Pancreatitis in cats can develop into a dangerous digestive system condition. Early diagnosis is crucial. Here’s what to watch for and how vets treat it.

By Brendan Howard
August 24, 2020
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Your kitty isn’t eating. He’s vomiting or has diarrhea. Your usually friendly feline friend is hiding—maybe to cover pain. Or your cat has become lethargic. You know something’s not right. The signs may indicate pancreatitis in cats. Your furry companion needs you to act because the digestive system condition could be serious.

Your cat’s pancreas is a great multitasker with two important jobs. First, the pancreas releases insulin to control your cat’s blood sugar. When that doesn’t happen properly, diabetes mellitus can develop.

The pancreas’ other crucial task is to release enzymes into the intestines, where they activate and help your cat digest food. When those enzymes are released but activate before they leave the pancreas, they can cause damage to the pancreas and other organs in your cat’s gastrointestinal system.

Caught early, pancreatitis has a good survival rate for cats, so it’s crucial to know the signs. Early testing and aggressive treatment for pancreatitis in cats needs to start as early as possible. 

Causes of Pancreatitis in Cats

The pancreas sits in a prime spot next to your cat’s stomach. It sends digestive enzymes through a duct to the small intestine. There, the enzymes start their work of digesting. If those enzymes start working too soon, they can start to digest the pancreas itself. That causes inflammation and potential damage to your cat’s intestines and liver (in a condition called “triaditis”).

No one is sure exactly what causes feline pancreatitis. Veterinarians think physical injury to a cat’s pancreas, infection, parasites, or adverse reactions to drugs can cause the condition. Feline pancreatitis may show up in cats with pancreatic cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, or diabetes.

Signs of Cat Pancreatitis 

Your cat is relying on you to notice the first warning signs. These can include vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. With early diagnosis and aggressive treatment, the survival rate for cats with feline pancreatitis is good. 

Cats are good at hiding pain. Be on the lookout if your cat seems lethargic or is hiding from view. Watch for a lack of appetite. In severe cases, pancreatitis in cats can cause shock or death. The earlier feline pancreatitis treatment begins the better.

Because these signs of feline pancreatitis are common to other medical conditions, like cancer, testing by a veterinarian is crucial. 

“Feline pancreatitis, while not an uncommon disease, remains elusively and frustratingly difficult to diagnose definitively,” says Robin Downing, DVM, MS, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CCRP, owner of Windsor Veterinary Clinic and the Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo. “The vague signs and the complexity of pancreatitis mean it’s important for cat owners to seek veterinary care any time their cats develop lethargy, aren’t eating, or are vomiting for more than a day or two. In my practice, pancreatitis is on the table for any sick kitty I see.”

How to Treat Feline Pancreatitis

A veterinarian will perform a complete physical exam of your cat and run tests to diagnose and find the cause of pancreatitis in cats. X-rays or an ultrasound may help. The feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test, or fPLI, looks for pancreas-specific lipase in your cat’s blood and can help diagnose cases of moderate to severe pancreatitis. The fPLI can also help show if treatment is helping, but it can’t definitively diagnose feline pancreatitis, Downing says.

“In a cat who’s lethargic, isn’t eating or isn’t eating much, and may be vomiting, a negative fPLI test suggests that pancreatitis is not the culprit,” Downing says. “That said, an abnormal fPLI result alone does not confirm a diagnosis of feline pancreatitis, but rather directs the veterinarian to perform an abdominal ultrasound for confirmation.”

Feline pancreatitis cannot be treated at home. In the veterinary hospital, a cat with pancreatitis will receive intravenous fluid. By taking a short break from eating and drinking, it gives the cat’s pancreas time off from sending out digestive enzymes. Drugs for pain and vomiting, as well as appetite stimulants, may be prescribed. If the cause of feline pancreatitis is a bacterial infection, a veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics.

Most cats recover well from a bout with pancreatitis. Some cats may develop chronic pancreatitis and experience occasional flare-ups. 

Preventing Pancreatitis in Cats

There are no sure-fire ways to prevent pancreatitis in cats. Your vet, however, may recommend guidelines for at-home care to try to avoid future flare-ups (with no guarantees). 

“A cat owner should work with their veterinarian to prevent obesity,” Downing says. “Nutrition is a critical component of managing feline pancreatitis.”

Recommendations may include avoiding table scraps, feeding smaller meals, or feeding a brand of food specially formulated for a cat pancreatitis diet. If the pancreas has been damaged, a veterinarian may prescribe daily enzyme tablets or powder to help your cat digest food. If diabetes mellitus results from feline pancreatitis, insulin injections may be necessary.

“The long-term prognosis for cats with pancreatitis depends upon the severity of their disease,” Downing says. “Long-term management and monitoring of cats with pancreatitis will involve periodic testing and the cat owner paying attention to recurring signs of the disease.”

Watch for signs of digestive distress in your cat, and visit your vet if signs of feline pancreatitis appear. Quick diagnosis and treatment can prevent long-term damage to your cat’s digestive health.