The feline pancreas is a slender, pink, v-shaped strip of tissue tucked snugly within the right-hand side of your cat’s abdomen, at a junction between the stomach and the duodenum—the beginning portion of the animal’s intestinal tract. It’s a relatively small organ, typically weighing a half-pound or so. Despite the organ’s modest size, a cat’s good health depends on its proper functioning—and a significant loss of pancreatic function would likely be fatal.
Such a sad occurrence can be the outcome of pancreatitis, inflammation resulting from a disturbance of the organ’s exocrine function, the major activity of which is to produce and secrete a potent liquid rich in chemicals (enzymes) that eventually pass out of the pancreas and into the small intestine to assist in the digestion of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
Pancreatitis occurs, explains Richard Goldstein, DVM, an associate professor of small animal medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, when those harsh digestive enzymes remain inside the pancreas. “The enzymes begin feeding on the pancreatic tissue itself,” he says, “since it is also made of fat, protein, and carbohydrate.” (Normally, notes Dr. Goldstein, the digestive enzymes are sequestered in tiny droplets that prevent their coming into direct contact with pancreatic tissue.)
Fortunately, feline pancreatitis is rare: studies have indicated that it occurs in less than two percent of the general cat population. Its causes remain unknown, although a wide variety of possible factors have been associated with onset of the disease, such as physical trauma, excessive dietary fat, ingestion of insecticides, adverse drug reactions, inflammatory bowel disease, and parasitic infection.
The most common clinical signs of feline pancreatitis include lethargy, anorexia, dehydration, a noticeable abdominal mass, and low body temperature. Cats with suspected pancreatitis seem to have high levels of abdominal fluid, says Dr. Goldstein, and they tend to have a yellowish tinge to their skin, gums, the whites of their eyes, and the tissue inside their mouths. To be on the safe side, he advises, owners should seek veterinary counsel if a cat with a typically healthy appetite suddenly refuses to eat—even for just a day.
The standard diagnostic procedure, says Dr. Goldstein, will certainly include a medical history of the ailing animal, a thorough physical examination, and routine bloodwork. X-rays may sometimes rule out disorders other than pancreatitis. And ultrasound can be useful in revealing whether the organ is enlarged or misshapen.
A relatively reliable diagnostic indicator for the disorder is the feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactive (fPLI) test, developed at Texas A&M, which will accurately measure the amount of the digestive enzyme lipase that is present in an affected cat’s pancreas. (In pancreatitis, the level of lipase in the organ rises significantly.) Unfortunately, this test can be run in only a few laboratories in the U.S., and results may not be available quickly enough to help a seriously afflicted cat.
At present, the only achievable and fully reliable diagnosis of pancreatitis can be made through a biopsy of the patient’s pancreatic tissue. And even this procedure has its drawbacks for a cat that is critically ill; surgical removal of pancreatic tissue, for example, could prompt further inflammation in the organ.
“So in a lot of cases,” Dr. Goldstein says, “you have to just make the assumption of pancreatitis based on the physical exam, bloodwork, and ultrasound—and then you begin treatment.” And although relief may certainly be pursued through dietary and nutritional therapy, he notes, “There is no uniformly effective treatment for feline pancreatitis.” Dehydration will be addressed with fluid therapy, and cats who are experiencing pain will be treated with pain relievers.
In any case, the patient will have to be hospitalized for several days at least, while treatment—such as it is—proceeds and the animal’s spirits gradually pick up and it resumes its normal eating habits. “We can’t withhold food,” says Dr. Goldstein, “because if we do that, the cat is at risk of developing serious liver disease. So we will feed the cat through tubes leading directly into its stomach if necessary and hope for the best. The main goal is to make sure that the cat keeps getting its nutrition.”