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Fatty liver syndrome in cats

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Fatty liver syndrome in cats, also known as feline hepaticlipidosis, is a common liver disease in cats.  It can develop by itself, with no direct cause, or secondary to another condition such as diabetes mellitus or cancer.  Cats with fatty liver syndrome are typically overweight, and the history often includes a few to several days of not eating.  When the cat doesn't eat, instead of using nutrients from food for energy, the body must break down fat.  The fat is rapidly deposited in and around liver tissue and leads to liver failure.

In addition to a decreased appetite, common signs of fatty liver syndrome in cats include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and severe lethargy.  The cat usually develops jaundice, which is seen by a yellowcast to the whites of the eyes, skin, gums, and mouth.

Your veterinarian will likely make a tentative diagnosis based on the history and physical examination.  Blood tests, x-rays, ultrasound examination, and a biopsy ofthe liver may be recommended, not only to confirm the diagnosis but also torule out other conditions that may have initially caused the cat to stop eating.

The cornerstone of therapy is nutritional support with a well-balanced, high-quality diet, usually administered through a feeding tube.  This allows the liver to begin functioning again so that it can remove excess fat.  Tube feeding generally continues for 6-7 weeks until the cat's appetite returns and it is eating well on its own.

Q&A

What causes feline fatty liver?

Feline fatty liver syndrome can develop by itself, with no direct cause, or it can develop secondary to another condition such as diabetes mellitus or cancer.  Cats with fatty liver syndrome are typically overweight, but often have had a history of several days without eating.  The starving body breaks down fat, which can be rapidly deposited in and around liver tissue.

Does fatty liver cause illness?

The built up fat deposits lead to liver failure, often with signs of jaundice, vomiting, and decreased appetite. 

How is this syndrome treated?

The cornerstone of therapy is nutritional support with a well-balanced, high-quality diet, usually force fed through a feeding tube.  This allows the liver to begin functioning again so that it can remove excess fat. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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