Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Hepatic Lipidosis: Not Just a Disease of the Obese Cat

Pet Column for the week of January 28, 2002

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Hepatic lipidosis occurs when a cat stops eating and the body begins to use stored fat as fuel for the body. Dr. Rhonda Schulman, a clinician at the University of Illinois Teaching Hospital in Urbana says, "It is a myth that only obese cats get this disease. Any cat that loses a large amount of weight quickly is at risk."

Sometimes the disease can be triggered by a stressful event such as moving, or being left alone when the owner goes on vacation. Once the cat becomes anorexic (stops eating), fat is released into the blood as a source of nutrients. Because the liver cells store fat, they quickly become overwhelmed and lose their ability to function.

In other cases, there is no obvious reason why the cat has stopped eating. When this happens, it is important to make sure that there is no underlying problem. Dr. Schulman says, "Some diseases can just make the cat feel so bad that it doesn't want to eat. Other diseases can cause the liver to stop functioning well, which can lead to an accumulation of fat in the liver cells." Because hepatic lipidosis is a secondary problem, the underlying problem must be addressed in order for full recovery to occur.

The signs of hepatic lipidosis are unfortunately rather vague and can include lethargy, vomiting and jaundice (icterus or yellowing of the skin). Because these signs are non-specific,a diagnosis can be made by investigating the patient's history, blood work, ultrasound, and potentially biopsy results. If there have been no stressful events in the household recently then it is important to look for a secondary problem leading to hepatic lipidosis.

Dr. Schulman says, "The most important factor in treating these cats is to get them to eat again." Because oral force-feeding can be a difficult undertaking and stressful for the cat, it is often preferable to insert a feeding tube directly in to the stomach of the cat until it begins to eat on its own again. It is also essential to monitor the cat's fluid levels to prevent dehydration. With this type of supportive care, hopefully the cat will eventually feel better and will start eating on its own again.

Dr Schulman is optimistic about treatment and says, "About ten years ago, the disease was invariably fatal because doctors did not know how to treat it. These days most cases survive."

If you have any questions regarding hepatic lipidosis or underlying problems that can lead to hepatic lipidosis, please contact your local veterinarian.