What Is Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) in Cats? The Most Common Form of Feline Liver Disease

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The liver is one of the most important organs in your cat's body. So when your cat is diagnosed with hepatic lipidosis(fatty liver), an abundance of fat in the liver, it can severely affect your cat's health. Learn more about the causes, symptoms and treatment options here.

The liver is one of the largest organs in a cat’s body, and it carries out a number of important functions. It aids in digestion, supplies energy by storing and releasing carbohydrates, synthesizes proteins and certain fats, produces bile, stores vitamins, manufactures hormones, and reduces poisonous properties of toxic chemical compounds. Whew!

As you can see, the liver performs many important processes that affect the entire body, and if its functionality is compromised, a cat’s life may be at risk.

Hepatic lipidosis -- or fatty liver -- is a disease characterized by an accumulation of excess fat in the liver that interferes with its ability to function. It is the most common form of liver disease in cats in the United States and can be fatal if left untreated. Read on to learn all about hepatic lipidosis in cats.

Causes of Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) In Cats

Hepatitis lipidosis occurs when fats known as triglycerides accumulate in the liver’s cells and stop the organ from functioning normally. These fats typically accumulate because a cat has stopped eating for two weeks or more. Fat moves to the liver from other storage areas in the body to compensate for the fat that would normally be absorbed through food. However, the liver is not able to process the excess fat, and so it collects in the liver’s cells. These swollen cells then damage to the organ.

In many cases, hepatic lipidosis is a secondary consequence of an underlying condition that causes appetite loss, such as obesity, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, cancer, stress, kidney disease, pancreatitis, or another form of liver disease. In cases wherein an underlying condition cannot be identified, the disease is referred to as “primary” or “idiopathic.” Idiopathic means that there is no known cause.
Hepatic lipidosis can affect any cat, but it is most common in middle-aged cats.

Symptoms of Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) In Cats

The classic and most obvious symptom of hepatic lipidosis is loss of appetite or anorexia.

Additional symptoms may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Jaundice
  • Behavioral or neurological symptoms such as drooling, blindness, disorientation, and seizures. These symptoms are often caused by hepatic encephalopathy, a decline in brain function that occurs when the liver is no longer able to remove toxins.

Diagnosing Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) In Cats

If your cat is not eating, contact your veterinarian. They will perform a physical exam to feel for an enlarged liver and run blood tests that will reveal abnormalities. They may also take X-rays or use an ultrasound to get a visual of the liver.

While the above tests may point to hepatic lipidosis, the only way to definitively diagnose the disease is through an analysis of liver tissues. The liver sample (or biopsy) is obtained either surgically using laparoscopy (in which small tools and a camera are inserted through holes in the skin) or through aspiration (removing a liver sample with a syringe).

Treatment For Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver) In Cats

The longer the cycle of anorexia and fat accumulation lasts, the more likely yourcat will be to suffer serious consequences. In fact, as many as 90% of affected cats succumb to the disease without prompt medical intervention.

Treatment for hepatic lipidosis will depend on the severity of your cat’s condition as well as any underlying medical conditions that may be causing or exacerbating the disease.

Most treatment involves some combination of the following:

  • Hospitalization and Fluid Therapy: Temporary hospitalization with fluid therapy may be necessary if the cat is dehydrated or unstable.

  • Nutritional support: In other words, getting your cat to eat. This is the only way to reverse the process of fat accumulation in the liver. Appetite stimulation medications are sometimes used -- as is force-feeding -- but the most common practice is tube feeding. If the cat needs to be tube-fed temporarily, a tube is placed through the nose and into the esophagus or stomach. If the cat needs to be tube-fed long-term, the tube can be surgically
    inserted into the esophagus or stomach. Most cats with hepatic lipidosis require tube feeding for 1-3 months. Your veterinarian can recommend a good food and the proper amount.

  • Antibiotics: Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics if there is a possibility of infection from harmful bacteria in the intestine.

  • Supplements: Your veterinarian may suggest certain supplements for your cat.

    • Vitamin K: Prevents blood clotting problems associated with hepatic lipidosis.
    • Vitamin B-12: Most cats with hepatic lipidosis are deficient of all B vitamins.
    • L-Carnitine: A supplement that aids in the transfer of fats.
    • Taurine: An amino acid that helps bind toxic bile acids for their removal from the body. Taurine is often deficient in cats with hepatic lipidosis.
    • Denamarin: a supplement that promotes overall liver health

The good news is that cats who are treated promptly often fully recover and rarely relapse. Contact your veterinarian early to give your cat the best chance for survival.

More on Liver Disease

What Causes Liver Shunt In Cats And Dogs?
Denamarin For Dogs And Cats: Managing Liver Disease
Food For Liver Disease In Dogs And Cats

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