For people who like to know the origins of words, pancreatitis is the technical term for inflammation of the pancreas, with the -itis part being scientific shorthand for “inflammation.”
Pancreatitis is one of those conditions that we as veterinarians have gotten better at diagnosing, thanks to improved and more accurate diagnostic tests. Before this, many vets treated Ain’t Doing Right (ADR) cats for what we now know to be pancreatitis, but couldn’t prove what was wrong at the time.
Fortunately, this didn’t affect how we treated those cases because the treatment remains the same — only now we can discuss with greater confidence what the future holds for each patient.
This is where the ADR part comes in.
Signs in the cat are vague and nonspecific such as poor appetite and being lethargic. Some cats will vomit, although this isn’t as common in cats as it is in dogs. As the days pass, the cat doesn’t eat or drink and becomes dehydrated.
Pancreatitis is one of those conditions with a full spectrum of outcomes, from a mild case that gets better after a couple of days to those that deteriorate rapidly and possibly causing death.
Unlike in dogs, researchers are not really sure why cats get pancreatitis. In dogs, factors such as high-fat diets and high blood cholesterol are strongly linked to this condition, but scientists are not so convinced this is the case with cats.
The pancreas produces insulin and digestive enzymes. In pancreatitis, the digestive juices are no longer safely locked away within the pancreas, but leak out and start to digest the surrounding tissue. This causes more inflammation, and a vicious circle whereby further damage is caused, which means more leakage.
Your vet may suspect pancreatitis from your cat’s history, and especially if his tummy is tender near the stomach.
A blood panel will rule out other conditions with similar signs and check the cat for dehydration. A specific blood test for pancreatitis is now available that gives a definitive answer.
If that test is positive, the vet may want to send the sample to the lab to confirm the seriousness of the pancreatitis. Your vet may also want to run an ultrasound scan on the cat’s abdomen to visualize the pancreas and rule out pancreatic cancer.
For the pancreas to heal and repair the leaks, it needs to rest. Eating stimulates the release of digestive enzymes — so withholding food is key to recovery.
However, these patients usually feel lousy and are not drinking, and so they need intravenous fluids while the pancreas rests. In addition, treatment such as pain relief, anti-nausea drugs and antibiotics may be required.
Mild cases may not even need hospitalization, and instead patients can recover at home on a light diet for a few days.
Much of the advice about prevention rides the coattails of what is known about dogs. A low-fat diet is an important way to help decrease flare-ups in the dog, and this advice tends to apply to cats as well. Whether this helps or not has not been proven, but it is unlikely to do harm.
- Clinical Medicine of the Dog and Cat. Schaer. Publisher: Manson Publishing.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Jan. 1, 2016.