What is Jaundice?
Vets explain to cat owners that jaundice is the yellow discoloration of the cat’s skin, eyes, ear flaps, gums and foot pads. Since jaundice indicates a high level of bilirubin in the blood, it’s also a symptom of a serious illness.
Jaundice develops when too much yellow pigment from bilirubin accumulates in a cat’s blood and its body tissues. The longer the cat has jaundice, which is also called “icterus,” the more yellow its skin, eyes and body tissues will appear to be. Since the skin of most cat breeds is covered with fur, pet owners and vets can get the best view of jaundice by looking at its eyes, gums, foot pads, and ear flaps. It won’t be easy to detect jaundice in cats with dark skin or gums. Jaundice is usually a symptom of a more serious illness.
Symptoms of Jaundice in Cats
Since jaundice is one of several symptoms of serious illness, observant cat owners do their pets a favor by noticing these signs, which can include:
- Loss of appetite or anorexia
- Yellowed skin, eyes or other body areas
- Rounded abdomen
- Stomach discomfort
- Poor, rough coat
- Lack of grooming
- Prolonged bleeding
- Unusual behaviors
- Ascites or accumulation of fluid in the abdomen
- Breathing difficulty
- Bright orange urine
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination
Causes of Jaundice in Cats
Cats develop jaundice as the result of several problems inside their bodies. Depending on the cause of jaundice, the treatments will be different.
- Liver disease that damages liver cells
- Destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis)
- Bile duct obstruction. Bile can become too thick or the gallbladder or bile ducts may become inflamed
- Blood parasites
- Enlargement of the liver
- Viral or bacterial infection
- Chemical exposure (leads to toxic hepatopathy)
- Pancreatic cancer
- Cancer of the gall bladder
- Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver)
- Lymphoma (cancer)
- Cholangiohepatitis (inflamed bile ducts or liver)
- Hepatic amyloidosis (accumulated amyloid in the liver)
- Feline infectious peritonitis (a fatal illness)
Diagnosis of Jaundice in Cats
When pet owners explain to the vet that they believe their cat has jaundice, the vet will perform a physical exam, make note of their direct observations, and run additional tests. At the beginning, the vet examines the exposed skin areas of the cat’s body. If they see jaundice, they order additional diagnostic testing, which can include blood work.
This blood work consists of a complete blood count, or CBC. This measures several important factors in the cat’s blood, such as the number of platelets, white and red blood cells. Going beyond the CBC, labs run the packed cell volume or PCV. This tells the vet the proportion of red blood cells in the blood. If the cat is anemic, the vet investigates, determining whether the cat has hemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). They will also look at the blood under a microscope to see if the cat has abnormal red blood cells, immature red blood, cells or an unexpected clump of cells.
If the vet finds that the cat has not been given heartworm medication and that it is an outdoors cat, they may consider an infestation of heartworms. They may look in a different direction if other symptoms, such as excessive thirst, drinking and urination, the vet will want to examine the cat’s liver and kidneys.
Other diagnostic tests may include urinalysis and a biochemical profile. These tests look for blood cell changes, anemia, bilirubin in the urine and urine concentration.
Depending on early findings, the vet may order X-rays or an ultrasound, a liver biopsy, a Coombs test (identifies whether red blood cells are being destroyed because of of the cat’s immune system) or serologic tests to see if the cat has contracted feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), toxoplasmosis, or feline leukemia virus (FeLV).
Treatment of Jaundice in Cats
Vets don’t treat jaundice by itself. Once they find the cause of the jaundice in a cat, they treat that condition, which means the jaundice will eventually resolve. For instance, if the cat has a viral or bacterial infection, the vet prescribes antibiotics or steroids, which allows the cat’s immune system to lower its response to the bacteria or viral body. For cats diagnosed with FIV or FeLV, supportive care that allows their immune system to handle the infection will be given.
If the cat has ingested a poison, the vet gives activated charcoal to the cat to remove toxins from its body. The vet may choose to induce vomiting. For hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), the cat will provide a high-quality nutritional support for the cat, consisting of a high protein, high calorie diet.
If the vet has diagnosed liver cancer, the cat undergoes surgery and chemotherapy. An obstruction of the biliary tract means the cat will undergo surgery to clear the obstruction.
Cats with hepatitis are given corticosteroids that reduce liver inflammation. If the cat is experiencing pain, it will be given pain medications. The vet may opt to prescribe SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine), which helps to give the liver support by boosting glutathione, which is an antioxidant. Other nutritional supplements may include Ursodeoxycholic acid. The cat may also receive vitamin K or Silybin, which supports liver function. This antioxidant helps the liver to rid itself of toxins and drugs. Anemic cats receive blood transfusions.
Recovery of Jaundice in Cats
Depending on the cause of the cat’s jaundice, the cat’s owner may receive a good prognosis or be told that the cat’s condition will be terminal or fatal, as in the case of feline infectious peritonitis.
Once the vet determines the exact cause of the cat’s jaundice and develops an effective treatment plan, many cats can live for many more years. Cat owners need to consistently give their cats prescribed medications and feed only the foods that are recommended, which helps to improve the cat’s recovery. By feeding high-quality foods and administering medications as prescribed, causes of jaundice can be successfully resolved.
Jaundice Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My cat Max has diagnose by jaundice
Jaundice in cats can be caused by a variety of different conditions including infection, parasites, haemolysis of red blood cells, bile duct disorders, immune system disorders, poisoning, cancer etc… It is important to diagnose the underlying condition by taking blood tests to check liver and kidney function, blood counts as well as looking at the blood under a microscope to check for parasites and morphology. Fluid therapy and dietary changes may be required as well as treatment of the primary condition. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
My cat has jaundice. What medicine should I give him?
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