If Your Cat’s Pancreas Starts Digesting Itself

Diagnosing — and treating — pancreatitis.


In dogs, a bout of pancreatitis often occurs around Thanksgiving or Christmas. People feed their pets fatty scraps from the holiday table, and it’s the consumption of too much fat that generally sets off the disease in that species. In cats, the triggers of pancreatitis — inflammation of the pancreas that can make a a feline dangerously ill — are less clear.

While some research has suggested that too much fat in the diet can lead to the condition, fatty foods haven’t been nailed down as a cause in cats. Other possibilities that have been explored but not proven: accidental ingestion of toxins, physical trauma such as falling from a great height, infections, and adverse drug reactions. Whatever the cause, it has to be treated. Pancreatitis in a cat will not heal without supportive therapy.

Signs that something is wrong

Normally, the pancreas helps digest food by secreting enzymes that pass through a duct and then break down fat, protein, and carbohydrate in the small intestine. But in some cases those enzymes are activated too soon and start digesting the pancreas itself. That’s what causes the inflammation of that organ.

The most common clinical signs include lethargy, loss of appetite, dehydration, and low body temperature. Listless behavior and not eating are “the primary presentations,” says Tufts veterinary internal medicine specialist Michael Stone, DVM. The signs come on suddenly, with about a third of those cats affected by vomiting and some having tense abdomens that cause significant pain.

If you see this cluster of signs, get your cat to the doctor right away. Symptoms like listlessness, anorexia, and vomiting can be caused by any number of diseases, but even a brief period of not eating and loss of energy is a big red flag with feline health. A wait-and-see attitude is not the way to go if your cat shifts suddenly from feeling good to having those complications, Dr. Stone says.

At the vet’s office

The only way to diagnose pancreatitis definitively is via a biopsy — a type of surgery in which a piece of pancreatic tissue is taken and examined directly. But surgery may not be the best idea for a seriously ailing and debilitated cat. That’s why pancreatitis is usually a diagnosis of exclusion — ruling out other diseases. This approach might be accompanied by an ultrasound that indicates inflammation around the pancreas. (An x-ray won’t show it.) Blood work may be helpful, too. A cat with pancreatitis will have an elevated level of white blood cells — typical of infections. There may also be evidence of pancreatic enzymes in the blood.

Treatment plan

Once pancreatitis is diagnosed, expect that your cat may stay at the hospital for at least a couple of days. Treatment is not high-tech but involves supportive care that includes making sure the animal is getting enough fluid — perhaps intravenously — and also eating enough. Re-feeding occurs gradually, but sometimes a feeding tube is placed because the pet refuses to eat at all.

If the illness is severe enough, anti-inflammatory drugs may be administered along with antiemetics to curb nausea and vomiting. Analgesics may also be given to tamp down on pain.


In rare cases, an acute case of pancreatitis proves fatal. More often, a cat recovers from an episode of pancreatitis and suffers no aftereffects. Middle ground is also possible. A cat will recover from the initial bout of the disease but then experience attacks intermittently going forward. In such cases, pancreatic tissue scars a little more each time, making digestion of the cat’s regular diet trickier. The vet may prescribe potential tweaks to a pet’s meals to help her eat and allow her body to utilize her food comfortably.

Diabetes is another potential complication. The pancreas secretes the hormone insulin that is necessary for regulating blood sugar. If the pancreas is not working right, insulin secretion can become affected. But if you get right on it once you notice symptoms, your cat has the best chance of living healthfully with the least damage.


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