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Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a condition which ranges in severity from almost no clinical signs to severe abdominal upset and even death. It can therefore be very difficult to know if your cat is suffering from pancreatitis Your vet is best placed to advise you on any illness in your pet so if you are worried about your pet's health a visit to the vet's surgery for a check over is always warranted. 

Your questions answered

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a small organ located close to the stomach. It has an important role in the digestion of food and produces large volumes of digestive enzymes after each meal which are released into the gut to help digest food as it leaves the stomach. These enzymes are normally stored in specialised storage granules in the pancreas until they are needed.  Quite simply pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Once the pancreas is damaged the digestive enzymes are released from the specialised storage granules into the pancreas itself and can start the process of self digestion. The amount of enzyme released into the pancreas and local area dictates the severity of the disease.

The pancreas also has a second, and completely separate, function which is to produce the hormone insulin which helps to control levels of blood sugar.

Why has my cat got pancreatitis?

There are a number of suspected causes of pancreatitis although in a number of cats no reason is found for pancreatitis to develop. In many cases pancreatitis is associated with inflammatory bowel disease and inflammatory liver disease (IBD) in cats. The combination of three concurrent problems is termed 'triaditis'. The signs of IBD and pancreatitis can be very similar and so it can be difficult to know which changes are caused by which disease.

Some medications can cause pancreatitis in people and dogs (although there is no evidence that this occurs in the cat) so if you are worried about your cat in anyway always remind your vet what medications your cat is taking - even if you think the vet may know already.

How would I know if my cat had pancreatitis?

As stated above the amount of pancreatic enzyme released determines the severity of disease resulting in a range of different clinical presentations ranging from mild to severe. Cats with pancreatitis are usually very miserable and don't want to eat. Some cats with pancreatitis develop jaundice and you may notice a yellowish tinge to the whites of the eyes, skin or roof of the mouth.

Cats tend to develop the less severe grumbly form of the disease (often termed chronic). Patients may present with vague signs such as lethargy and poor appetite; in some cases vomiting and mild abdominal discomfort may be present. The more severe forms of the disease (also termed acute or necrotising pancreatitis) are less common in the cat. These patients may exhibit severe pain, jaundice, frequent vomiting. Other signs include diarrhoea and fever but these signs often look just like any other tummy upset. In the severe form of the disease affected cats may have difficulty breathing and can start to bleed from multiple sites in the body.

Many cats with pancreatitis go on to develop hepatic lipidosis if they do not eat for a period of time. This is a complex disease in which excessive fat is deposited in the liver causing liver damage and ultimately failure. The risk of lipidosis developing starts to increase after 3 days of anorexia.

How will my vet know that my cat has pancreatitis?

The sigs of pancreatitis in the cat can be very vague and often overlap with many other common illnesses. It can therefore be hard for your vet to make a diagnosis of pancreatitis without running a number of tests. Ultrasound of the abdomen can be very helpful to demonstrate the inflamed pancreas and to assess for any signs of structural disease that may be causing the pancreatitis. Ultrasound examination of the pancreas is an advanced technique and your vet may wish to refer your pet to a specialist. There are also a few specific blood tests that can confirm a suspicion of pancreatitis.

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?

Ideally treatment begins with resolving the underlying cause of the disease - for example in cases of triaditis management of the liver and intestinal disease will help resolve the pancreatitis. Mild cases of pancreas may recover without any treatment over a few days. Often cats with pancreatitis will not want to eat. Food intake should be monitored due to the risk of lipidosis (see above). Drugs may be given to reduce nausea and vomiting if this is present.

Cats may need to be admitted to a veterinary hospital. Intravenous fluids can be given through a drip to support the cat whilst it is not eating and, if anorexia is prolonged, it may be necessary to administer food by an alternative route eg placement of a feeding tube to ensure that nutritional intake is maintained. Pain relief is important in speeding recovery. Since, in cats, pancreatitis is most often associated with IBD then treatment of this condition is indicated.

In very severe cases cats become extremely unwell and need intensive care or maybe even an operation. When pancreatitis is severe there can be serious effects on other organs in the body and intensive care including blood transfusions may be required.

Will my cat get better?

Most cats with pancreatitis get better within a few days to a week. Your vet will advise you on longterm care of your pet after an episode of pancreatitis which will depend on individual cases and whether any reason for the pancreatitis was found. Often cats that have had one episode will be more likely to have repeated bouts later in life and these may need to monitored more carefully.

In cats that have been severely affected there may be long term consequences of the disease. Damage to the pancreas can result in failure of its other functions. Loss of large amounts of pancreas can mean that the cat is no longer able to produce sufficient quantities of insulin (thus becoming diabetic) or not producing enough digestive enzymes (resulting in poor digestion of food and weight loss).

Unfortunately some cats with the severe form of pancreatitis will die despite all treatment.

If you have any concerns about our cat contact your own vet for further advice.

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