Liver disease in cats is uncommon, but it’s serious when it happens. The liver is a vital organ with many functions, and when it becomes diseased your cat can become very ill. Knowing the signs of liver disease in cats can help you to spot feline liver disease early and get your cat the right treatment.
What Does the Liver Do?
The liver has many functions and is always working hard to keep your cat healthy. The liver is a large organ that sits just at the end of the ribcage, near the stomach, pancreas, and intestines. This location helps in its role in the digestion and storage of food products.
The liver helps to break down foods from complex structures into simpler molecules as part of the digestive process. There are organs in the body such as the brain that are only able to process and use smaller molecules like glucose. Without the liver to break foods down, animals would not be able to function normally.
The liver also has other functions. It is used to store essential nutrients, like iron. It also filters toxins out of the body, so when the liver stops working, toxins can build up to a dangerous level in the bloodstream. Clotting factors are manufactured in the liver, so animals with diseased livers can suffer from bleeding problems.
What Are the Signs of Liver Disease in Cats?
You may think it’s hard to pick up signs of liver disease in cats, but there are a few clues.
The biggest clue for liver disease in cats is a change in the color of the skin, gums, or eyes. Healthy gums are a salmon pink color, but cats with liver disease can show a yellow tinge to the skin, gums, or eyes. This is called jaundice or ‘icterus’ by veterinarians. If you see yellow skin or gums in your pet, this is an emergency — you need to contact a veterinarian right away.
Other signs of liver disease in cats are:
- Weight loss
- A bloated belly
In very severe cases of liver disease, you may also see neurological signs:
- Incoordination or falling over
- Head pressing
- Walking in circles
How Is Feline Liver Disease Diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will do a health check and further tests to work out the exact cause of your cat’s illness.
Ultrasound is used to look at the liver in detail, and to take ultrasound-guided samples. The samples of liver cells are used to identify infection, cancer, or the presence of a fatty liver. X-rays look at the size and shape of the liver, and screen for stones in the gallbladder.
Blood and urine tests can be helpful to look for the cause of your cat’s disease. They may also identify other problems in the body — such as pancreatitis or kidney disease — that can confuse the diagnosis or make treatment more complicated.
Although it can seem like there are a lot of tests to do to determine the cause of your cat’s liver disease, finding the exact cause of your cat’s liver problems can help to determine the best possible treatment.
What Are the Causes of Liver Disease?
Liver disease can either be due to a problem with the liver itself (known as ‘primary’ liver disease) or as a consequence of another disease in the body — known as ‘secondary’ liver disease.
Primary liver disease in cats can be caused by:
- Fatty liver disease (a build-up of fat in the liver)
- Toxins or poisons
- Bacterial or viral infections
- Cancer of the liver
- Triaditis: inflammation of the liver, pancreas, and intestines
- Immune-Mediated Haemolytic Anaemia
- Gallbladder stones or infection
- Congenital (present from birth) defects such as portosystemic shunts
Cats that have the following diseases may also have a secondary liver disease:
- Inflammatory bowel disease
How Is Liver Disease in Cats Treated?
Given time, and if the underlying disease is treated, the liver can heal itself. Treating liver disease in cats involves stopping further damage where possible, and then supporting the liver so it can heal. The exact treatment depends on the cause of your cat’s liver problems. Some problems may require surgery, whilst others may need specific medications.
Cats with liver disease are often quite sick. Your veterinarian may need to admit your cat to the hospital for treatment. Treatment includes fluid therapy and intravenous medications. Nutrition plays a huge part in recovery. It’s important your cat eats, so a feeding tube may be used to help your cat receive nutrients and vitamins.
What Are the Chances of Recovery for Cats With Liver Disease?
There is usually a good chance of survival with treatment for cats with liver disease. They may need a few weeks of medications and some extra help to eat.
The liver has a remarkable ability to regenerate and heal with the right help. So, it is important to visit a veterinarian when you see signs of liver disease rather than wait a few days.
If two-thirds or more of the liver has been permanently damaged, this is known as liver failure. The quality of life that these cats can have with this condition is very poor. Cats with liver failure have a poor chance of recovery. Unlike in humans, liver transplants are not yet available for cats.
What Can I Do at Home to Help My Cat?
Some supplements can be given long-term at home after your cat has recovered. Vitamin supplements containing SAMe and silymarin (milk thistle extract) help protect the liver from damage and allow it to heal.
Your veterinarian may also prescribe a diet specifically formulated to help cats with liver disease. Overweight cats will benefit from going on a diet to help reduce the chances of repeat bouts of disease. However, this has to be carefully done as a starvation diet can trigger fatty liver disease. It’s best to follow your vet’s recommendations when it comes to dieting your overweight cat, especially if they have a history of liver problems.
Keeping up to date with preventative care, such as vaccination, flea, and worm treatment will also keep your pet healthy.
Liver disease in cats is serious, but they can recover if they get the right treatment early on. If your cat has yellow skin, gums, or eyes, or hasn’t eaten for 48 hours this is an emergency and a vet visit is needed. Your vet will need to do several tests to determine the cause of your cat’s liver problems and may recommend your cat be hospitalized for treatment. Connect with a BetterVet doctor today to learn more.