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Fatty liver disease in cats – what do you need to know?


Cats are animals that do not like to show their health problems. This is due to their innate behavior. Therefore, it is worth recognizing the first symptoms of fatty liver disease in cats.

Symptoms of fatty liver disease in cats

Fatty liver disease is a serious disease that occurs in mature and older cats regardless of gender, most often in obese cats. The symptoms are initially non-specific: loss of appetite and weight, apathy, drowsiness, vomiting, sometimes diarrhea alternating with constipation. After a few days, jaundice appears in the form of yellowing of the mucous membranes and skin. As the disease progresses and liver failure becomes more severe, neurological symptoms appear (hepatic encephalopathy): stupor, salivation, lethargy, and even convulsions and coma. Some cats also develop ascites and blood clotting disorders.

If your pet starts to feel lethargic, doesn’t feel like being active and stops eating, you shouldn’t delay visiting a veterinarian. Even if it seems like he’s just having a “bad day.” In a cat, such behavior may indicate a number of different diseases, and when the lack of appetite lasts longer, it may develop dangerous fatty liver disease.

Sick cat

Fatty liver disease in cats causes

The direct cause of fatty liver disease in cats is the deposition of triacylglycerols inside the liver cells, which impairs their function. The disease may occur when a cat does not consume enough calories and begins to use fat tissue to maintain metabolic processes. This condition may occur as a consequence of other diseases or as an idiopathic disease (when the cause cannot be detected). It can also be the result of an overly restrictive weight loss diet. Diseases that predispose to fatty liver disease include:

  • inflammation of the pancreas;
  • inflammation of the bile ducts;
  • liver and/or pancreatic cancer;
  • diabetes;
  • inflammatory bowel disease (IBD);
  • hyperthyroidism;
  • pyometra;
  • cardiomyopathy;
  • bacterial, viral and fungal infections;
  • drug and heavy metal poisoning;

In addition, severe stress can lead to fatty liver disease, as cats are particularly sensitive to high levels of catecholamines secreted in stressful situations. Other diseases leading to loss of appetite may also be dangerous, e.g. severe periodontitis or respiratory inflammation. Obese cats with extensive adipose tissue are particularly susceptible to fatty liver disease.

Be sure to check out the article “10 symptoms of disease in cats”.

Diagnosing fatty liver disease in cats

If your cat becomes lethargic and refuses to eat, you should visit a veterinarian as soon as possible to find out where this behavior comes from. Unfortunately, the first symptoms of fatty liver disease are often underestimated and the cat begins to be diagnosed when it already develops jaundice. The veterinarian will perform a clinical examination, which may reveal an enlarged, painless liver and yellowing of the mucous membranes and skin. The blood test shows a clearly elevated bilirubin level, elevated alkaline phosphatase (ALP) activity with slightly elevated alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and virtually unchanged gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) activity, which distinguishes hepatic steatosis from hepatitis and cholangitis.

Bilirubinuria can be observed in urine testing. The veterinarian may perform an ultrasound examination to assess the enlargement of the liver outline and changes in its structure. The final diagnosis can be made by histopathological examination, but it is not often performed due to the risks associated with collecting a sample for testing.

Cat at the veterinarian

Treatment of fatty liver disease in cats

Treatment should be started in parallel with the diagnosis of the disease. First of all, you need to ensure proper hydration, regulate electrolyte balance and provide the appropriate number of calories. Initially, you can try giving appetite stimulating drugs. However, if the cat cannot be fed or is vomiting, feeding through a nasoesophageal tube is performed with special high-energy, low-fat and high-protein preparations intended for feline patients. Often your pet will need to stay in the hospital, especially for the first few days, to constantly monitor his condition and check his blood parameters.

Antiemetics and antibiotics are also used accordingly, depending on the symptoms. Additionally, it is recommended to supplement certain amino acids and vitamins and to administer preparations supporting liver regeneration. Intensive treatment may take up to 1.5 months, and the survival rate is 60%. If the animal survives the first 2-4 days, its chances of recovery increase to 85-95%. A lot depends on following the recommendations and providing appropriately caloric food and hydration. The prognosis worsens significantly when IBD and pancreatitis occur simultaneously.

Cats at the bowl

How long can a cat go without food?

Cats are animals with fast metabolisms, whose bodies are adapted to eat many small, high-protein meals throughout the day. In the absence of food, it immediately triggers catabolic processes, which in the case of protein deficiency leads to the accumulation of triacylglycerols in fat cells. Fatty liver disease can occur even after 2 days of this condition, although it more often occurs after 10-14 days without food. Therefore, a cat’s fasting should never last longer than 24 hours – if our pet does not eat for 2 days, it is a signal to quickly consult a veterinarian. Especially if we are talking about an overweight or obese cat.

You should also remember that we are talking about starvation when the cat completely refuses to eat. When he eats even small amounts of food of several dozen grams, we are not talking about complete starvation.

A good way to prevent many diseases in cats is to eat a proper diet. I encourage you to read the article,Why is it worth feeding your cat healthily? – comprehensive guide”.

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