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Acute Pancreatitis in Cats

Reviewed by Bill Saxon DVM, DACVIM, DACVECC on Tuesday, April 22, 2014
Posted October 21, 2011 in Cat Diseases & Conditions A-Z

Cat on floor

The pancreas has many functions, including the production and secretion of digestive enzymes and the production of insulin. Digestive enzymes are critical for food digestion, while insulin aids in the control of the metabolism and blood-sugar levels.

Pancreatitis means “inflammation” of the pancreas and acute means “sudden.” When the pancreas becomes inflamed, digestive enzymes that are normally inactive until they reach the small intestine become activated in the pancreas instead—resulting in pain and swelling as the pancreas actually begins to digest itself.

The recent use of specific tests for cats with suspected pancreatitis has helped the veterinary community understand that pancreatitis is a common disease in cats—much more widespread than once thought. It often is secondary to or accompanied by other disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, or liver disease.

Other causes of pancreatitis include infection, injury to the abdomen, ingestion of medications, and insecticides to control fleas and ticks, such as organophosphates. Pancreatitis can occur in any cat, but some breeds are more susceptible to the disease than others, including the Siamese. Additionally, pancreatitis is more common in middle-aged and older cats.

Cats instinctually hide the fact that they are sick, and cats with pancreatitis are no exception. Typically, they have vague signs, especially as compared to dogs, so it is not obvious they are sick.

If your cat has pancreatitis, you might observe the following:

  • Lethargy (common)
  • Dehydration (common)
  • Decrease in appetite (common)
  • Weight loss (common)
  • Vomiting (less common)
  • Diarrhea (less common) 
  • Abdominal pain (difficult to assess, assume present)
  • Signs of fever (less common)

Your veterinarian will take a complete history and perform a thorough physical exam of your pet. Additionally, she or he may recommend blood tests that will help to identify if your cat has acute pancreatitis. These may include:

  • Chemistry tests to evaluate kidney, liver, and pancreatic disease and dysfunction, as well as sugar levels
  • A complete blood count to evaluate for infection, inflammation, anemia, or other blood-related conditions
  • Electrolyte tests to ensure your cat is not dehydrated or suffering from an electrolyte imbalance
  • Pancreas-specific tests to help confirm or rule out the disease
  • X-rays of the abdomen to survey organ size, shape, and positioning; also, to help detect foreign material and masses
  • Abdominal ultrasound to image the pancreas and other major abdominal organs, and detect masses and other abnormalities such as free fluid, abnormal
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