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FELINE: Pancreatitis



What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a vital organ that lies on the right side of the abdomen adjacent to the stomach. It produces enzymes to assist in food digestion and hormones such as insulin, which regulates blood sugar or glucose metabolism. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, the condition is called pancreatitis. Pancreatitis occasionally occurs in the cat. There is no age, sex, or breed predisposition for pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis may take either a mild, edematous form or a more severe, hemorrhagic form. The inflammation associated with acute pancreatitis allows digestive enzymes to spill into the abdominal cavity; this may result in peritonitis and secondary damage to surrounding organs, such as the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and intestines. A few cats that recover from an acute episode of pancreatitis may continue to have recurrent bouts of pancreatitis. This is termed chronic pancreatitis.


What causes pancreatitis?

"Normally, pancreatic enzymes are produced in an inactive state..."


Normally, pancreatic enzymes are produced in an inactive state and travel through the pancreatic duct to the duodenum, part of the small intestine. Once they reach the small intestine, they are activated to begin digestion. With pancreatitis, these enzymes are activated prematurely in the pancreas instead of later in the small intestine. Think of this as a time-release capsule that suddenly bursts before it reaches its intended target; in this case, the pancreatic enzymes begin to digest before they should. These results in digestion of the pancreas itself and, thus, the clinical signs begin. The clinical signs of pancreatitis are often variable, and the intensity of the disease will depend on the extent of organ involvement.


In the cat, pancreatitis appears to occur spontaneously, without any identified trigger or inciting cause.


What are the clinical signs of pancreatitis and how is it diagnosed?

The most common clinical signs include nausea, vomiting, fever, lethargy, abdominal pain, diarrhea and decreased appetite. If the attack is severe, acute shock or death may occur.


How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Laboratory tests usually reveal an elevated white blood cell count; however, an elevated white blood cell count may also be caused by other conditions besides pancreatitis. If there is an elevation of pancreatic enzymes in the blood, the diagnosis is confirmed, but many cats with pancreatitis will have normal pancreatic enzyme levels. In recent years, a new pancreatic test has become available to diagnose pancreatitis even if pancreatic enzyme levels are normal.


"The diagnosis of pancreatitis may be tentative or presumptive in many cases..."


Radiographs may show changes associated with inflammation in the area of the pancreas with severe hemorrhagic pancreatitis. Ultrasound studies may be more helpful by showing inflammation in the pancreas or surrounding area. Unfortunately, many cats with pancreatitis will elude detection with any of these tests. Consequently, the diagnosis of pancreatitis may be tentative or presumptive in many cases, based solely on clinical signs and medical history. 





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