Orange and white cat sleeping on the bed.

Cat Hepatitis and Liver Disease

While pancreatitis means inflammation involving the pancreas, hepatitis involves inflammation of the liver. Contrary to popular belief, not all cases of hepatitis are infectious and contagious in nature. There can be numerous noninfectious causes of liver inflammation as well.

Some of these include diabetes mellitus, heart disease, accidental poisonings, starvation, and cancer. Hepatic lipidosis is a common type of liver dysfunction in cats that has baffled researchers for years.

It is characterized by an extensive infiltration of the liver by fatty tissue that, in essence, crowds out the normal liver cells and interferes with normal liver function.

It is seen in all ages of cats, and the exact cause of this condition is unknown, yet obesity and/or prolonged periods of food deprivation due to loss of appetite are thought to increase the body’s utilization of fats for energy, the metabolism of which is carried out in the liver.

As an organ responsible for metabolism of the multitude of nutrients absorbed from the intestines, and detoxification of poisons and drugs circulating in the blood, it is remarkable that the liver is normally very resistant to injury or breakdown resulting from its normal day-to-day functions.

Unfortunately, because of this heartiness, clinical signs of liver inflammation seldom appear until serious damage to liver function has already taken place.

Like so many other diseases affecting the gastrointestinal tract, acute flare-ups of hepatitis can cause loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever in affected dogs and cats. One unique sign often seen with hepatitis, both acute and chronic, is jaundice, or icterus.

Jaundice, caused by elevated levels of bile pigments in the bloodstream, is characterized by a yellow discoloration of the skin, mucous membranes, and the liquid portion of the blood.

Other clinical signs that can result from chronic, long-term hepatitis and liver disease include a fluid buildup within the abdominal cavity (ascites) due to increased resistance to blood flow through the liver, bleeding tendencies, and anemia.

Seizures and other neurologic disorders can also appear with advanced cases as blood levels of ammonia are allowed to build up. Diagnosis of hepatitis is based on clinical signs, elevated serum levels of liver enzymes, and/or the demonstration of an enlarged liver on radiographs or ultrasonography.

For those more subtle cases, special liver function tests and even biopsies might be required to confirm a diagnosis of hepatitis or discover its cause.

Treatment objectives for hepatitis and liver disease are aimed at eliminating the injurious agent and its harmful effect on the liver tissue and at promoting healing of the affected tissue. In cats with hepatic lipidosis, this means force-feeding them if necessary.

The liver is one of the few organs within the body that can actually regenerate itself after injury, provided, of course, that the source of the injury is dealt with properly. If vomiting is a problem, intravenous fluids might be needed until the stomach settles down enough for oral ingestion of food and water.

An easily digestible diet with high biological value (available through veterinarians) is ideal for cats suffering from a liver disorder. Oral antibiotics designed to eliminate ammonia-forming organisms are useful for those cases exhibiting neurological signs.

Ascites can be treated with diuretic drugs and by reducing the amount of sodium in the pet’s diet.

Finally, in chronic cases of hepatitis, steroids might be warranted to increase appetite and to counteract the loss of protein that can occur with liver disease. In addition, certain drugs for liver disease designed for use in humans are being used in animals with variable success.