Liver disease in cats

The liver is a very complex and multi-faceted internal organ that is vital in the normal functioning of the body as a whole. It has many important roles including aiding digestion, removing toxins from the blood, breaking down old red blood cells and producing various hormones to name just a few. The clinical signs of liver disease are often non-specific with your cat appearing to be a bit “off colour” or to be “just not themselves”.   

What are the causes of Liver Disease?

There are many causes of liver disease in cats, the most common of which will be discussed below.

The connection between the liver, gall bladder, intestines and pancreas are very close in all animals but in cats, if one of these organs becomes inflamed or infected, all of these organs can be affected. This is called the cholangiohepatitis complex and common causes include:

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
  • FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis caused by a viral infection)
  • IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease)
  • Toxoplasmosis (a parasitic infection)
  • Bacterial infections

Other causes of liver disease include:

  • Damage by toxins and drugs
  • Primary and secondary (metastatic) liver tumours

A problem specifically related to cats is if they do not eat for a period of 3 or more days they can end up with a syndrome called hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver.  This is where the liver realises that the body is not receiving any nutrients, starts to break up its own sugar stores and in the process causes damage to the liver. Usually the reason for the inappetance is associated with an unrelated illness (ie nothing to do with the liver), but it is very important to be aware that if your cat doesn’t eat for 24–48 hours he/she should be checked by your veterinarian.

What are the signs of liver disease in cats?

The liver is involved in many functions within the body and hence the clinical signs associated with liver disease can be very general and non-specific.  You may, however, notice one or more of the following:

  • Jaundice (a yellow discolouration of the eyes, skin and gums)
  • Ascites (bloating of the abdomen)
  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Fever (increased temperature)
  • Increased thirst
  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea

How is Liver Disease Diagnosed?

Liver disease can be a very frustrating disease to diagnose definitively. As the signs of liver disease can be vague and the fact that there are so many causes, your vet will discuss the best way to find out if your cat has liver disease, the cause and subsequently the appropriate treatment required.

The first clue as always comes from a thorough history, clinical examination and discussion about what your cat has been doing at home (have they shown any of the above listed symptoms/ had access to any toxins/ has there been a change in their environment or food?).

In most cases a blood test will be recommended to check a number of parameters including the liver and kidney enzymes, , the red and white blood cells and protein levels. Additional tests may also be required to assess pancreatic enzymes and thyroid hormone levels.

Further investigation of the liver may include radiographs and/ or an ultrasound to assess the structure of the liver and surrounding organs.

A biopsy or a small sample of the liver is generally required to determine the cause of any disease process.  This can often be achieved with an ultrasound-guided biopsy but sometimes requires abdominal surgery.  

Treatment

Treatment of liver disease is very dependent on determining the cause of the problem. However one change can benefit most liver cases, irrespective of the cause and usually concurrently with other treatments – the use of a prescription diet specifically designed for the liver. These diets contain high quality proteins in reduced amounts to help reduce the workload of the liver; and additional vitamins (that the liver would normally produce). The diet won’t resolve the initiating cause but will assist in supporting the liver whilst waiting for the liver to recover or for treatments to be effective. 

If your cat is feeling unwell, has stopped eating or is generally off colour, it is important that they are checked by your veterinarian. 

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