Feline Pancreatitis: A frustrating disease – for both cats and their guardians

Pancreatitis is defined as

“An inflammation of the pancreas, which often primarily affects the exocrine or digestive enzymes. It can be acute or chronic, with the chronic form being more common in cats.”

Feline pancreatitis - an example
Photo credit: Jo Singer
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

The pancreas is a small organ located between the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. It is part of the endocrine and digestive system which is necessary for food digestion. The organ produces digestive enzymes and also produces insulin.

But when the pancreas becomes inflamed the flow of the enzymes that go into the digestive tract become disrupted. This forces the enzymes out of the pancreas into the abdominal area, which can cause cats discomfort and in some cases, inordinate pain.

Pancreatitis is often difficult to diagnose and can be resistant to treatment. Veterinarians are usually unsure of its underlying cause. This said drug reactions, trauma, parasites or infection may be some of its causes.

Interestingly over 90 percent of pancreatitis in cats have no identifiable cause. Some veterinarians feel that Siamese cats may carry a genetic predisposition; while the opinion of other veterinarians is that pancreatitis is not breed specific. If the disease this idiopathic (unknown cause) it hints at underlying, ongoing reasons such as diet or environment. These are hidden, ongoing, possible causes. The quality of modern feline nutrition is, it seems, not discussed enough as a possible cause (but see below). For example, the pancreas is not adapted to deal with a high carbohydrate foods (kibble).

Lethargy, below normal temperature, anorexia, poor appetite and dehydration may be some of the initial signs of pancreatitis. Some cats may have a fever and a tender abdomen. Although vomiting in cats is considered rare, it can be symptomatic of pancreatitis.

I am not a veterinarian. I certainly am not an expert in handling this highly complicated condition. What I can tell you in all certainty is that my hair turned a lot greyer when Sir Hubble Pinkerton, our 14 year- old white Oriental Shorthair was first diagnosed with feline pancreatitis.

It’s been nearly a year since that unforgettable Sunday afternoon when Sir Hubble Pinkerton was rushed to the veterinary clinic following a troubling hour of non-stop projectile vomiting. This very unhappy kitty was sitting on the floor all hunched over, looking miserable and obviously in a great deal of pain.

After we arrived at the clinic Sir Hubble was thoroughly examined. X-rays and blood tests were taken. Based on the results, our very smart, feline savvy veterinarian, Dr. Erin Holder, diagnosed Sir Hubble with an acute attack of feline pancreatitis.

He was immediately admitted to the hospital and given medication to alleviate his pain and I.V. fluids to hydrate him along with other supportive critical care. He was hospitalized for several days until he was sufficiently stabilized to come home. Thankfully he recovered without incident, but since pancreatitis can also be chronic, this launched us upon the nerve-wracking journey into the world of feline pancreatitis.

Out of the blue last weekend, Sir Hubble suddenly started showing symptoms of a possible pancreatitis attack. He was vomiting profusely and showing signs of having a painful belly. Following a quick phone call with Dr. Holder, we rushed him back to the hospital where his condition was thoroughly evaluated. Treatment began immediately and fortunately he responded well and was able to come home the following day. We left the clinic armed with medications and a long list of home-care instructions.

What caused this relapse? The jury is still out. Sir Hubble hasn’t eaten dry food in many years. But it is possible that when Sir Hubble “stole” several bites of a new high quality grainless canned food I served to his brother Dr. Hush Puppy, that it may have been too rich. It might have even been caused by just two tiny pieces of a freeze-dried halibut treat. We will probably never know exactly what made him so violently sick; but he will never be fed any treats or novel brands of even the most nutritious cat foods again.

Although there are still veterinarians who continue to prescribe low fat, high carbohydrate diets which are appropriate for canines, according to Jane Robertson, DVM, DACIM, head of Internal Medicine, IDEXX Laboratories,

“High-fat foods are not implicated in causing pancreatitis in cats.”

Additionally, in an article on this disease posted on Know Better Pet Food,

“inflammation of the pancreas in cats is usually the result of poor nutrition in the form of dry cat food. A raw meat-based diet, high in proteins and low in carbs can be the solution.”

Pancreatitis can also be the precursor to diabetes. We are very lucky that Sir Hubble loves his nutritionally complete raw food diet. Since this food in on his menu for the rest of his life, we are crossing our fingers that he will not have another bout of this devastating illness.

Definition by WebMD.

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15 thoughts on “Feline Pancreatitis: A frustrating disease – for both cats and their guardians”

  1. Iniki,

    Your vet can run a test called fPL It is a simple blood test and it goes to IDEXX Labs in Texas. That is a first step. It is not invasive. Ask her to run it. That is how Hubble was diagnosed. It doesn’t always work but in some cases it does.

  2. I do not know a lot about pancreatitis in cats, however, I do know that it is a very painful condition to treat. I am so glad that Mr. Hubble is feeling better. Let’s hope with all the love, attention and detail to his condition, he will continue down the healing path to better health.

  3. We have a cat that has this condition or at least the vet thinks so. When life stresses hiim out, Sabu starts vomiting and cannot stop. A trip to the vet and a shot to slow the vomiting and medication to treat the problem seems to work magic for my little guy. We are not 100% sure that it is pancreatitis. The vet told me she wanted to do testing that would include a biopsy. I refused. To me that is way to invasive. Thanks for the great article.

  4. Thanks jmuhj.

    He is slowly recovering. We had to take him off raw for now at our vet’s suggestion and giving him other moist grainless cat food at this time just until he fully recovers. He had a reaction to the raw that my vet was not happy about. This upset my vet because she does want him on a raw diet. We may change the brand of raw we are feeding, since the bone content in that food may be causing an issue with him. But he does love eating some boiled chicken (skin removed) too!

      1. Michael,

        In Sir Hubble’s case my vet suspects that it may be food related- but she is not sure of that. She is looking into other possible causes that may have caused the first attack about a year ago. I should know more about what she is thinking early next week.

        But she is relatively certain that the new food that he stole from his brother triggered the attack since it was very rich- containing ingredients to which he may have been sensitive such as fresh ocean fish- which was the only ingredient in the new fresh frozen halibut treat I gave him- and only two small pieces. That may have been the culprit.

        1. That in interesting because it is a specific type of food. Very precise. I just wonder if there is a background problem with some aspects of cat food which is the cause this disease but no one has got to the bottom of it.

  5. Dee you are so right about seeking expert feline savvy veterinary diagnosis, treatment and medical/dietary advice.

    For anyone that has a cat with pancreatitis, there is a top notch support group on Facebook that I highly recommend. They have helped me SO very much with all my questions and given me wonderful suggestions.

    1. Please let me have the FB support group for cat pancreatitis. I have a 18 yr old Siamese cat who suddenly got this and it has become chronic and iy is killing me too…

  6. An excellent article, Jo. Very informative and easy to follow.
    Pancreatitis is one of those conditions, like diabetes, CKD, and cancer, that strikes fear in the hearts of caretakers. These are 4 conditions that I never want to mess around with on my own or google for any advice anywhere. I want my vet to cling to.
    I don’t have a problem going it alone with home treatments for hairballs or treating a mild URI; but, pancreatitis is so complex and dangerous that I would never risk my cat’s life by relying on the advice of anyone but a qualified vet.
    I like the idea of support groups for serious feline illnesses too as long as the mission is support and not amateur medical advice.
    I’m sorry that Sir Hubble had another attack and hope that he is doing well now. I’ll bet you practically flew to Dr. Holder. I would have too.
    Thank you, again, for a great article.

  7. Poor Sir Hubble! and poor you! As pancreatitis is idiopathic, and as you are extremely careful what you feed your beloveds, I can only send *PRAYERS* and thoughts/wishes of wellbeing for him. Thank you for sharing your harrowing account with us. Sir Hubble, get well soon, please! >^^<

  8. Thanks for this Jo. What concerns most about this disease is that the cause is hardly every ascertained. Surely it is time that we know what causes it. If it is environmental we can then take steps to remove the cause(s) unless it is cat food which big business will not fix because it will hurt profits.

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