Liver Disease in Cats

The cat's liver is its largest internal organ and is responsible for protein, fat, and carbohydrate metabolism; vitamin and mineral storage; digestion of food, manufacture of essential body compounds, and detoxification of wastes. Unlike any other organ, the liver is able to renew itself in certain situations. It's main role is to maintain equilibrium in the body. This includes cleaning the blood, removing toxin build-up, balance of acid and chemical levels in the body, production of blood clotting factors and hormones as well as playing a large role in digestion. With so many important responsibilities, understanding the signs and symptoms of liver disease is very important for every cat owner.

 Understanding Liver Disease in Cats

What is liver disease?

Liver disease occurs when the liver is damaged, resulting in loss of function and ability to maintain the equilibrium in the cat’s body. This can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (slow and ongoing) and the cause can be one or more of a number of factors. Some of the causes of liver disease are as follows:

  • Hepatic Lipidosis: This is the most common type of liver disease in cats, often occurring as a secondary effect of another condition. When the cat's food intake is dramatically reduced, his(?) body may use stored fat as a source of energy. However, this sudden switch to stored rather than ingested fats can overwhelm the cat's liver and cause a fat build up within the liver.
  • Cancer : Tumors can damage the liver's functionality. While primary tumors are rarely found within the liver, cancer tumors located elsewhere in the body can impact the cat's liver function.
  • Cholangitis / Cholangiohepatitis: This is an inflammation or infection of the bile duct or biliary system caused by an external factor such as pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, feline infectious peritonitis or bacterial infection. The change within the liver causes disruption to the normal function. Without determining the cause, it is impossible to treat.
  • Portosystemic shunt: These are shunts where blood from the body bypasses the liver and its detoxification process rather than being cleansed. This causes a rise in the toxin levels in the blood and can cause a number of symptoms in the cat. This is usually a congenital defect though in some cases, it is acquired.

Feline Liver Disease: Signs & Symptoms

Liver disease can have a significant impact on your cat's health. Some of the signs you may notice are:

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss: These are often some of the first signs of liver disease.
  • Jaundice : Probably the most common sign of liver disease, this is when the eyes, skin and mucous membranes become yellow due to the build up of bilirubin in the blood. (This is a yellow pigment produced when red blood cells are broken down.)
  • Ascites: This is the build-up of fluid in the peritoneal cavity. This means the cat's abdomen will appear swollen. It is caused by high blood pressure in the blood vessels of the liver.
  • Polyuria and polydipsia: Excessive urination and thirst.
  • Sickness and diarrhea
  • Lethargy and reluctance to interact
  • Seizures : These occur due to the build-up of toxins in the blood, or lack of brain chemicals which are produced by the liver.

How is Liver Disease Diagnosed?

If you suspect your cat is suffering from liver disease. it's critical that you contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. They will carry out tests to determine whether the liver is compromised. Tests can include:

  • Urinalysis
  • Full Blood Count
  • Biochemical Profile (raised liver enzymes ALT and AST indicate liver damage as does high levels of bilirubin and low levels of Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN), albumin, glucose and cholesterol)
  • Imaging of the liver including ultrasound or X-ray to look for changes.
  • Liver Biopsy

Treatment of Liver disease

Treatment is dependent on the progression of the disease, the signs the cat is experiencing and the levels of toxins in the blood. Most diseases can be managed with supportive care and early intervention. Treatment options should be discussed with your veterinarian and can include:

  • Medication: Symptomatic relief utilizing medication such as anti-sickness drugs, blood pressure medication and vasodilators in conjunction with steroids to limit disease's progression.
  • Ensuring the cat is properly hydrated: Implementing IV fluid therapy when required to limit blood toxin build up.
  • A prescription diet such as Hills L/D Hepatic Health Feline or Royal Canin Hepatic Feline Veterinary Diet to help support the function of the liver
  • Regular check-ups and monitoring.


Liver disease is a common disease in cats. With early intervention, your cat can live happily for many years.

*Courtesy of Free Digital Pictures