Tired cat
When I was a kid, I loved to put extra sugar on my cereal. To this day, I can still hear my late mother’s admonitions not to use so much or I’d get what she called “sugar diabetes." As an adult, I found out that it usually takes more than just a little too much sugar to get diabetes. Likewise, your pet doesn’t get fatty liver from indulging in the less lean trimmings of your steak from time to time — in fact, it’s not eating that can put him at risk.

What is fatty liver? Fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, is a potentially lethal liver disease that reduces that organ’s ability to function. It’s common in cats, especially if they are overweight or, in some cases, overstressed. Situations that might cause a cat to refuse to eat or be unable to eat include a change to a diet the cat doesn’t like and refuses to eat, moving to a new home, being boarded or becoming lost outdoors. Underlying diseases or medical conditions can also affect a cat’s appetite and food consumption.

Take Camille. She was one of the many cats left homeless after Hurricane Katrina. When she was found, a month after the storm, the tortoiseshell cat was starving. At the veterinary hospital, she was diagnosed with hepatic lipidosis.

When the body goes into starvation mode, the metabolism changes. The body’s fat stores move into the liver and overwhelm its ability to use or redistribute the fat. You can see how that might be a problem in cats who are already overweight. But it can be a concern as well in cats of normal weight.

Signs of Disease

A cat at risk of hepatic lipidosis suffers dramatic weight loss and is often dehydrated. Lethargy, vomiting and jaundice — a yellowish appearance of the gums, eyes, ears and skin tissues — are common signs. Blood work indicates liver abnormalities. Sometimes, there is a deficiency of vitamin K, indicated by a tendency to bleed easily.

In addition to a medical history, physical exam and lab tests, an abdominal ultrasound can contribute to the diagnosis by revealing an abnormal appearance of the liver and possible evidence of underlying diseases associated with other organs including the kidneys, pancreas and gallbladder. A liver biopsy may help confirm the diagnosis.

Cats who aren’t treated quickly can go into liver failure. Treatment involves getting nutrients into them to reset their metabolism and correcting their fluid and electrolyte levels. Medications, including those to help stimulate the appetite or prevent vomiting, may be recommended. Vitamin and mineral supplements can help as well. At the same time, it’s important to treat any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to fatty liver.

Feeding Is Essential

Offering the cat a tasty food with a strong aroma or warming food slightly in the microwave to release the things that make a feline’s nose twitch and lips smack may be enough to get him to eat. If not, though, he may need to receive nutrition through a feeding tube. Many cats accept this with little resistance. A feeding tube helps ensure that he gets the nutrients he needs and can prevent him from developing an aversion to eating. To help prevent vomiting as the cat gets used to the feeding tube, the cat at first receives one-third to half his normal energy requirements, gradually building to the full amount over the next few days.

Once blood work begins to return to normal and the cat starts eating on his own, tube feeding can be tapered off. For Camille, that process took three weeks, but some cats may take longer.

In cats with hepatic lipidosis, treatment is more likely to be successful when it begins early and is combined with good supportive care and control of any underlying disease. These cats are considered to be cured, and hepatic lipidosis rarely recurs.

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