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Pancreatitis: Is Your Cat Suffering from This Often Silent but Deadly Disease?

Lethargic pet catThe job of the pancreas is to produce digestive enzymes and secrete hormones used in the metabolic process, such as insulin and glucagon.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. When a cat’s pancreas becomes inflamed, it allows digestive enzymes to escape, causing damage to both the pancreas and the nearby liver.

According to

“Feline pancreatitis may be acute or chronic and can vary from mild to severe. Cats affected by pancreatitis often are simply not "acting themselves", although more symptoms such as vomiting and abdominal pain may be seen in some cats. Potential complications (diabetes, hepatic lipidosis, DIC, etc) can occur with feline pancreatitis and may make the disease even more life-threatening.”

Dr. Becker's Comments:

Pancreatitis in cats seems to be on the rise based on the increasing number of diagnoses, but I'm not convinced the disease is actually more prevalent in today's kitties.

I think what is happening is the veterinary community is becoming more aware of the condition through improved diagnostic techniques.

Depending on the study, estimates are between 40 percent and almost 70 percent of cats show signs of pancreatitis at autopsy. Not all of these cats die of a problem with the pancreas, but also from other disease processes. This indicates the pancreas is vulnerable to injury and damage secondary to other diseases.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

Dogs typically show overt signs of illness when they suffer from pancreatitis -- usually vomiting and abdominal pain.

Symptoms in kitties are typically milder and even easy to miss initially.

The most common signs are lethargy and lack of appetite. Since cats sleep a lot anyway and many are finicky eaters, signs of a sick pancreas can be mistaken for normal feline behavior.

Some cats do show signs of a tender abdomen, vomiting and even a fever, but they tend to be the exception and not the rule.

Causes of the Disease

There is much debate about what triggers pancreatitis.

The consensus among traditional veterinarians is there is no established cause in the vast majority of cases.

In a small percentage of pets, the disease has been traced to trauma to the pancreas, a viral or parasitic infection, or exposure to a toxin like organophosphates, typically found in pesticides.

Certain medications are also known to trigger episodes of pancreatitis, including:

Processed Pet Food and Pancreatitis

In my experience, the majority of cats with pancreatic illness first develop inflammation in their GI tract. This condition goes by many names including enteritis, gastritis, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

The underlying reason for the vast majority of GI tract inflammation in pets is food allergies.

Most commercial cat foods contain allergenic ingredients that your kitty's GI tract objects to over time. And if you're feeding him the same food day after day, year in and year out, he's probably developed an allergy to the protein source in the food as well.

Since one of the jobs of the pancreas is to aid digestion, when your pet's GI tract becomes inflamed and starts to falter, the pancreas can become stressed from working too hard to produce a sufficient amount of digestive enzymes for use by the intestines.

Another problem with processed pet food is it's devoid of natural enzymes. Biologically appropriate food – the kind your kitty would find if he lived in the wild -- supplements the enzymes produced by your pet's body, which reduces pancreatic stress.

But when your cat is fed nothing but processed food, over time her pancreas can develop chronic inflammation and stress from the work of over producing the enzymes required to digest her meals.

Another job the pancreas performs is to secrete insulin. The carbohydrate-dense ingredients in most commercial pet foods require high levels of insulin to process. This is also extremely taxing to the pancreas.

When your cat's pancreas is over worked and can no longer do its job well, pancreatitis is the result.

Diagnosing the Condition

Since overt symptoms of pancreatitis in cats can be hard to detect and are associated with a number of other kitty diseases, your veterinarian will have to run tests to make a conclusive diagnosis.

A typical battery of tests might include some or all of the following:

  • Taking a history of your pet's health and current symptoms
  • Physical examination of your cat
  • Complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel, including evaluating the levels of amylase and lipase (pancreatic enzymes) in the blood
  • Urinalysis
  • X-rays and/or ultrasound
  • Biopsy

However, the best and most accurate test for pancreatitis in kitties, and the one I recommend and use in my practice, is the pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) test.

The test was originally developed at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University. The developers called it fPLI (feline PLI).

IDEXX Laboratories bought the technology from Texas A&M, and it is now known as the Spec fPL® Test (feline pancreas-specific lipase).

Unfortunately, the only labs running the test at this writing are at IDEXX and Texas A&M. If your vet isn't familiar with the test or these labs, my advice is to bring the information with you to an appointment. If you'd like, you can even print out a brochure to give to your vet.

The Spec fPL is not only the best way to determine if your kitty has pancreatitis, but after treatment, it can also reassure you and your vet that your pet is truly cured of the disease and isn't still dealing with it subclinically (undetected).

What to Do if Your Kitty Has Pancreatitis

The first order of business is to get your kitty through the crisis phase of the pancreatitis, so seek medical attention if you haven't already, and especially if your cat is having obvious symptoms like vomiting, sluggishness, loss of appetite or fever.

As always, I recommend you seek the assistance of an integrative or holistic vet to help manage your pet's condition back to good health.

When your cat's pancreatic situation is stabilized, one of the best things you can do to reduce the risk of another flare up is to supplement his diet with digestive enzymes.

If your carnivorous feline lived on his own outdoors, he would catch and consume prey, including organs and tissues which are rich sources of natural digestive enzymes.

However, when it comes to companion animals – even those fed species-appropriate, raw food diets – there's no safe way to provide the same level of naturally occurring enzymes.

Any domesticated pet can therefore be enzyme deficient.

In order to reduce the workload of your cat's pancreas and reduce organ stress, you need to provide him a constant supply of enough digestive enzymes to process the food he consumes. You can either feed him pancreatic tissue, an option that is quite unappealing to most pet owners, or you can add a digestive enzyme supplement to his meals.

I also recommend you give him a high quality probiotic and transition him to a carb and grain free novel protein diet to reduce the risk of future episodes of pancreatitis.

Unfortunately, pancreatitis often recurs. It's a serious disease that can result in complications like diabetes, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), bleeding and clotting disorders, and even brain damage.

That's why it's important to work with a holistic vet to give your kitty all the support the two of you can muster to keep him well.

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