Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

This condition which only affects cats is also the most common liver disease in this species. It occurs when cats stop eating for 3-4 days and are more common in overweight cats with poor muscle mass. In response to anorexia, the body mobilizes fat stored to use for energy, but this occurs too rapidly, and the liver is not able to deal with the huge demand. Fat builds up in the liver which causes the liver to shut down.

Cats with fatty liver are not eating or eating very little, may be vomiting, have low energy and 70% of cases are jaundiced, meaning their skin and eyes are yellow.

In many cases, there is another disease process that made the cat stop eating in the first place. Examples include inflammatory bowel disease, liver inflammation or infection, cancer, pancreatitis or a change in the cat’s routine (e.g. a new cat in the house, a change in diet). Often days will pass before the owner will recognize their cat is not eating. This is especially true when dry kibble is left out all the time.

To diagnose fatty liver and find the reason for anorexia, veterinarians will run blood work and perform an ultrasound. The liver can also be biopsied by passing a needle into the liver using an ultrasound image to guide the needle placement.

Treatment for fatty liver disease is aggressive nutritional support. In most cases, a feeding tube needs to be placed so an appropriate diet can be fed and medications can be given. These cats are often very dehydrated and will need IV fluids prior to placement of a feeding tube.

The preferred feeding tube is an esophagostomy tube. Placement of the tube is performed under general anesthetic. An incision is made through the skin into the esophagus on the left side of the neck. The tube is stitched into place, and a bandage is applied. Cats tolerate these tubes very well. The tube will typically need to stay in place for 6-7 weeks until the cat is eating normally on its own.

If caught early enough 90% of cats with fatty liver disease make a full recovery. It is important to keep them at a healthy weight to prevent your cat from developing fatty liver. Preventing this requires making sure there is enough protein in their diet by feeding canned food daily. It is also extremely important to monitor your cat’s appetite. You should know whether your cat is eating every day. This is easily accomplished by measuring your cat’s food every morning or evening.

Written by North Hill Animal Hosptial


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Last updated: January 7, 2022.

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