At a glance
About: Pancreatitis is inflammation in the pancreas, a long, flat gland that sits tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen.
Causes: There are many causes including infection, obesity, high fat diet, trauma.
Symptoms: Fever, abdominal pain, hunched over appearance, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, yellow gums.
Treatment: Address the underlying cause as well as supportive care including pain relief, anti-nausea medication, fluids and nutritional support.
Pancreatitis is an extremely painful inflammation of the pancreas due to the inappropriate activation of digestive enzymes which begin to break down and digest the pancreas. Usually, the pancreas protects itself from the digestive enzymes it manufacturers, stores and secretes by secreting them inactivated (zymogens) and activation shouldn’t occur until the enzymes reach the duodenum.
Pancreatitis may be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (persistent). Acute pancreatitis is usually more severe than chronic. Pain can range from mild to severe.
Over time, repeated bouts of pancreatitis can result in scarring of the pancreas, which makes it less efficient and can cause complications. The highest incidence is in middle-aged to senior cats; however, it can occur in young cats and even kittens. Middle-aged to older cats are most often affected by pancreatitis, although it can occur in younger cats and even kittens.
What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is a pale pink, lobulated organ located near the liver and behind the stomach. The pancreas performs both exocrine (secretes enzymes via a duct) and endocrine (secretes hormones directly into the bloodstream) functions.
Endocrine function: Small clusters of cells called Islets of Langerhans are responsible for the production of the hormones insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood sugar.
Exocrine function: Pancreatic juice, a digestive enzyme-rich in sodium bicarbonate which helps break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates. The pancreas secretes pancreatic juice which is collected in the pancreatic duct where it joins with the bile duct from the liver before entering the duodenum.
Most cases (around 90%) of pancreatitis cannot be determined (idiopathic).
- Hyperlipidemia – High-fat content in the blood
- Hypercalcemia (high calcium content in the blood)
- Pancreatic duct blockage
- High-fat diet
- Hepatic lipidosis
- Trauma (car accident, fall from a height, abdominal surgery) – Damage to the pancreas may result in enzymes leaking out
Presenting symptoms are often vague, anorexia (loss of appetite) and lethargy are the two most common symptoms of pancreatitis. Other symptoms include:
- Loss of interest in their surroundings
- Hypothermia (low body temperature)
- Fever or hypothermia (low body temperature)
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea (lip-smacking, drooling, loss of appetite)
- Vomiting is commonly seen in dogs and humans, only around 35% of cats vomit
- Diarrhea, which may contain blood
- Jaundice (yellowing of the mucous membranes)
- Pleural effusion which can result in difficulty breathing
- Weight loss
- Hunched over
Some acute cases of pancreatitis may also result in shock and disseminated intravascular coagulation, a condition in which small blood clots develop throughout the bloodstream. Over time, as the pancreas becomes damaged, weight loss occurs, which is due to the pancreas no longer functioning as it should, digesting food. As a result, food passes through the digestive tract relatively undigested, leading to pale coloured, loose, foul-smelling feces and weight loss.
Pancreatitis may run concurrently with other diseases such as cholangitis/cholangiohepatitis, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), and inflammatory bowel disease. Pancreatitis, cholangiohepatitis and inflammatory bowel disease which run concurrently are collectively known as ‘feline triad disease‘. Complications of pancreatitis due to the destruction of pancreatic cells can include transient or permanent diabetes and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
Due to the vague symptoms, which are similar to a host of other disorders, diagnosis can be a challenge, and many cases of pancreatitis go undiagnosed as a result of these non-specific symptoms. Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history.
- Biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis – May be non-specific. Pancreatic enzymes are often normal. Mild elevations of hepatic enzymes ALT can occur. Elevated white blood cells are an indication of inflammation or infection. Mild anemia may be present. The damaged pancreas may affect insulin production, resulting in elevated glucose levels.
- fTLI (feline Trypsin-Like Immunoreactivity) – This test measures the concentrations of trypsin-like proteins in serum. Elevated levels may be indicative of pancreatitis.
- TAP (trypsin activation peptide).
- fPLI (feline Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity) – This test measures feline pancreatic-specific lipase (an enzyme secreted by the pancreas which breaks down fat) immunoreactivity in serum. Normal levels are 2.0-6.8ug/dL, in cats with mild or resolving pancreatitis, levels may be 6.8-12ug/dL and cats with pancreatitis, over 12ug/dL.
- Ultrasound – The gold standard diagnostic, may reveal an enlarged and thickened pancreas with dilated pancreatic ducts.
- Laparotomy – Surgical incisions are made in the abdomen to allow your veterinarian to examine the organs. In this case, the pancreas.
- Biopsy of the pancreas, liver or intestines may be of additional help.
If at all possible, find and treat the underlying cause. Supportive and symptomatic treatment is how veterinarians manage pancreatitis in cats. This may include:
- Analgesics (painkillers) such as morphine or transdermal fentanyl patch for abdominal pain.
- Antiemetics (anti-nausea medication) – To treat nausea and vomiting.
- Nutritional support – This treatment essential, this may be via nasogastric, nasoesophageal or jejunostomy tube if the cat is unwilling to eat. A bland diet such as Hills i/d.
- Fluid therapy to correct hydration deficits and electrolyte imbalances.
Optional treatment (depending on the cause and symptoms)
- Antibiotics – To treat bacterial infection.
- Surgery – To remove necrotic pancreatic tissue.
- Blood transfusion – This may be plasma or whole blood.
The prognosis depends on the severity of the disease, and if hepatic lipidosis or pancreatic necrosis have occurred along with complications (such as DIC) and concurrent illness.
Long term care
Cats who have had pancreatitis are at increased risk of a flare up, to reduce this feed a low-fat, highly digestible diet.