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Feline Hepatic Lipidosis: Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

Angela is a cat and dog lover who has made special efforts to learn as much as she can about the animals she cares for.

Monitor your cats for changes in their behavior or appearance to keep them healthy.

Monitor your cats for changes in their behavior or appearance to keep them healthy.

What Causes Feline Fatty Liver Disease?

Feline hepatic lipidosis, or feline fatty liver disease, is most often caused by a cat going long periods without eating for one reason or another. As a result, the cat's liver begins to digest the stored fat, using the fat to make its fuel. Unfortunately, since a cat's liver is not as efficient as most other mammals, some of the fat gets trapped in the liver, which causes this disease. If the pink portions of a cat, such as the ears and gums, begin to have a yellow tint, it is vital to take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible to make sure they do not have this horrible disease.

Once the disease is discovered in the cat, the reason they were not eating must be found. Was it a lack of appetite? Did the brand of cat food change, and they didn't like the texture, taste, smell, etc.? Did their owner go on vacation and refuse to eat because they were upset? Is there something else ailing the cat that caused him not to have his normal appetite?

My cat, the Naughty Nibbler, in his healthy days.

My cat, the Naughty Nibbler, in his healthy days.

Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Cats

  • Sudden weight loss
  • Low appetite
  • Excessive salivating
  • Vomiting
  • Increased lethargy
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes or skin)

The first symptom you will see is sudden weight loss. You may also notice that your cat does not have typical eating habits. Or, in the case of our cat, he refused to eat our new cat food and began trying to scavenge for food on our counters. We began hiding our food, and that's when we realized he was starting to lose weight. We decided to switch food, and at first, he was eating his new food—so we thought everything was okay.

Unfortunately, his liver had already been affected, which made him not feel very well, so he slowly ate less and less. Because jaundice is often delayed, it took a couple of days for us to notice the yellowing after he had already lost a significant amount of weight. We first noticed this in his ears, where you could see the skin had a slight yellow hue. The first time I saw it, I thought it was the lighting, but it was very evident then. The whites of his eyes were yellow, his skin was yellow, even the inside of his mouth was yellow.

We never really noticed any excessive salivating, but he occasionally threw up, which was not unusual for this cat. We did nickname him pukey, after all. (He would often puke up hairballs, or his food, due to excessive gorging.) Unfortunately, our cat is also a very laid-back cat. So to see him sleep all day and cuddle was not unusual. But in retrospect, we realized, he stopped jumping on top of the cupboards where he liked to go when he wanted to be alone. He also stopped attacking the other cat, which was one of his favorite pastimes (and our other cat's least favorite pastime), but it was amusing. We felt bad we didn't notice this, but his personality didn't change since he was already a very mellow cat.

A healthy cat's ears will be this nice, pink color. If it is yellowish in color than your cat is jaundiced.

A healthy cat's ears will be this nice, pink color. If it is yellowish in color than your cat is jaundiced.

How to Test for Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease is a severe condition and should be checked out immediately if you suspect it. Your veterinarian will have a very good idea when he sees your cat. For instance, when I brought my cat in, I said, "We switched food, and he wouldn't eat it. By the time we finally went back to his old food, he had started losing weight. Today when I woke up, I noticed that his ears were very yellow." He instantly knew, but he did a blood panel anyway. In some cases, they would do a liver biopsy under light anesthesia, but the blood panel was sufficient in our case.

There are other reasons why a cat might begin to lose weight and become jaundiced. We could see that an infection or cancer did not cause it in our case. The only enzymes that were out of whack were the liver enzymes. He knew that most likely, our cat had essentially starved himself and caused himself to have Fatty Liver Disease. Cats are unique in that after only two to three days of not eating, their fat will begin to store in their liver, causing some liver damage. So if a cat doesn't like his food for whatever reason or feels emotional over his owner's vacation trip, they can bring this upon themselves. In the case of Mr. Nibbles, he did just that.

If your cat is sick with feline hepatic lipidosis, you may get to the point where your vet recommends force-feeding him through a syringe.

If your cat is sick with feline hepatic lipidosis, you may get to the point where your vet recommends force-feeding him through a syringe.

Treatment Options for Your Cat

The truth is, this illness can be fatal. If it's not caught early enough, it is almost always fatal. Fortunately, if you catch it soon enough, there are treatments. The main thing is to get them to start storing fat again. So your primary objective is to get them to eat.

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In Mr. Nibbles' case, we had to force-feed him with a syringe and give him a medication called Denosyl (90 mg) once a day. The doctor will suggest inserting a feeding tube into their esophagus in some cases. Fortunately, and partly due to my cat's mellow behavior, we could force-feed him through a syringe. You must do this between three and six weeks because they have to flush that fat out of their liver and build fat up again.

This disease kind of works in a circular fashion. I say this because it all begins with the cat choosing not to eat for whatever reason. Unfortunately, the worse they feel, the less likely they will eat, exacerbating the problem. By force-feeding them, you are giving them nutrients, so their liver begins to function again and cause them to feel better, so they will want to eat again.

If the cat's disease is found soon enough, they have a 90 percent chance of survival. Unfortunately, like that of our cat Mr. Nibbles, they will begin to progress and get healthier in some cases. Then die of a related cause. Our cat died of a stroke, which is common among cats with fatty liver disease. Even though he started to fight the disease, his body was causing blood clots, and one eventually traveled to his brain. He went from beginning to walk normally to not even being able to jump up on our lap. We knew instantly; things had turned for the worse. He died within a few short hours after his walking became impaired.

A healthy cat's tongue and mouth should be pink. Black spots are normal, but any tint of yellow is not. If there is any yellow coloring than you should have them checked by a vet.

A healthy cat's tongue and mouth should be pink. Black spots are normal, but any tint of yellow is not. If there is any yellow coloring than you should have them checked by a vet.

What to Feed Your Cat

Honestly, feed them whatever they are willing to eat. With Mr. Nibbles, we force-fed him special high nutrient canned cat food but offered him tuna and other things in hopes that he would want to eat. One cat lover syringe-fed their cat canned pumpkin because it is high in nutrients. Often this is a food that cats like as well, so it might be a good choice. But feel free to offer your cat whatever you want. It may not be the ideal cat food, but the point is to get your cat to eat on its own. You have to get it to feel good enough to want to eat—so offering some of your cat's guilty pleasures that he'll sneak when your back is turned is probably the best bet.

Along with food, it's essential to make sure your cat is drinking enough. Fortunately, canned cat food has plenty of liquid, but you still want to make sure they are not dehydrated since this is a common problem in cats with feline hepatic lipidosis. We were fortunate in that our cat never stopped drinking. But you may want to make your food for the cat extra watery to ensure he is getting the appropriate amount of liquid.

Generally, stinkier foods will interest your cat the most: eggs, canned cat food, tuna, baby food, and canned pumpkin are good choices. Feel free to try anything in hopes one of them will be the winner.

Good luck with your cat. I hope your cat has success. If you catch this early enough, they have a 90 percent success rate!

Sources and Further Reading

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

Question: My 10-year-old female cat was diagnosed with fatty liver disease she stopped eating and I had to force feed her for a few days. She started eating on her own for about 1 1/2 days and then she stopped eating again. I noticed her ears looked yellow, and her lip line of her mouth also. What do I do to help my cat's fatty liver disease until I can get her to the vet?

Answer: Unfortunately, force feeding her is all you can do, and get her in as soon as possible. This is a very serious condition. Make sure you explain what is going on to your vet, so they will get her in quickly.

Question: My 11-year-old cat has become jaundice. We have been to the vet, and they have given me some urgent care canned food to force-feed. But I didn’t think to ask them how often should I be syringe feeding. I’ve been feeding 60cc every 4 hours. Is that enough, or is that too often. Just wondering if anyone had any ideas because my vet is closed until Monday, so I won’t be able to call and ask them over the weekend?

Answer: If you are unable to reach your doctor, there are often emergency vet hospitals open. You can google one in your area, or you may also go to, and there is almost always at least one vet available to answer any questions.

© 2011 Angela Michelle Schultz


Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on February 19, 2012:

Sam, thanks for sharing! I agree with you wholeheartedly. Mine too died.

Sam on January 29, 2012:

This happened to my cat, she had diabetes and her overall health was downhill. Unfortunately she passed away while my family was on vacation. This disease does kill! Take your cat in as soon as possible if any of these symptoms or signs are shown!

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on October 10, 2011:

I hope you didn't need to know this information. It was so sad to see my cat go through this.

htodd from United States on October 08, 2011:

Thanks ,Nice information

Angela Michelle Schultz (author) from United States on May 06, 2011:

Yes, I need to update this, because my cat actually ended up dying with this disease. Well, the vet said it was not really the disease, but a stroke as a result of the disease. He started getting better, then had a stroke.

Sun-Girl from Nigeria on May 06, 2011:

Wonderful article which is so educating and sounds scientific.

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