Pancreatitis in Cats: What It Is, What Causes It, and What You Can Do

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: March 8, 2021

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fluffy tabby cat with green eyes laying down on blanketsGrowing up, our parents would make some things sound so horrible and scary as a way to instill fear in us, just to prevent us from doing certain things. Well, when I was in veterinary school, our instructors instilled a warranted and significant fear of the pancreas. Don’t anger your cat’s pancreas because it isn’t forgiving!

What is the pancreas, and what does it do exactly for our pets? It is a V-shaped gland located in the upper area of your cat’s abdomen. Its primary purpose is to secrete digestive enzymes and other substances that aid in the absorption of nutrients and certain vitamins and minerals from your pet’s food. Since the pancreas has such an important job, it gets very angry when its normal functions are interrupted.

And what happens when we make the pancreas angry? Pancreatitis. There are two types of pancreatitis — acute or chronic.

What is Pancreatitis?

  • Acute pancreatitis occurs abruptly with little to no permanent changes to the pancreas.
  • Chronic pancreatitis is continuing inflammation that often results in irreversible or permanent changes in the pancreas.

x ray photograph showing cat skeleton and pancreas locationIn general, with acute or chronic pancreatitis, inflammation causes activations of enzymes within the pancreas itself. This results in a progressive breakdown of the pancreas' tissue by its own enzymes — in short, think of it as eating itself!

The good news is that studies show that pancreatitis only occurs in about two percent of the general cat population. It doesn’t appear to be dependent on the cat’s sex, age, or breed.

Possible Causes of Pancreatitis in Cats

Typically, in cats with spontaneous pancreatitis, the cause is unknown. And the symptoms are so variable that an owner can miss a mild bout of pancreatitis — but the damage has already begun. Cats that have acute pancreatitis are likely to have it happen again, eventually creating a chronic condition.

The following is a list of just some of the potential factors that are considered possible causes of pancreatitis:

  • Dietary indiscretion: If a cat eats food that they usually don’t consume and/or that food is high in fat.
Even if an animal has regularly gotten table food or fatty foods, an adverse reaction to the food can happen at any time. I have had many patients who have gotten table scraps for an extended period and were fine. Then one day, their pancreas decided it had had enough.
  • Obesity: Obese cats have higher fat levels in their blood compared to thinner felines. Plus, acute pancreatitis causes an uncontrolled breakdown of visceral fat which is rich in unsaturated triglycerides — releasing unchained fatty acids which in turn causes necrosis and worsening of pancreatitis.
  • High amounts of fat present in the blood: This is a condition some cat breeds are more likely to have than others, such as Siamese. A diet that is high in fat can cause high levels of fat in the blood.
  • Blunt abdominal trauma: Injuries to the abdomen, such as being hit by a car, another pet running into them, etc.
  • Certain medications or toxins: Any medication or toxin that can lead to inflammation of the pancreas can cause an issue. Some possible examples include some chemotherapy medications, some corticosteroid therapies, or certain antibiotics. Your veterinarian will determine what is the best medical care for your pet and advise you of any risks. There are household and environmental toxins such as zinc and organophosphates that have also been linked to pancreatitis.
  • Presence of other diseases: Diabetes Mellitus, chronic kidney disease
  • Infectious agents: Parvovirus, Toxoplasma, Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
  • Liver issues

At What Age is a Cat More Likely to Get Pancreatitis?

In reality, any cat can be affected at any age. But acute pancreatitis is most common in middle-aged or older cats. The average age of cats diagnosed with pancreatitis is 7 years.

siamese cat laying on its side on wood floorAre Some Cat Breeds More Likely to Get Pancreatitis?

Any breed of cat can develop pancreatitis, but Siamese cats seem to have a slightly higher rate of occurrence. Why? One reason is that this cat breed tends to have high blood triglyceride levels (high levels of fat in their blood).

Signs Your Cat Might Have Pancreatitis

Now that you know what pancreatitis is and how it happens, let's look at what the signs or symptoms of pancreatitis are so you know when you need to have your cat checked out by a veterinarian. Clinical signs of pancreatitis — the ones you can see — can be vague or unclear, and not specific to just pancreatitis. Also, there are times that the secondary complications of pancreatitis cause these symptoms. This is why it is important not to delay going to the veterinarian if you see any of these symptoms.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

Since cats tend to have the chronic form most often (they are the masters at hiding illness), the symptoms tend to be vague and nonspecific. You may notice anorexia (not eating) and weight loss, with or without vomiting.

When cats get pancreatitis, the general clinical signs involve the gastrointestinal tract.

  • Vomiting: This is the most consistent sign but can be absent
  • Weight loss
  • Not eating
  • Acting depressed or lethargic
  • Dehydration
  • Painful in the abdominal area: Your cat will likely be restless, panting, trembling, or look "hunched-up."
  • Diarrhea
  • Low body temperature
  • Weakness, or in severe cases, collapse

Symptoms of pancreatitis tend to be vague and nonspecific. Often, when getting diagnosed by the veterinarian, other illnesses are found. Diagnosis is often made from the combined results of the exam, bloodwork, and an ultrasound of your cat's abdomen.

veterinarian examining a cat in pain

Treatment for Pancreatitis in Cats

There is no specific or standard veterinary treatment protocol for pancreatitis in cats. Typically, it involves supportive care with IV fluids and medications to treat the secondary effects: vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, fever, etc. If another illness or condition is diagnosed at the same time as pancreatitis, measures are taken to address that as well. Even with aggressive treatment, the prognosis is still questionable.

Unfortunately, there are complications associated with pancreatitis, including:

  • Pulmonary edema: Fluid in the lungs
  • Cardiac arrhythmias: Irregular heartbeat
  • Peritonitis: Inflammation of the lining of the abdomen and pelvic cavity, which can be fatal
  • DIC (Disseminated intravascular coagulation): Abnormal functioning of the body’s natural blood clotting and clot-dissolving mechanisms, which can be life-threatening
  • Failure to respond to treatment
  • Secondary issues can include diabetes and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency

If your cat has had or is suspected of having pancreatitis, change over to a low-fat diet, and decrease body weight if they are overweight. Avoid giving too many treats, especially with any treats containing fats. Absolutely avoid ANY fatty human foods such as meat, cheeses, etc.

Once your pet has had pancreatitis, they are more likely to have it again. And every time your pet has pancreatitis, their ability to recover each time diminishes. Preventive measures and following your veterinarian’s treatment plan are crucial for their health. Pancreatitis can be fatal.

How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Cats

While it isn’t possible to prevent all causes of pancreatitis, it is very easy to prevent some of them.

overweight white and orange cat sitting on patio canvaStrictly Monitor and Control Your Cat's Diet

The first significant benefit of this is the prevention of obesity — always measure out your cat's food and treats for the day. Be sure that your cat's diet matches their lifestyle and life stage, such as feeding a senior formula versus an adult formula. Your veterinarian can help recommend the best diet for your cat since they know your cat and their health history.

Do not feed a high-fat diet or add fat to the diet. Avoid giving human foods. While some foods such as plain cooked scrambled eggs and green beans are considered cat-safe, others like grapes and raisins are toxic. Grapes and raisins can cause kidney damage, and damage to the kidneys is a risk factor for pancreatitis.

Besides their potential high fat content, human food can be high in salt or contain ingredients that are toxic to your pet. For instance, many seasonings added to meats contains onions or garlic, which are toxic for animals. Remember — toxins are on the list as a risk factor. Some food products, such as peanut butter with its sticky nature, can cause cats to choke. But in addition to this, some peanut butter contains xylitol. While cats do not appear to be as seriously affected by this toxin as dogs, its effects on them can still be deadly. It can cause a sudden release of insulin which can induce hypoglycemia in cats. Even if they survive the exposure, they are often left with liver damage. Always confirm with your veterinarian if a particular food is safe or not to give to your cat.

Keto Diets and Cats

Cats are obligate carnivores. Which means they need meat (protein) as their primary source of nutrients and energy. This is one reason cats do better on canned food verses dry food because dry food has a lot of carbohydrates. Trying to convert cats to a ketogenic diet can be dangerous due to the fact that fat is the primary energy source. High fat diets can have several negative effects on your cat’s body.

Remember, cats are not people. Just because humans may do well on the keto diet and "good fat bombs," such as coconut oil, MCT oil, and grass-fed butter, which can be beneficial to people — that situation does not apply to cats. While your kitty can have relatively small amounts of coconut oil in order to gain the benefits of MCT (medium-chain triglycerides), it isn't really recommended. The reason for this is two-fold:

  • You may give them too much by accident, which can aggravate the pancreas.
  • Coconut oil has long-chain triglycerides and the amount of MCT is very variable from brand to brand.

The MCT contained in cat-specific diets are enhanced with botanical oils and are designed to provide your pet with all the benefits of MCT without the dangers.

A small dash of extra-virgin cold-pressed oils, such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, and flaxseed oil is safe. But DO NOT give these things to breeds predisposed to high fat levels in their blood, such as a Siamese cat, cats who are overweight or obese, or cats with a history of pancreatitis.

Even if you have periodically or even regularly given human foods and your cat seemed fine, pancreatitis can happen at any time.

cat eating wet food out of a green dishIf your pet has a history of pancreatitis, be sure to let your veterinarian know, as this may determine what medications or treatments they prescribe for any future health issues.

I cannot emphasize it enough that pancreatitis is a very serious disease with the risk of serious complications. Prompt and aggressive treatment is needed for the best outcome. Preventing obesity for your cat's entire life and avoiding inappropriate human foods (especially fatty foods) can be a key factor in avoiding this disease. You never know when your cat has suffered from this disease in silence, so always take precautions to avoid factors that can anger their pancreas.

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