabetes.2

While there is some overlap between risk factors of pancreatitis in dogs versus cats, fatty food is not one of them. Fatty foods are a common cause of pancreatitis in dogs, but diet in cat pancreatitis doesn't play an important role.3 However, your vet may recommend a new diet to effectively treat pancreatitis.

Graphic: Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

Pancreatitis in Cats Symptoms

Cats with pancreatitis show symptoms that are similar to many other diseases. For example, feline diabetes symptoms share common traits with pancreatitis, making it difficult to diagnose. These are a few of the symptoms of pancreatitis:

  • Eating less or refusing to eat
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Unhealthy coat
  • Sleeping more
  • Low body temperature
  • Behavioral changes
  • Jaundice

Heavy cats suffering from pancreatitis can develop diabetes, leading to weight loss and dehydration. Additionally, many cats don't show any signs of pancreatitis, making it difficult to catch and treat in the beginning stages. 1

Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Felines

Diagnosing pancreatitis is challenging for vets because there are no available tests to determine whether the cat has the disease.2 However, vets can diagnose by learning about the clinical signs of the disease and performing imaging and blood tests.1

The blood test used to diagnose pancreatitis is called feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (fPLI), which tests for a marker specific only to the pancreas. Concentrations of that marker typically increase due to inflammation of the pancreas.2 Depending on your vet, you may be able to get a rapid test for same-day results, or your vet will have to send the blood to be analyzed by a lab. Unfortunately, even this test can miss some mild and chronic pancreatitis cases in cats.2

Cat and vet

Your vet will also perform an imaging test to help with the diagnosis. X-rays will likely not show pancreatic changes, but they can rule out other common causes of the various symptoms associated with pancreatitis.For example, if your cat is vomiting, your vet can rule out intestinal blockage as the cause using x-rays, which can help determine a more accurate diagnosis of pancreatitis.

Ultrasounds can also identify changes in the pancreas, including inflammation of the pancreas and surrounding tissue.2 Your vet may also choose to do a biopsy to pinpoint changes to the cells of the pancreas under a microscope for a more accurate diagnosis. Unfortunately, a biopsy requires abdominal surgery, so it may not be ideal for every cat.2

Pancreatitis in Cats Treatment

After your vet has effectively ruled out any other potential illnesses and diagnosed your cat with pancreatitis, they will try to manage the symptoms. Your vet will treat dehydration, nausea, pain, and any nutritional problems.2 For mild pancreatitis, your vet will send your cat home and allow you to care for them, meaning you may need to learn how to feed your cat, ensure they have enough water, and administer medication to help them deal with the pain. Severe cases of pancreatitis may have to be monitored closely by a vet, which can include hospitalization for dehydration and nutritional support.2

The treatment for pancreatitis in cats aims to manage symptoms

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment plan for pancreatitis. Your vet can only treat the symptoms in most cases. However, if your vet can figure out the underlying cause, they can try to treat it to help your cat heal. Most cats will improve over time, but severe cases require long-term medication.

Ultimately, your vet will want to carefully monitor your pet, especially in severe cases of pancreatitis. Of course, the earlier the illness is treated, the better the outcome.1

Cat Pancreatitis Prognosis

Some cats with severe pancreatitis don't recover, especially if they haven't received treatment. However, most cats will be able to go home, but the prognosis varies depending on the severity of the illness.2 Cats with mild to moderate pancreatitis typically recover. Still, pancreatitis can be fatal in cats with severe forms or those who have not been appropriately treated.2

If you believe your cat has pancreatitis, schedule an appointment with your vet as soon as possible so they can run tests and begin treatment.

Is Pancreatitis in Cats Preventable?

Since pancreatitis may occur due to other illnesses, such as cat diabetes, it's important to help your cat eat well and maintain a healthy weight. They should also be taken to the vet at least once a year for their annual wellness visit.

Ultimately, even healthy cats can get pancreatitis. However, by taking proper care of your pet, you can ensure they have the best chances of recovery if they ever develop inflammation in the pancreas.

Pancreatitis in Cats: Frequently Asked Questions

Can I treat feline pancreatitis at home?

Mild to moderate forms of pancreatitis can be treated at home with the help of your vet. If you believe your cat has pancreatitis, take them to your vet for a proper diagnosis. Nutritional support can also effectively treat pancreatitis, so it's important to ensure your cat is eating well.

What triggers pancreatitis in cats?

There is no known cause of pancreatitis, but risk factors include toxin ingestion, parasites, worms, trauma to the pancreas, and other underlying diseases.

The best way to prevent your cat from getting pancreatitis is by ensuring they are healthy. Always make sure you're feeding your cat a balanced diet and maintaining their weight. Additionally, you should take your cat to the vet every year so your vet can perform an examination, administer vaccinations, and run tests if you have concerns about anything that could affect their health and wellness.

What is the life expectancy for a cat with pancreatitis?

Cats with mild to moderate pancreatitis typically recover, but every cat is different. Because pancreatitis can be fatal in cats with severe forms, it's essential to talk to your vet as soon as possible if you believe your cat has pancreatitis. Luckily, many cats recover with proper treatment, even though some may require short hospitalization to improve their health.

Final Notes

Pancreatitis is challenging to diagnose because it shares symptoms with many other illnesses. While there are risk factors associated with pancreatitis, there is no known cause, so treatment involves managing the existing symptoms. Diagnosing pancreatitis typically involves talking to your vet about your cat's clinical symptoms. Your vet may perform a series of tests, including imaging, blood tests, and a biopsy, to learn about your cat's pancreas.

The prognosis for pancreatitis is good for cats with mild to moderate forms, but your cat should still be seen by a veterinary professional. Talking to a trusted vet about your cat can help you figure out the best ways to take care of them at home and minimize their risk for pancreatitis.

With Dutch, you can speak with a licensed veterinarian that can help you take care of your cat in the comfort of your own home. Whether your cat is suffering from allergies or behavioral issues, we can develop a treatment plan to help them feel better. Having access to a vet no matter where you are or what time of day it is can ensure your cat receives the support they need while providing you with peace of mind that someone is always there to help.

References

  1. Steiner, Jörg M. “Disorders of the Pancreas in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Apr. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/digestive-disorders-of-cats/disorders-of-the-pancreas-in-cats.

  2. “Feline Pancreatitis.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 17 June 2021, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-pancreatitis.

  3. Cailin R. Heinze, VMD. “Pancreatitis: A Real Pain in the Abdomen.” Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School, 16 Mar. 2022, https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2020/12/pancreatitis/.