Fatty Liver Disease in Cats (hepatic lipidosis)

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Fatty liver is a condition that is very serious. It can affect any cat, but tends to happen more commonly if a cat has suffered a period of a few days without eating any food. This condition is treatable, but can often take a lot of hard work and time. This article discusses the symptoms and treatment of fatty liver.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats
fatty liver in cats

Cats with fatty liver can have some of the following symptoms:

  • Not eating
  • Jaundice (Often you can see a slight yellow tinge on the skin inside the ears, on the gums or in the whites of the eyes)
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Dehydration
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Hypersalivation (drooling)
  • Increase in thirst
  • Increase in urination
What causes Fatty Liver in cats?

Fatty liver is caused by a buildup of fat in the liver. There are several reasons for this to happen, but generally the cause is because the cat has had a period of anorexia (not eating). When cats go without food, their ability to metabolize fat in the liver is reduced.

There can be a number of reasons for a cat to go without food. There may be an underlying condition such as pancreatitis, an infection or cancer. Quite often the cause of fatty liver is stress. A cat can stop eating in protest of a change in the environment such as a new pet in the house, an owner being away, renovations or a variety of other causes.

If an animal is obese, it is more likely to get fatty liver, simply because this animal has more fat in the liver to start with.

Diagnosis of Fatty Liver in cats

diagnosis of fatty liver

Your vet will first do a physical exam to look for subtle symptoms of jaundice and to see if they can palpate if your cat's liver is enlarged. The next thing they will do is some bloodwork to determine if fatty liver is likely. The bloodwork can also help us determine if there is an underlying condition that is causing the fatty liver.

The following changes are usually seen on the bloodwork of cats with fatty liver:

  • A dramatic increase in ALP which is an enzyme present in the bile duct
  • Increases in the liver enzymes ALT, GGT, TBIL
  • Some cats have low potassium levels
  • Some cats have anemia (low red blood cells)

Sometimes a vet will start treatment for fatty liver based on the bloodwork and the cat's history (i.e. not eating after a stressful event). However, if possible, an ultrasound is often helpful in diagnosing the condition. On ultrasound, the liver of a cat with hepatic lipidosis will look a different density than in normal cats.

The ideal test to diagnose fatty liver is to take biopsies of the liver. If your vet feels that your cat is healthy enough to go through a biopsy procedure then this may be offered to you.

Treatment of Fatty Liver in cats

If there is an underlying condition causing fatty liver, (such as pancreatitis, cholangiohepatitis or inflammatory bowel disease) the first goal is to treat this condition.

The main treatment for cats with fatty liver is to get them to eat! For mild cases of hepatic lipidosis, some force feeding for a few days can often help. It can also help to offer a variety of foods and to heat some canned food to help increase the odor and tempt the cat to eat.

Many cats with fatty liver will need to have a feeding tube placed. While this sounds invasive, cats tolerate it very well. Your vet will discuss with you what foods are to be fed via the tube and how often. The tube will stay in place until the cat wants to eat on his or her own. This can often take weeks or even months.

Most cats with fatty liver will need to have a period of IV fluids as well. This helps to correct dehydration and also to repair electrolyte imbalances.

Your vet may also prescribe medication to help with nausea. This often helps to improve appetite as well.

There may be other supplements prescribed such as carnitine, taurine, sam-E (A liver support medication) and others.

Fatty liver is a serious condition, but can be successfully treated. However, treatment can sometimes take a long time - even up to a few months.

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