Liver Disease in Cats: Background, Symptoms & Treatment

Liver disease in cats is among the most common problems affecting cats' internal organs, and every pet parent should be aware of how these issues can affect their four-legged friend. Learn how cat parents can intervene in time to improve cats' quality of life or, with a veterinarian's help, potentially cut off the disease outright.

The Role of the Liver

Your cat's liver (and yours) is nestled between the lungs and the stomach. It's a complex organ that is a component of several major body systems. These are its major functions:

  • It helps break down nutrients coming in through the digestive system.
  • It detoxifies the body by breaking down incoming toxins carried by the blood.
  • It makes useful proteins that aid in blood clotting.
  • It stores essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, sugars and fats.
  • It serves an immune system function by capturing invaders and neutralizing them.
  • It plays a metabolic role by helping regulate blood sugar (glucose).

It may seem counter-intuitive, but not all liver disease in cats originates in the liver. Sometimes it's a faraway infection or cancer that can lead to feline liver diseases. Those that start in the liver are termed primary while those that originate elsewhere are considered secondary. Hepatitis (hepatic is the term for any condition having to do with the liver, and -itis means inflammation) is the name for any swelling of the liver. In cats, its causes are many and varied.

Cat in vet kennel being treated for fatty liver disease

What Causes Liver Disease in Cats?

Liver problems can have a range of causes. Some issues can be prevented by taking certain steps to keep your cat healthy, but others can appear with little warning.

If a cat eats certain toxins, like acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol), plants, household chemicals and prescription drugs (among others), it may lead to a liver condition called toxic hepatopathy. Hunting critters that find their way into your house can also cause problems. In places where lizards roam (like South Florida or Central and South America), cats who like a little reptilian snack now and then can get a parasite called a liver fluke that lodges and grows in the liver. These can lead to inflammation, bacterial infections, abscesses and other disruptions of the liver's function. The parasitic infection of toxoplasmosis can also cause liver problems, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine notes.

Hepatic lipidosis or "fatty liver disease," is perhaps the most well-known among liver diseases in cats. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, it happens when a cat suddenly stops eating and the body sends signals to start using the fat stored throughout the body. If this happens quickly and the cat is overweight or obese, fat can flood the bloodstream and settle in the liver, hindering its normal functions. This is yet another reason why helping your fur baby maintain a healthy weight is critical.

Cholangitis is an often idiopathic (unexplained) inflammation of the bile ducts (or gallbladder). When it involves the liver tissue itself, vets call it cholangiohepatitis, notes the Cornell Feline Health Center. The causes are often related to viruses or bacteria, but in cats, a sensitivity of the liver can predispose it to inflammation. Why some feline livers are prone to swelling is often as mysterious as our cats themselves. Another puzzling condition is triaditis, which is marked by a "triad" of inflammation in the liver, intestines and pancreas.

Cancer can also adversely affect a cat's liver. Thankfully, primary liver cancers aren't common, comprising about 2 percent of all feline cancers. The most common of these is bile duct carcinoma. The more common cancers of the liver are secondary to other cancers (referred to as metastatic), are spread from other parts of the body. Lymphoma, a blood cancer, is perhaps foremost among these, but cancers of the spleen, pancreas or intestinal tract can also spread to the liver.

Identifying Feline Liver Disease

The early signs of liver disease in cats can easily mimic the signs of other conditions:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Hiding behavior
  • Increased thirst and urination

When liver disease in cats is more longstanding or severe, more specific signs can reveal themselves:

  • Jaundice (a yellow change in the color of the skin, eyes and mucous membranes)
  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen, which makes the belly look distended)
  • Blood clotting problems (nosebleeds, bleeding gums and bruising)

It goes without saying that you should see your vet immediately if you notice any of these signs. Remember, cats don't typically show signs until the disease process is well underway, so early detection is critical.

Gray cat lying in lap of woman reading a book.

Diagnosing Feline Liver Disease

Liver disease in cats is typically diagnosed via a full laboratory analysis of the blood, urine and sometimes stool. More specific laboratory tests to identify infectious diseases or toxins may also be in order. X-rays identify certain changes, but an ultrasound of the abdomen or a biopsy of the liver are often in order, as well. CT (CAT) scans are also becoming more affordable and can give vets a more complete understanding of the liver's problems. Diagnosing a specific condition can be hard, so your vet might refer you to an internal medicine specialist to get to the bottom of your cat's liver woes.

Treatment is not easy. That's because cats are complicated creatures. They typically detest being medicated (typically mandatory for liver patients) and get stressed when they're hospitalized. Nevertheless, your vet's hospital or a specialty facility may be the best place for cats who are ill. With proper care and early detection, you and your vet can do your best to get your kitty back on her feet.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Patty Khuly

Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.

You can follow her writing at DrPattyKhuly.com and at SunsetVets.com.

Related Pet Care Articles