If your cat has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, it can be very worrying and hard to understand. The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen (belly) that has several important roles in the body. It sits next to the stomach and small intestine and is involved in making enzymes for digestion, and it also makes insulin for control of blood sugars. Sadly ‘pancreatitis’ (inflammation of the pancreas) is quite common in cats. It also occurs in humans and dogs.
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. In most cases we don’t know for sure why this occurs, but in cats it can be related to inflammation of the liver and intestines (so called ‘triaditis’). It is most common in middle-aged to older cats, but we occasionally see it in younger patients. As the pancreas makes enzymes for digestion, when it becomes inflamed these enzymes can be released into the pancreas and surrounding tissues and cause damage and pain. In very serious cases this can be life threatening as it will affect other organs and blood pressure.
Signs of pancreatitis
Cats with pancreatitis may show various signs but the most common are eating less or refusing to eat at all, vomiting, and being lethargic (tired, not moving around as much). Cats express pain differently to people so the only signs may be interacting less with the family, sleeping more, resting and sleeping in different places and they may groom less. Affected cats may lose weight, become dehydrated and their coat may be dull and scurfy. Occasionally cats with chronic (long-standing) pancreatitis can develop diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) and show signs of weight loss and drinking/urinating more.
Making a diagnosis of pancreatitis
Your vet will make a diagnosis of pancreatitis with a combination of the signs you describe, physical examination, blood tests and further tests such as an ultrasound scan. Mild pancreatitis can be difficult for your vet to diagnose, so sometimes treatment is given on the suspicion that this is the cause of the illness.
Sadly, there is not a specific treatment for pancreatitis in cats. Your vet will treat the symptoms/signs of pancreatitis and the underlying cause if known, and most cats will improve in time. Severe cases of pancreatitis will require your cat to stay in the hospital and have fluids given into a vein, as well as medications, including drugs to manage pain and nausea. Some cats are so severely affected they do not recover, but the majority will be able to go home. Many cats with pancreatitis are reluctant to eat, and some may need a feeding tube placing to allow them to recover, or treatment with drugs to improve appetite. Cats should never be forced to eat, as this can have a very negative effect on their appetite and will not meet their needs. Cats with pancreatitis may feel sick and in pain, and medication may be prescribed to be given at home to manage these unpleasant symptoms. Initially, a cat should be tempted to eat and may need a liquid diet via the feeding tube. Later, the cat’s diet may be changed to one for intestinal disease for example.
Can pancreatitis be prevented?
If pancreatitis is related to disease of other organs like the liver or intestine, these diseases may need to be treated. Diet may be altered to suit the conditions. Low fat diets are discussed for dogs with pancreatitis but are rarely suitable for cats who rely on fat and protein in their diet. However, we cannot specifically prevent cats developing pancreatitis. As with all illness, maintaining a healthy weight, feeding a good quality diet, preventative healthcare (vaccinations, worming, flea control), and regular checkups at a Cat Friendly Clinic are the best we can do to keep our cats healthy.