Yes, they certainly do! For many years it was assumed that pancreatitis was a rare condition in cats, especially compared to dogs (who suffer from a well-recognised and usually clinically obvious form of the disease). However, we now know that, in cats, this disease is incredibly common – with as many as 45% of apparently normal cats suffering from some form of the condition!
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is, simply, inflammation and damage to the cat’s pancreas. The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen which produces digestive juices to help cats break down their food. It is also involved in controlling blood sugar levels (diabetes is a result of damage to this part of the gland), but this system is not affected in most cats with pancreatitis. In many cases, it appears suddenly (Acute Pancreatitis) with little or no warning.
The trouble is that as the pancreas becomes damaged, it may start to leak, releasing digestive juices into as-yet unaffected parts of the gland. These juices then start digesting those areas, resulting in further tissue damage and a negative spiral – this is what happens in Acute Necrotising Pancreatitis, which is, fortunately, rare in cats.
More commonly, damage to the pancreas results in chronic (long-term, ongoing) inflammation of the gland, leading to slow but progressive scarring – a bit like cirrhosis of the liver, but affecting the pancreas instead. This leads to long term, vague and non-specific symptoms, and is characteristic of Chronic Pancreatitis.
What causes it?
Unfortunately, in 90% of cases the cause is unknown – it has been suggested that it may represent a failure of the pancreas to protect itself sufficiently from its own digestive juices, but the truth is that we just don’t know. The condition is associated with inflammatory bowel disease and with some liver conditions (cholangitis), but whether these conditions cause pancreatitis, or are caused by it, or whether they are both the result of some other condition, is unknown.
What cats are affected?
Any cat may be affected – overall, about 67% of cats die with pancreatitis, including 45% of those who were apparently completely healthy. 90% of these have chronic pancreatitis, and over 10% had both forms at once.
Although cats of any breed and any age any be affected, Siamese cats and obese cats are reported to be at slightly higher risk.
What are the symptoms?
To a great extent, the symptoms will depend on which type of pancreatitis the cat is suffering from.
- Loss of appetite
- Diarrhoea (occasionally)
- Fever (about 1 in 4 cats with pancreatitis)
- Abdominal pain (uncommonly seen)
- If severe, liver disease (Hepatic Lipidosis) may occur.
- Vague and non-specific symptoms
- Often they appear to come and go
- Mild lethargy
- Intermittent loss of appetite
- Sometimes intermittent vomiting
- Eventually, Chronic Pancreatitis may lead to diabetes mellitus or pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) as the functional tissues of the pancreas are destroyed.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Unfortunately, in many cases, the symptoms are very vague – there are many different conditions that may make a cat lethargic or go off their food!
Although routine blood tests may be suspicious, there is a specific test now for pancreatitis, called the Feline Pancreatic Lipase (fPL) blood test, that is invaluable for diagnosing cases. It does give some false positive test results, though, so we’d always recommend following up with a send-away test to evaluate how severe it is.
What is the treatment?
In most cases, supportive therapy is the most effective – as the cause is not known, sadly we have to treat the symptoms. In most cases, intravenous fluids (to prevent dehydration), pain relief, and anti-vomiting medication. Starving a cat with pancreatitis is no longer recommended (unless their vomiting cannot be controlled), as it can trigger liver disease and indeed, keeping the cat eating is now seen as being vitally important. If the cat’s appetite is too poor, it is sometimes necessary to give them a feeding tube to get nutrition into them.
Obviously, this means that cats with pancreatitis often need to be hospitalised – usually for several days or even weeks.
Can it be prevented?
Once a cat has had an episode, they are always at risk of a recurrence. However, feeding a healthy but low-fat diet may reduce the risk; and careful weight control is also important.
If you have any worries about your cat, please contact the surgery.