Feline fatty liver disease at a glance
What is fatty liver disease? Fatty liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) is a serious and life-threatening condition which occurs when cats (especially obese cats) go without food for several days. The body sends fat to the liver as an alternate source, which overwhelms its ability to function.
Causes: Fatty liver disease can be primary or secondary. Primary has no underlying cause and secondary can be due to diabetes, kidney disorders, enteritis, pyometra, pancreatitis, cardiomyopathy.
Symptoms: Loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, lethargy, drooling, unkempt coat, jaundice.
Treatment: Aggressive nutritional support with the placement of a feeding tube, correction of dehydration and electrolyte derangements, supportive care, and treat the underlying cause.
Also known as fatty liver disease, hepatic lipidosis is the most common cause of liver disease in cats in North America, and is associated with anorexia (loss of appetite). Starvation mode triggers the body to use fat (triglycerides) as fuel, which are sent to the liver to be processed into lipoproteins for energy. However, the cat’s liver is not very good at processing fat, and it begins to accumulate in the liver cells (hepatocytes), overwhelming it and interfering with its ability to perform many complex functions.
When the liver is unable to function as it should a cascade of derangements follow, which includes coagulopathies (bleeding disorders) and electrolyte imbalances.
There are two forms of hepatic lipidosis, primary or secondary;
- Primary hepatic lipidosis (idiopathic hepatic lipidosis) – No obvious medical cause. Middle-aged and obese cats are at the most significant risk. Stress is a major contributing factor to cats becoming anorexic.
- Secondary hepatic lipidosis – This form of hepatic lipidosis is due to underlying conditions such as diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, enteritis, pyometra, cholangiohepatitis, pancreatitis and kidney disease, which causes a loss of appetite. Non-medical causes include stress such as a new animal in the home, stay at a boarding facility, accidental confinement or a weight-restricted diet.
In the early stages, there may be no signs of hepatic lipidosis other than anorexia, which highlights the importance that cat owners are aware of their cat’s eating habits and seek medical advice urgently if your cat stops eating.
- Loss of appetite (anorexia) for seven days or longer
- Weight loss
- Muscle wasting
- Excess drooling (due to nausea)
- Jaundice (yellow colour of the skin and mucous membranes)
- Unkempt coat
The veterinarian will perform a physical examination of the cat and obtain a medical history from you, which will include the onset of symptoms. During evaluation, the veterinarian may feel the enlarged liver as well as icterus (jaundice), unkempt coat and dehydration.
- Biochemical profile – May reveal increased ALP enzyme levels, as well as elevated bilirubin (bilirubinemia), in addition, electrolyte derangements can include hypokalemia (low blood potassium) due to loss of appetite, hypochloremia (low blood chloride) from vomiting.
- Ultrasound or x-ray of the liver- Imaging of the liver, pancreas, stomach, gall bladder, small and large intestine. The ultrasound may reveal an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly) and can be useful to look for an underlying cause.
- Complete blood count – To look for destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis) and abnormal sized red blood cells (poikilocytosis) and non-regenerative anemia.
- Biopsy or fine needle aspirate – This will reveal liver cells that are swollen with lipid. A biopsy is not recommended for all cats as they are at increased risk of anesthesia and bleeding due to impaired liver function and should only be performed once coagulation factors and electrolyte abnormalities are corrected.
One hospital reported a survival rate of 85% if the cat survived the first 96 hours; the prognosis is poor for cats who don’t receive prompt treatment.
Treatment depends on the severity of disease and any underlying medical conditions. Aggressive nutritional support is necessary to save the cat and prognosis is poor until the cat is voluntarily eating on his own. It is also important to address the underlying problem which contributed to the cat’s loss of appetite.
Treatment occurs in two phases, stabilising the cat and long-term care.
Phase 1-Stabilising the cat (hospital care)
- Intensive nutritional support. Most frequently, this involves trickle (continual) a calorie-dense, high protein liquefied diet via a nasoesophegal (NE) tube, which will be placed on the day of admission.
- Anti-nausea (antiemetic) drugs (maropitant citrate) to control vomiting.
- Fluid and electrolyte therapy to maintain hydration and correct electrolyte derangements.
- Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat a possible underlying infection.
- Vitamin K to help promote normal blood clotting.
- Other supplements may include taurine and vitamin B-12, which can help stimulate the appetite.
Phase 2-Long term supportive care (at home)
- Most cats will go home with a feeding tube which will enable the owner to support the cat nutritionally until he can eat on his own. Warm food to body temperature before administration and clean the tube before and after every meal. During this time, offer the cat food to see if he will eat on his own. It can take around six weeks for the appetite to return to normal.
- Oral antibiotics for 2-4 weeks to support liver function.
Do not let obese cats who have recovered to gain additional weight. Weight loss will be necessary for cats who are still overweight, under the close supervision of your veterinarian.
Cats who have had hepatic lipidosis are at greater risk of developing it in the future, so owners need to be watchful for signs of anorexia.
- Be aware of your cat’s eating habits, and if you notice your cat eating less or nothing at all seek veterinary advice immediately.
- Never put your cat on a diet without close veterinary supervision.
- Try to prevent obesity in your cat, under close veterinary supervision.