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Pet Health

Introduction to Pancreatitis in Cats

The pancreas, though relatively small compared to other organs, plays critical roles in maintaining a cat's health.

Dr. Karen Whala

July 12, 2023

As a devoted pet parent, the health and well-being of your feline friend are of utmost importance. One health issue that is being more frequently recognized in cats is pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can lead to various complications if left untreated. Feline pancreatitis has gone under-diagnosed in the past. Part of this is likely owing to the stoic nature of our feline friends as well as to advancements in diagnostic testing. Let’s take a deeper dive into pancreatitis in cats, its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and steps toward prevention.

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis in cats, also known as feline or cat pancreatitis, refers to a condition where a cat's pancreas becomes inflamed. In this condition, digestive enzymes that the pancreas ordinarily produces get activated within the pancreas itself instead of in the small intestine where they are meant to function. This leads to irritation and further inflammation of the organ.

Pancreatitis, which can be acute, chronic or an acute flare-up on a chronic condition, may also cause the enzymes to travel to the cat's liver or intestines, causing further health complications like feline triaditis. When the pancreas becomes inflamed it releases it’s digestive enzymes which then cause inflammation to the pancreas itself as well as other tissues and organs in reach of the enzymes.

Brief Overview of the Feline Pancreas

The pancreas, though relatively small compared to other organs, plays critical roles in maintaining a cat's health. Situated under the cat's stomach and next to the beginning of the small intestine, this organ can be described as a dual-function gland. It consists of two main parts, the exocrine pancreas and the endocrine pancreas.

The exocrine pancreas is responsible for releasing digestive enzymes to break down food. Meanwhile, the endocrine pancreas produces vital hormones including insulin and glucagon, which play a key role in controlling the cat's blood sugar levels.

Importance of Pancreas in Cat's Health

The pancreas's role in both digestion and hormonal regulation underlines its importance in a cat's overall well-being. It manages nutrient absorption necessary for energy and growth and helps sustain stable blood sugar levels driving energy into the cells. These functions and more are why pancreatitis in cats, where the organ becomes inflamed and can't fulfill its key functions, can lead to severe health complications, or even prove to be life-threatening. Notably, if a cat suffers from severe pancreatitis, the premature activation of digestive enzymes can result in irreversible tissue damage, systemic disease, and multiple organ failure.

Prevalence of Pancreatitis in Cats

Once believed to be a rare condition, pancreatitis in cats is now more frequently diagnosed thanks to advancements in veterinary testing and diagnostics. The condition occurs in cats of all breeds and ages, and may range from mild to severe. There seems to be a general correlation with milder cases tending to fall into the more chronic category and severe cases occurring acutely. Notably, increased recognition of pancreatic diseases combined with improved diagnostic techniques have led to a better understanding of the prevalence and importance of pancreatitis in feline medicine.

Remember, if your feline friend shows signs of discomfort or illness, it's essential to schedule a visit with your vet. Pancreatitis in cats can be challenging to diagnose and treat, but early detection could improve your cat's prognosis and quality of life.

Causes of Cat Pancreatitis

Common Causes of Pancreatitis

Unfortunately, it is tricky to pinpoint the exact causes of pancreatitis in cats; in most cases (>95%), the primary cause remains unknown. However, there are several factors associated with the onset of this condition. Feline triaditis, a condition that links inflammation of three organ systems: the pancreas, liver, and intestines, is an example. In some cases, pancreatitis can also occur as a consequence of biliary tract disease or as a result of trauma such as may occur after a large fall. Abdominal surgery can create conditions which inflame the pancreas and some infectious diseases, such as Toxoplasmosis and Feline Distemper, are associated with pancreatitis.

Diabetes can be a contributing factor, and obese cats suffering from acute pancreatitis are at risk for developing life threatening hepatic lipidosis if they become anorexic. Other possible risk factors include exposure to certain toxins and perhaps medications known to cause pancreatitis in other animals, and cancer. An important point to remember is that pancreatitis can often be idiopathic, developing without any apparent reason, suggesting multiple potential triggers and a sophisticated interplay of various factors.

Relationship between Diet and Pancreatitis

The food that you nourish your cat with has a direct impact on their overall health. Diet plays an important role in decreasing the chances of feline pancreatitis. Although there is no definitive evidence linking specific diets to the onset of pancreatitis in cats, certain dietary factors may influence the disease's progression and prognosis.

In dogs, diets or sudden dietary indiscretions, that are high in fat content, have been linked to pancreatitis. However in cats, which are obligate carnivores, a high fat diet doesn’t seem to be as much of a factor as digestive inflammation. Cats who suffer from chronic pancreatitis can benefit from being placed on hypoallergenic diets. Whatever you feed your feline, it's important to ensure your cat is receiving a diet rich in high quality protein. Checking to see that meat, meat by products, or seafood are among the first few ingredients will assist in this goal.

How Certain Disorders Relate to Pancreatitis

It's essential to be aware that pancreatitis doesn't often occur in isolation. It's usually linked to other health conditions or comorbidities. What’s more, pancreatitis can be both a cause and an effect of other diseases. For example, cats suffering from diabetes mellitus are at higher risk for developing pancreatitis; at the same time, severe pancreatitis can cause diabetes mellitus when the insulin-producing cells are damaged. Other common comorbidities of pancreatitis in the cat are inflammatory bowel disease, Cobalamin (Vitamin B12) deficiency, biliary duct obstruction (cholestasis), and liver disease such as cholangiohepatitis and hepatic lipidosis.

Impact of Medications and Toxins

Several drugs and toxins can potentially cause pancreatitis in cats. Certain drugs like antibiotics, antifungals, and chemotherapy drugs have been associated with the onset of pancreatitis, either due to direct pancreatic damage or hypersensitivity reactions. If your cat is on any long-term medication, we recommend discussing periodic pancreatitis screening tests with your veterinarian.

Environmental factors can also play a role. Toxins can be easily overlooked, such as lily plants, organophosphate insecticides, and household cleaners. When ingested these can cause significant harm to the triad: pancreas, liver, intestines; potentially triggering pancreatitis.

The key takeaway is that, as a caring pet owner, managing your cat's health involves balancing a variety of factors – from diet and weight management to regular vet check-ups, careful medication use, and kitty mindfulness when crafting the environment in your home. (See below for a list of common household items that can be toxic to cats).

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Cats

Our feline companions are not able to verbally communicate their discomfort or pain. But, a pet owner's keen observation skills can help identify signs of distress or illness. In the case of pancreatitis, these symptoms* can vary quite widely and might sometimes be so subtle they seem insignificant. Yet, they can be crucial red flags in diagnosing the condition early and ensuring effective treatment.

*”Symptoms” refer to self-reported signs of illness that are apparent to the patient. In veterinary medicine we refer to “signs” of illness rather than symptoms. However, for the purpose of this discussion we use the two terms interchangeably.

Identifying Physical Symptoms

When it comes to pancreatitis in cats, several physical symptoms might signal that your cat is suffering. Frustratingly, these symptoms are non-specific and may indicate other conditions; however, they are guideposts that tell us a problem exists and feline pancreatitis is one of the potential causes.

The majority of cats with pancreatitis may show signs of decreased appetite (hyporexia) or even complete refusal of food (anorexia), which can lead to weight loss or even a life threatening liver condition known as hepatic lipidosis. Another symptom to watch out for is dehydration, which can be identified by tacky, sticky mucous membranes or a prolonged tenting of the skin when gently lifted above the cat’s shoulder blades.

One-third or more of cats with pancreatitis will experience vomiting, which may be intermittent and can contribute to worsening dehydration.

You may also note signs of discomfort or pain, such as hunching over or guarding the abdominal area; although cats often hide these outward signs. More commonly they give a generalized impression of lethargy and as though something is just not right.

Cats who are feeling unwell will often become less fastidious and you may notice a lack of grooming or an unkempt coat. On the other hand, some cats might exhibit increased grooming, particularly around the abdominal area due to pain. This excessive grooming can lead to bald spots or skin irritation.

The type and intensity of symptoms can vary widely based on the severity of the inflammation, comorbidities, and cat’s personality. And unfortunately, none of the symptoms are pathognomonic for the disease, meaning they can be signs of other illnesses as well.

Behavioral Changes in the Cat

In addition to physical symptoms, cats with pancreatitis might also show certain behavioral changes. Cats are inherently good at hiding discomfort, making it rather challenging to identify when they are in pain. You might notice your cat becoming increasingly lethargic or displaying reduced activity levels. They may also become overly aggressive or withdrawn and display changes in their usual behavior patterns.

Progression of Symptoms

As pancreatitis progresses in cats, the symptoms may become more severe. The cat might display frequent bouts of vomiting, worsening abdominal pain, and significant weight loss. In chronic cases, pancreatitis can potentially lead to other conditions like diabetes mellitus, which is characterized by symptoms like increased drinking and urination.

It's also common for symptoms to come and go in cats with chronic mild pancreatitis. This means that your cat may seem completely normal one moment and then become suddenly “off” or sick. Fluctuating symptoms can make chronic pancreatitis particularly tricky to diagnose and manage.

Rarely, cases of severe pancreatitis will lead to consequences in other organ systems such as the lungs, brain, or circulatory system leading to neurologic signs, difficulty breathing, or abnormalities in clotting.

When to Seek Veterinary Help

When is the right time to seek veterinary help? The moment you notice any significant changes in your cat's behavior or physical health, it's always advisable to consult with your vet.

Early detection and treatment can greatly improve the prognosis for cats with pancreatitis. A delay could lead to serious complications, making treatment more challenging and potentially affecting the cat's quality of life in the long run. Therefore, timely veterinary consultation is crucial whenever you suspect pancreatitis in your cat.

Knowing your cat’s normal behaviors and routines and the possible symptoms of pancreatitis in cats can go a long way in identifying the problem early on. Your observation skills combined with the assessment and advice from a veterinary professional can truly make a difference in your cat’s well-being.

Veterinary Examination and Consultation

When it comes to diagnosing pancreatitis in cats, the first step is always a thorough veterinary examination and consultation. During this initial meeting, your vet will seek to understand the overall health of your cat and any changes in behavior or eating habits that you may have noticed. They'll pay close attention to your cat's abdomen, looking for signs of sensitivity that could signal inflammation. We understand that this can be a stressful time as a pet owner, but your general practice veterinarian has the training and skills to take excellent care of your cat.

Initially, your vet will typically assess your cat's body condition, weight, and hydration status. They may also look for signs of pain during the physical examination, such as tight abdominal muscles, reluctance to move, or flinching on cranial abdominal palpation, which could indicate discomfort in the pancreas and surrounding tissues.

Keep in mind that you know your cat best. To assist the vet with the diagnosis, it can be helpful to pay close attention to any changes in your pet's behavior leading up to the vet visit. Note any changes in eating habits, energy levels, or bathroom behavior, as these health history details can provide valuable insight into potential health issues.

Laboratory Tests for Pancreatitis

If your vet suspects that your cat may be suffering from pancreatitis based on the initial consultation and examination, the next step is usually a series of laboratory tests.

One of the main tests for diagnosing pancreatitis in cats is the feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (fPLI) test. This test measures the level of a specific enzyme produced by the pancreas. High levels of this enzyme can indicate inflammation in the pancreas, thus pointing to pancreatitis. The test may be run as an in-house test (SNAP fPL), or sent to a reference laboratory (Spec fPL). Each test has its benefits and drawbacks, your veterinarian will recommend the test most appropriate for your cat’s condition.

Other laboratory tests may include a complete blood count (CBC), chemistry panel, clotting times, and urinalysis. These tests can help identify any potential underlying conditions or concurrent diseases that could be contributing to your cat's health issues. This might involve checking for signs of diabetes, a common condition associated with pancreatitis in cats.

The vet's decision to use certain tests depends on the cat's individual situation. Always remember that diagnostic tests are performed to get a clearer picture of what's happening inside your furry friend's body and to ensure that the most effective treatment can be provided.

Imaging Techniques

Alongside laboratory testing, your vet may also utilize various imaging techniques to assess your pet's pancreas. These techniques can include abdominal ultrasound scans and X-rays.

Ultrasound scans can provide a real-time view of the pancreas and allow the vet to check for abnormalities such as swelling or changes in the shape or size of the organ. While this procedure is generally non-invasive and safe, it requires the pet to remain relatively still, which might not always be possible, especially for cats in pain or distress.

Most often ultrasound is preferred as it provides a dynamic look at the pet’s organs versus the snapshot in time provided by radiographs (X-rays). Additionally, subtle changes are more evident with ultrasound. On the other hand, X-rays can provide a broader look and can be particularly helpful in ruling out other potential causes of your cat's symptoms, such as intestinal tumors or blockages.

Confirming the Diagnosis

Diagnosing pancreatitis in cats can be challenging because of the subtle nature of the symptoms and the difficulty of examining the pancreas. Therefore, the diagnosis is often based on a combination of clinical signs, medical history, physical examination findings, and the results of specific laboratory tests and imaging studies. It is not uncommon for veterinarians to treat for pancreatitis based on their clinical suspicion; supporting the cat based on a presumed diagnosis of pancreatitis.

Once the diagnosis of pancreatitis is confirmed or presumed, it's essential to work closely with your vet to manage your cat’s condition. With the right care and attention, most cats with pancreatitis can go on to lead happy, healthy lives. We understand the emotional complexities involved in navigating through tough decisions about your pet's health, but we’re here to reassure you that with prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment, your furry friend can be well on their way to recovery.

Medical Treatment Options

Caring for a cat with pancreatitis involves a comprehensive treatment plan to manage symptoms and help improve overall health. Treatment is often directed at management of the disease rather than a complete cure, especially when an underlying cause is not identified. Early intervention is vital and often leads to a more positive prognosis.

We understand that as a pet owner, your focus is on ensuring your beloved cat feels better as quickly as possible. Your veterinarian will usually recommend a multi-faceted treatment strategy that includes intravenous fluids to combat dehydration, pain management, and anti-nausea medication.

Additionally, any concurrent conditions will be addressed and may require other interventions.Depending on the severity of the condition, your pet may be treated as an out-patient or may require in-patient hospital care. In these cases, treatment may include medication administered intravenously to manage pain, correct dehydration, and minimize nausea.

For some cats with a severe loss of appetite or issues with feeding, a feeding tube might be inserted to provide necessary nutrients and aid in recovery.

Early nutritional support benefits intestinal healing and helps prevent hepatic lipidosis. Additional support may be given in the form of veterinary prescribed steroids, antacids, gastroprotectants, enzyme supplements, antioxidants, and antibiotics (if a bacterial cause is suspected).

As a pet parent, it's crucial to follow instructions from your vet about administering medication at home. Make sure to give all the prescribed medications exactly as instructed and keep your vet updated about your cat's progress. Remember that early intervention offers the best chance for a full recovery and continued quality of life.

Role of Diet in Managing Pancreatitis

Nutrition is a significant part of managing pancreatitis in cats. Ensuring your cat is eating a balanced, suitable diet can help improve digestion and relieve some of the symptoms associated with this condition. If your cat has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, your vet may recommend dietary changes that can aid in managing the disease in the long-term.

The right diet for a cat with pancreatitis is rich in high-quality animal-based protein, low in fat, easily digestible, with low residue, and low carbohydrates.

It's critical to note that cats with pancreatitis should never be forced to eat. If they are reluctant to eat, consult your veterinarian who may prescribe an appetite stimulant or recommend a feeding tube be placed for a short period. Changes to your cat’s diet should be carried out gradually to minimize the chance of disrupting their eating habits and upsetting their sensitive digestive system.

Long-Term Management of Pancreatitis

We understand that, as a pet owner, the discovery of pancreatitis in your cat can be overwhelming. With the right treatment plan and dedicated care, many cats with pancreatitis can lead a comfortable life. Long-term disease management involves consistent monitoring of your cat's overall health condition and strict adherence to the prescribed dietary changes and medications.

Regular veterinary check-ups are an integral part of managing chronic pancreatitis. During these visits, your veterinarian might conduct various tests to monitor how well your cat is responding to treatment. Sustained and meticulous care from both you and your vet can notably improve the quality of life of a cat living with chronic mild pancreatitis and help avoid acute flare-ups.

Ultimately, the goal of pancreatitis management is to ensure that your furry friend continues to lead a comfortable and satisfying life, free of any discomfort or distress. As a pet parent, your partnership and commitment to your cat's care play a significant role in achieving this goal.

Caring for a Cat with Pancreatitis at Home

As a pet parent, your role is critical in managing your cat's pancreatitis condition. Once your cat is home, it's your responsibility to closely monitor their condition and ensure they receive their medicine correctly. Always make sure that you are giving your cat all prescribed medication exactly as instructed.

It's essential to understand that a cat with pancreatitis may express increased pain or discomfort. To make them comfortable, provide a quiet space at home for them to rest and recover. Continually monitor their food intake and look out for any changes in eating habits. If a specific diet has been prescribed by your vet, ensure that it is followed diligently.

Remember, cats undergoing a recovery phase from pancreatitis should never be forced to eat. Instead, consider options like small, frequent meals or warming food slightly to make it more appealing. If your cat refuses to eat or appears to be losing weight, it is important to contact your vet immediately. They may suggest additional tips or tricks, slight changes to the recommended diet, adding appetite stimulants, or other interventions.

Caring for a cat recovering from pancreatitis at home can be challenging, but support and care from their pet parents can go a long way. Like us, cats are less stressed when at home surrounded by loved ones helping them recuperate.

Preventing Pancreatitis in Cats

Just as there are no symptoms specific to pancreatitis in cats, there are no specific preventative measures. However, embracing certain best practices can help keep our feline friends healthier and happier overall. These important steps include regular vet check-ins, maintaining proper nutrition, keeping your cat’s weight in balance, keeping current on parasite control and vaccines, and avoiding substances that can potentially harm your furry companion.

Importance of Regular Vet Check-Ups

It's easy to overlook the value of regular veterinary check-ups for maintaining your cat's health. Veterinarian visits play a pivotal role in the early detection of conditions like pancreatitis, even when they appear to be in perfect health. These check-ups allow vets to keep comprehensive health records over time for your cat, such as baseline blood work, trends in weight and body condition, and the like.

During regular vet visits, blood tests can be conducted to measure enzyme levels and detect markers of pancreatic inflammation. For example, the feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test (SNAP fPL or Spec fPL) can be useful as a screening tool, detecting pancreatitis in cats. Regular check-ups offer the opportunity for veterinarians to spot subtle changes in your cat's system that may not have manifested yet in their behavior or physical condition.

Proper Nutrition and Feeding Practices

As previously discussed, a well-balanced diet is essential for preventing pancreatitis in cats. Quality cat food that offers a complete range of nutrients, in the right proportions, can help to prevent enzyme overproduction that might irritate the pancreas.

As much as possible, avoid disruptions to feedings, whether in what you feed, how much, or when. Erratic feeding schedules and changes to diets can increase the risk of digestion-related problems, thereby posing a risk to your cat's pancreatic health.

Keeping Your Cat's Weight in Check

Weight management is another crucial aspect of overall health and preventing pancreatitis in cats. Overweight or obese cats are at a higher risk of developing numerous conditions, including pancreatitis. Extra weight can place additional strain on various organs, including the pancreas, exacerbating any existing inflammation.

Regular exercise and feeding the correct portion sizes of a well-balanced diet can help cats maintain a healthy weight. You can incorporate play sessions into your cat's daily routine to keep them active and engaged. As a bonus, these activities promote brain health and build a tighter bond with your beloved cat.

Avoiding Potential Toxins and Harmful Drugs

While it might seem obvious, it's worth mentioning the importance of keeping harmful substances away from your cats. Household chemicals, some human foods, and certain drugs can all potentially irritate the pancreas leading to inflammation. Always store cleaning supplies, medicines, and other potentially toxic substances in a place your cat cannot access.

Common household hazards for cats include:
  • Alcohol
  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Antifreeze
  • Caffeine
  • Cannabis
  • Chive, garlic, leeks, onions, shallots
  • Cleaners and Detergents
  • Glow sticks
  • Ibuprofen
  • Lilies and other plants
  • Minoxidil
  • Mosquito repellent containing DEET
  • Nasal decongestants
  • Naproxen
  • Nicotine
  • Organophosphate containing pesticides
  • Rodenticides

In the same vein, be cautious about any medication that your cat is consuming. Some drugs, while beneficial for one condition, might increase the risk of pancreatitis. If your cat requires medication, discuss the potential risks with your vet and ensure you're aware of any likely side effects to monitor for signs.

Remember, prevention is always better than treatment. While it's impossible to entirely rule out the risk of your cat developing pancreatitis, taking a proactive approach to their health can decrease the chances significantly. As always, consult with your vet before making any major changes to your cat's regimen or lifestyle.


Understanding pancreatitis in cats can be a daunting task, but with the right information and guidance, it becomes manageable. We hope this comprehensive guide has provided you with the knowledge to recognize the signs of pancreatitis in your cat, understand its causes, know when to seek veterinary help, and how to take steps to decrease your cat's risk. Remember, as a pet parent, your vigilance and timely action can make a significant difference in your feline friend's health.

At CodaPet, we're here to support you throughout your pet’s journey, offering best practices and emotional support. Your veterinarian will be your best ally in dealing with this condition, and together, you can ensure your beloved pet stays healthy and happy.

This is not medical advice nor for diagnostic purposes. Consult your veterinarian with any questions.


  • Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. (2017, Oct 11). Feline Pancreatitis.
  • Armstrong, P. Jane (2015, Feb 22).Feline Acute Pancreatitis: Current Concepts in Diagnosis and Therapy. Today’s Veterinary Practice

Dr. Karen Whala

Fresno, CA


Dr. Karen Whala has always had a soft spot for the older pets she’s treated in practice and saw a need for these beloved pets to pass peacefully at home rather than in a clinic setting. To that end, she started Peaceful Passing in 2018 to help families assist their terminally ill, injured, or suffering pets as they transitioned from life in the Fresno and Clovis areas.  Read More