Fatty liver disease is not just a problem for humans. There is a version of the disease, known as hepatic lipidosis, that could affect your cat. It seems that the biggest risk factor for the disease in cats is obesity. Before you rush to put your cat on a diet, take a look a the liver’s role in weight loss.
Title Photo Credit: Ryo via Flickr
The Functions of a Cat’s Liver
A cat’s liver is a fairly large organ located near the midsection of the cat’s body. Similarly to a human’s liver, a cat’s liver is close to the stomach, pancreas, and gall bladder (all four of these organs play a role in digesting food). The liver is vital survival and plays a number of important roles in a cat’s health:
- Production of proteins
- Production of chemicals that aid in digestion
- Breaking down fats
- Removing toxins
- Production of the chemicals that cause red blood cells to clot.
- Decomposition of red blood cells
Since the liver is so vital to a cat’s survival, it has a unique adaptation. It is the only organ in the body that can be regrown! From as little as 1/4 of the liver, it can completely regenerate in about a year. This is an important fact that can help cats that need to have part of their liver removed due to disease or injury.
What is Fatty Liver Disease (Hepatic Lipidosis) ?
Imagine the segment, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, from Disney’s Fantasia. Mickey Mouse naively creates a living broomstick that carries water to a well. One living broomstick suddenly becomes hundreds of living broomsticks and soon the basement of the sorcerer’s castle is flooding out of control. Mickey Mouse scrambles to find a way to bail the water out of the basement, but can’t find a way to do it faster than the water is coming in. He is about to be drowned in the water until the sorcerer returns and saves him.
Fatty liver disease, or Hepatic Lipidosis, is a disease that occurs when a cat’s liver is taking in fat more quickly than it can effectively process it. This results in the build-up of fat in the liver. The extra fat makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the cat’s liver to do all of the jobs it is supposed to be doing. This is a very serious and potentially deadly disease. It most often strikes middle-aged cats, overweight or obese cats.
How do cats get Fatty Liver Disease?
The most common cause of fatty liver disease in cats is sudden, drastic, weight loss. This weight loss may be the result of illness, injury, or an owner that is inappropriately dieting an overweight cat. When a cat does not eat enough calories, his/her body will begin to process fat stores to get the energy that is needed. The more drastic the loss of calories, the more fat is moved to the liver for processing.
Note: In about 50% of cases, your veterinarian will not be able to determine what conditions caused your cat’s fatty liver disease.
Other common risk factors for fatty liver disease include:
- Kidney Disease
- Having been lost (not knowing where to get food)
Since cats are not designed to carry much fat (they are lean animals in nature), a cat’s liver can become overwhelmed fairly quickly. How long it takes depends on how few calories the cat is consuming and other health factors. If a cat is not eating at all, fatty liver disease can set in within a few days. For this reason, cats should never fast. If your cat does not like a food that is presented to him/her, it must be replaced with a food the cat will eat. Don’t try to wait them out. Unlike humans and dogs, cats will starve themselves to the point of having fatty liver disease. Call a veterinarian immediately if a cat won’t eat after a meal or two.
Symptoms to Look For
A cat may not show any symptoms at all in the beginning stages of fatty liver disease. It is very important to contact your veterinarian if you are concerned about your cat or if the cat has not been eating well. Don’t wait – the longer you wait, the less likely you will be able to reverse the damage that has been done and the higher the cost of treatment will be. Symptoms may not show up until the later stages of the disease. The most tell-tale symptom of fatty liver disease is that the cat is not eating or not keeping the food in their system (vomiting). Symptoms may include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Muscle wasting
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your veterinarian will have to do blood work, urinalysis, and a biopsy to definitively diagnosis fatty liver disease. Here is what they are looking for:
- Red blood cells of unusual size
- Destruction of red blood cells
- Abnormalities in the clotting of red blood cells
- An increase in alkaline phosphatase (ALP), which indicates liver failure.
- High levels of liver enzymes
- High levels of bilirubin in the urine
- High levels of cholesterol or ammonia
- High levels of fat in the liver (found through a biopsy)
If your cat is in a later stage of the disease, your veterinarian will need to hospitalize your cat until his/her condition stabilizes. Your veterinarian will provide fluids and electrolytes to your cat and likely B-Complex vitamins, cobalamin, and thiamine as well. About 35% of cats that need to be hospitalized for hepatic lipidosis treatment will survive. Once stable, you will need to continue care at home.
Treatment for hepatic lipidosis is nutritional support. A cat with fatty liver disease needs high protein, calorie dense food. Most likely, treatment will require force feeding your cat a prescribed diet through a feeding tube inserted in the cat’s nose. This will need to be done until your cat can eat on his/her own again. The road to recovery can be a long one with most cats taking 3-6 (or longer) to fully recover.
Have you ever known a cat that had fatty liver disease?
Sources & Digging Deeper