Pancreatitis in cats surprisingly common
Integrative Pet Vet
Studies indicate that feline pancreatitis is surprisingly common, with 67 percent of cats having microscopic changes in the pancreas that indicate inflammation. It is the most common problem affecting the enzyme-producing part of the pancreas. Interestingly, 45 percent of cats that appeared healthy had microscopic changes consistent with pancreatitis.
The pancreas, a gland found in the abdomen, is associated with the first part of the small intestine, weights about 6-8 ounces, and is vital for digestion and glucose regulation. One part of the pancreas produces hormones such as insulin, which is critical for controlling blood glucose and preventing diabetes mellitus. The other part of the pancreas is responsible for producing digestive enzymes. These digestive enzymes break down the ingested food so nutrients can be absorbed from the intestine.
To protect the pancreas from digesting itself, the digestive enzymes are in an inactive form while in the pancreas. Once secreted into the intestine, the enzymes are activated so they can begin digestion of the food. Premature enzyme activation in the pancreas is often the initiating event for an episode of pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis can be acute (sudden onset), recurrent acute (repeat acute episodes) and/or chronic. Acute episodes are often more severe than the chronic problem. Unfortunately, signs of pancreatitis in cats are not very specific. The majority of cats with pancreatitis are lethargic, not eating, and are dehydrated. Vomiting is seen in less than half of the affected cats. Pain and diarrhea are not prominent in cats. Since loss of appetite and lethargy are common with many cat diseases, these signs do not automatically point to pancreatitis.
While the causes of acute pancreatitis are not fully understood, a number of issues may contribute to development of pancreatitis. These include bile tract disease, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatic duct blockage, certain drugs, ingestion of toxins or insecticides, infections like toxoplasmosis or feline infectious peritonitis, and trauma. These conditions can also contribute to chronic pancreatitis. Intermittent episodes of pancreatitis can occur over time gradually leading to scar tissue in the pancreas. Scar tissue reduces the ability of the pancreas to function properly.
Since the list of diseases that can look like pancreatitis is long and we have lacked a specific test for pancreatitis, effective evaluation of the ill cat has often required extensive testing to rule out the other diseases. Typical evaluations have included a complete blood count, chemistry profile (includes testing for liver, kidneys, and glucose), X-rays and ultrasound. Biopsy of the pancreas is considered the most informative, but because surgery is required in an ill cat, biopsy is not frequently used. Fortunately, newer tests specific for cats have become available, making it easier to diagnose pancreatic problems.
Therapy for pancreatitis is based on severity. Supportive care like IV fluids, use of medications to prevent vomiting and antibiotics are often indicated for acute pancreatitis. Even though pain is not a common observation with cats with pancreatitis, there does seem to be improvement when pain management is initiated. Some cats with acute pancreatitis develop a transient diabetes mellitus that may need to be treated short term with insulin. Whenever possible, contributing problems like inflammatory bowel disease and bile duct disease should be treated. It is important to keep cats eating whenever possible to avoid a problem with fatty liver. For cats with chronic pancreatitis, management of the contributing factors is important.
Integrative support care includes the use of nutritional supplements and herbs to manage inflammatory bowel disease and bile duct inflammation, if present. Since pancreatitis can contribute to liver dysfunction, liver support can be important. Beneficial herbs for the liver and intestines include milk thistle, boswellia and slippery elm. Glutamine is important for the cells lining the small intestine. Vitamin B12 is often deficient and should be considered as a component of supportive care. Probiotic therapy can be beneficial for improved intestinal health and immune function, especially if there is ongoing antibiotic therapy. Acupuncture can be used to improve comfort and function. Avoid foods to which the cat may be sensitive or may contribute to inflammation in the intestine. Easily digestible foods may be beneficial along with the addition of digestive enzymes.
If you suspect your cat has pancreatitis or you have questions, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates. He has a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology, and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He is on the State Board of Veterinary Medicine and practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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