The pancreas is an organ near the stomach with two main jobs:
- Releases digestive enzymes which help to break down food
- Releases hormones such as insulin which regulates blood sugar
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas.
An acute episode of pancreatitis is when digestive enzymes leak out from the pancreas too early. They will digest the actual organs, including the liver, gall bladder, and intestines. Some cats that recover from an acute pancreatitis episode will always have recurrences of the disease.
Pancreatitis can be life-threatening and cause major health issues, including brain damage, abnormal bleeding, blood clots, and respiratory failure.
Typically, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown. However, it may be triggered by:
- Fatty meal
- Corticosteroid use
Some other causes may include:
- Hormonal imbalances: for example, hypothyroidism
- Trauma to the pancreas: for example, a car accident, surgery, falling from a great height
- Infections: parasites, viruses
- Medications: certain drugs
- Appetite loss
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration
- Abdominal pain
- Difficulty breathing
During a pancreatic attack, your cat may have its rear end up in the air and its front legs and head on the floor. In a severe attack, they may be in shock and even cause death.
To diagnose your cat with pancreatitis, your veterinarian may perform the following:
- Blood tests: may show elevated white blood cells and pancreatic enzyme levels
- Abdominal ultrasound: may show an inflamed pancreas, surrounded by fluid
- Tissue biopsy
Pancreatitis is hard to diagnose, as some tests will not be completely accurate. Therefore, sometimes your veterinarian will diagnose pancreatitis just based on signs and medical history. In some cases, surgical exploration is needed.
Immediate, aggressive treatment is needed to fight pancreatitis. The pancreas has to heal itself. All food and drinks must be restricted right away. The pancreas will then stop secreting its digestive enzymes.
- Intravenous fluids: to counteract a shock and to prevent dehydration
- Medication: to control pain, nausea, and vomiting
- Antibiotics: to treat any infections
- Plasma transfusion: to replace the clotting and blood that deactivate pancreatic enzymes
- Feeding tube: for nutrition support
- Surgery: to remove obstructions in the bile duct
Once food has been re-introduced, a low-fat diet may be prescribed because there is potential for relapses.
Avoid giving table scraps and control your cat's weight.
The prognosis depends on how severe the disease is:
- Acute: cats that have an acute, single episode of uncomplicated pancreatitis may recover and live a normal life
- Mild: cats with mild pancreatitis generally do well with appropriate medical attention
- Severe: cats severely affected must receive long and intense hospitalization, and the prognosis is poor
Chronic cases of pancreatitis may come and go for years and require permanent diet change and chronic medication administration.
Most cats who recover will not have any long-term effects. But with severe or chronic pancreatitis, your veterinarian will monitor them for the following:
- Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI): this may occur if many cells that produce digestive enzymes are destroyed; food won't be digested properly. Treatment will be daily enzyme supplements
- Diabetes: this may occur if many cells that produce insulin are destroyed. Treatment will be daily insulin shots
- Hepatic Lipidosis / Fatty Liver Syndrome: this is a common outcome of pancreatitis, and cats that do not eat
- Painful adhesions of the abdominal organs: this is rare
Cats with a mild case of pancreatitis can quickly recover and, many times will not have a relapse for many years. Usually, pet insurance companies will pay for a condition again if it has been longer than a year between diagnoses. For cats with chronic pancreatitis will need lifelong treatment and reoccurring hospital visits. Most insurance companies will not pay for these visits and will see this as a pre-existing condition.
Medically Reviewed by Sara Redding Ochoa, DVM