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Why should I feed a cat with pancreatitis a special diet?


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Pancreatitis is often a frustrating disease. It has non-specific symptoms, the cause is not well understood, it can be difficult to diagnose and can be resistant to treatment. Top marks all round for difficulty! The role that nutrition plays in pancreatitis is not yet fully known. But we do know that keeping cats eating and taking on-board high-quality nutrients is important. Let’s have a look at pancreatitis in cats and the role that nutrition may play in recovery. 

What does the pancreas do?

A lesser known, but important organ, the pancreas is small and is found nestled between the stomach and the top of the small intestine. It has two major jobs. It produces enzymes (amylase, lipase and trypsinogen) which are important in digestion. And it also releases hormones (mainly insulin and glucagon) which regulate blood sugar levels. 

What is pancreatitis? 

Pancreatitis is the disease syndrome which develops when the pancreas becomes inflamed, for any reason. The causes of pancreatitis are not well understood. Although various theories abound over possible links, including high-fat diets, infections, auto-immune disease and some medications. Pancreatitis can vary from mild to severe, and from acute to chronic cases. In severe cases, the digestive enzymes stored in the pancreas may be released too early and cause inflammation in nearby organs such as the intestines or liver, or even start attacking parts of the pancreas itself.

Signs of pancreatitis in cats are often subtle and easily missed. Lethargy and a loss of appetite are the most common symptoms. Some cats will also have vomiting, pain in the tummy area and a high temperature. 

Your vet may suspect pancreatitis after taking a history, performing an examination of your cat and running some blood tests. But this is a tricky disease and may require additional tests such as x-rays, ultrasound scans and urine tests. 

Treating pancreatitis

Studies in humans have shown that the only effective treatments for pancreatitis are fluids, controlling pain and providing optimal nutrition. The treatment of this disease in cats usually relies upon similar supportive care with four main strategies: intravenous fluids, pain relief, anti-sickness medications and nutrition. That said, more severe feline cases may require antibiotics and even plasma transfusions. 

Fluid therapy

Providing fluids intravenously is important in the management of pancreatitis. Fluid therapy will improve dehydration, correct any electrolyte imbalance and maintain adequate blood supply to the pancreas so that it can heal. 

Pain relief

Cats are excellent at hiding pain, but even those cats who appear not to have any abdominal pain have improved outcomes in pancreatitis with pain relief as part of the treatment plan (Whittemore & Campbell, 2005). Other species are noted to have moderate to severe pain with acute pancreatitis, so it may well be assumed that pain is also a part of the syndrome for cats. Pain can reduce healing, increase stress and prolong periods of inappetence, so adequate pain relief should always be included in treatment. 

Anti-nausea drugs

A key feature of pancreatitis in cats is that they often refuse to eat. This may be due to nausea – some cats with pancreatitis even vomit, so it is likely many of these cases feel sick. Nausea is both unpleasant to experience but will also affect appetite, so anti-sickness drugs are often used to control this symptom and encourage a return to eating. 

Nutrition in acute pancreatitis

Cats with pancreatitis are usually off their food – in fact, by the time a cat is taken to the vets with pancreatitis, most have usually not eaten for at least a couple of days already (Ferreri et al., 2003). Lack of nutrition leads to weakness, a slowing of healing and weight loss. In cats, refusal to eat can lead to a condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) which will complicate treatment and make the prognosis worse. 

Feeding cats with pancreatitis is therefore extremely important. In the acute phase of the disease, cats may be very reluctant to eat. Force feeding is not recommended, it can lead to severe food aversions, and it is also practically difficult to give enough calories this way (Zoran, 2006). Your vet may well place a feeding tube for the first few days whilst your cat is stabilised on fluids and medications. Your cat can be fed via tube until they are eating well again by themselves. Appetite stimulant drugs may also be given to help get your cat eating on their own again. 

Diets for cats with chronic pancreatitis

If your cat suffers from repeat or ongoing bouts of pancreatitis, your vet may suggest some dietary options to try and manage this. 

There is no current evidence to show that any particular diet is best for cats with chronic pancreatic issues (Zoran, 2006). Anecdotally, high fat diets are thought to have a link to acute pancreatitis, so most vets may suggest a diet which is easily digestible with moderate amounts of fat. Fat is an important part of nutrition for cats, and so a balance is needed here. 

Food selection may also be influenced by any other conditions. It is fairly common for pancreatitis to go hand-in-hand with other chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes mellitus or liver disease. This may alter the choice of food, for example, with inflammatory bowel disease it may be recommended to try a hypoallergenic diet, or one with a novel protein source. 

The most important factor is that your cat eats. It is certainly better that your cat eats some food, even if not the ideal choice, than no food at all. If your cat won’t touch the special diets recommended, don’t panic. Talk to your vet about going back to a food that you know they will eat – you can always try again at a later date.    

Conclusion

Pancreatitis is a common condition in cats, but can be difficult to manage. Cats with pancreatitis are often inappetent, lethargic and may vomit. Immediate treatment involves fluid therapy, pain relief and anti-sickness medication, and support to eat. This may involve a feeding tube to begin with. Long-term management depends on any other conditions, but a highly digestible diet with moderate fat content is usually best, as long as your cat will eat it. 

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