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Fatty liver disease: what owners of obese cats should know

Updated on January 13, 2009

Warning signs for obese cats

We all have heard of stories of cats going days or weeks without food. A cat may have been locked up in a room for weeks or even shipped via cargo with nobody knowing about it. While these cases make headlines across the country causing people to marvel at the cat's phenomenal survival skills, not many people are aware of a potential risk in starving cats called "hepatic lipidosis" or better fatty liver disease.

While a few days without food may cause no worrisome symptoms in cats, the risk of fatty liver disease is higher in cats that are left without food for several days and specifically in cats that are closer to the obese side. Cats may develop this condition when going through a period of not eating due to various factors such as stress, dietary changes or illness.

When hepatic lipidosis occurs large quantities of fat accumulate in the cat's liver cells. A cat's liver was not really made to store such fats and can get overwhelmed and may ultimately fail. This seems to occur in domesticated cats as cats as nature intended were supposed to be lean by eating frequent small meals throughout the day and burning fats through physical activities such as hunting.

Domesticated cats on the other hand, tend to become lazy and eat out of boredom throughout the day with no way to burn fat and calories. They will ultimately store the fat and become obese and ill with diseases rarely seen in the past such as diabetes and hepatic lipidosis when obese cats refuse food over days or weeks and lose about 25% of their weight.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Initial symptoms mainly consist of:

  • Loss of Appetite
  •  Intermittent vomiting
  • Lethargy

Then as the condition progresses:

  • Jaundice (yellowing of ears, eyes and skin)
  •  Muscle wasting
  •  Weight loss
  •  Drooling
  •  Blindness
  • Seizures

Upon having blood tests run results may show elevated bilirubin and elevated ALP ( alkaline phosphatase).

Treatment of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Cats that are refusing to eat must be fed a high protein diet. This may mean force feeding the cat via dropper or via stomach tube. Appetite stimulants may be given as well as medication to control the vomiting. Dietary supplements such as arginine, taurine and carnitine may be included in the food. Special prescription diets that act as appetite stimulants and provide good nutrition may be prescribed. A good example is Hill's A/D.

Feeding a cat during hepatic lipidosis may sound simple but a lot of care must be used when attempting to feed the cat again. Sudden amounts of food may cause the cat's potassium and phosphate levels to drop causing extensive weakness and even anemia. Cats in this condition must be hospitalized with IV fluids and supplements. Usually, this condition (which can turn fatal) may be avoided by providing no more than half the daily required calories for the first few days. A veterinarian will provide careful instructions to follow at home. Treatment may last 6-7 weeks.

Not many people are aware of fatty liver disease. There is always a chance this condition can arise should your cat escape and be missing for some days without food resources or if your cat will become sick and refuse food. If treatment is seen at once, most cats seem to recover well, but lack of treatment may even very possibly not have a very happy ending..

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