Symptoms & Treatment of Pancreatitis in Cats

Weighing no more than 6- to 8-ounces, the feline pancreas — a narrow, V-shaped strip of tissue wedged between your cat's stomach and duodenum at the juncture where the intestinal tract begins — is a vital organ that is described as an "amazing phenomenon" by Richard Goldstein, DVM, an associate professor of small animal medicine at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

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This multifaceted glandular organ performs dual life-sustaining functions — endocrine and exocrine — and despite its relatively small size, the pancreas plays a huge role in keeping your cat in tip-top condition.

But when things go south, the inactive enzymes produced in the exocrine pancreas that normally pass into the intestines to start the digestive process, prematurely activate within the pancreas and begin digesting the pancreatic tissue itself, resulting in pancreatitis. Nevertheless, with early diagnosis, most cats recover without long-term consequences, says VCA Hospitals. With aggressive treatment, mild forms of acute pancreatitis have a good prognosis. And although pancreatitis is the most common disorder of the feline exocrine pancreas, studies suggest it occurs in less than 2 percent of the general cat population.

What jobs does your cat's pancreas perform?

The hardworking pancreas performs several demanding functions in a cat's body and known as the endocrine pancreas or exocrine pancreas.

A minute portion of the pancreatic mass is the endocrine pancreas, which is composed of tissue that contains small clusters of cells that produce two hormones: glucagon, which stimulates the production of blood sugar, and insulin, which maintains optimum levels of circulating blood sugar. Diabetes mellitus, a condition which results in the abnormal metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, is the most common disorder of the endocrine pancreas.

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The exocrine pancreas produces and secretes an enzyme-rich liquid in an inactive state that normally passes out of the pancreas into the small intestine where it then activates, facilitating the digestion of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Pancreatitis develops when these normally inactive digestive enzymes are prematurely activated when the cat eats, or even thinks about food, and rather than pass into the intestine, seep instead into the pancreas and surrounding tissues, leading to severe inflammation of the organ and the disease known as pancreatitis. Envision a time-release capsule that bursts before it reaches its intended target, and in this case, begins the digestive process, only it's feasting on the pancreas!

What causes feline pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis plays no favorites, and cats of both sexes, all ages, and breeds are vulnerable. Considered by the veterinary community to be an elusive disease, because specific causes remain unknown and diagnosis is sketchy, pancreatitis can come on suddenly for no apparent reason in a severe, acute form. Significant impairment of the pancreas can be fatal. On the other hand, a cat can recover from an acute attack and never have problems with their pancreas again. But usually, the cat recovers but develops chronic pancreatitis. These small but ongoing spells of pancreatitis have less inflammation but produce scarring of the pancreatic tissue. Gradually, over time, scarring can lead to diabetes mellitus or the pancreas can lose its ability to function altogether.

Some people believe that too much fat in the diet or ingestion of toxins can contribute to pancreatitis, says Dr. Goldstein. He suggests that a defect in an animal's natural defense mechanism could trigger the disease. Further, physical trauma has been associated with some cases, for instance, being hit by a car. As well, infectious disorders such as feline infectious peritonitis and toxoplasmosis, adverse drug reactions, liver disease, parasitic infection, and inflammatory bowel disease have all been cited as causes of pancreatitis.

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Symptoms and clinical signs of pancreatitis

The most common clinical signs of pancreatitis present in other diseases, as well, and include:

  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Lethargy.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Acute shock or death.

Diagnosis of pancreatitis

Veterinarians have struggled with the diagnosis of pancreatitis for years since it cannot be readily differentiated from other disorders and diseases whose symptoms and clinical signs it mimics. In many cases, the diagnosis of pancreatitis may be tentative or presumptive, explains VCA Hospitals. Also, pancreatitis may occur in conjunction with other diseases, such as fatty liver disease, inflammation of the liver and bile ducts, and inflammatory bowel disease. When the three disorders occur concurrently, it's known as feline triad disease or triaditis.

Diagnosis usually rests on lab tests and findings of an elevated white blood cell count — an elevation of pancreatic enzymes is a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis. Radiographs and ultrasound are helpful, too. However, many cats with pancreatitis elude detection.

Treatment protocol for cats with pancreatitis

Cats that present with shock or depression have a guarded prognosis, says VCA Hospitals. And sadly, treatment may be dependent upon a cat owner's pocketbook. Hospitalization for several days and round-the-clock care and treatment can be financially prohibitive for many. But for mild cases of pancreatitis, intravenous fluids and analgesics will be given to rest the pancreas, and hopefully, help your cat to recover.