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Nutrition Nuggets
Your cat's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your cat, how much food to feed, and the differences in cat foods, so your cat gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Feeding Cats with Pancreatitis

May 10, 2013 / (11) comments

Feline pancreatitis is a maddening disease. It is often difficult to diagnose, veterinarians are usually unsure of its underlying cause, and it can be resistant to treatment. Why then, should making recommendations about what to feed cats with pancreatitis be any different?

First some background. The pancreas is a small organ that is located between the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. It has two main functions: the production of the hormone insulin and the manufacture of digestive enzymes. Pancreatitis develops when the organ becomes inflamed for any of a number (or no particular) reason. Oftentimes the only symptoms associated with pancreatitis in cats are lethargy and a poor appetite. A definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis can require some combination of a blood chemistry profile, complete cell count, urinalysis, fecal examination, specific tests for pancreatitis (fPLI or SPEC-FPL), abdominal X-rays and/or ultrasounds, and even exploratory surgery.

Treatment for pancreatitis involves fluid therapy, pain relief, medications to control nausea and vomiting, antibiotics, sometimes plasma transfusions, and perhaps most importantly, getting the cat to eat again. Cats that stop eating for any reason are at high risk for a potentially life-threatening disease called hepatic lipidosis. Therefore, getting food into cats with pancreatitis is critical, which begs the question, “What type of food is best?”

When dogs develop pancreatitis, it is standard protocol to hold them off food until their vomiting subsides and then to begin refeeding with a low fat diet. This doesn’t hold true for cats, however. Vomiting isn’t such a big problem in cats with pancreatitis, and research has not shown a benefit to low fat foods.

Many cats with pancreatitis are also suffering from some degree of liver disease and inflammatory bowel disease, so the food we pick must also be appropriate for those conditions.

My go-to diets for cats suffering from pancreatitis have the following characteristics:

  • easily digestible
  • moderate levels of protein that come from novel sources or are altered to be hypoallergenic
  • moderate fat levels
  • canned, unless the cat will only eat dry

Several pet food manufacturers make products that fit these criteria, so I’ll try one and if the cat turns her nose up at it, move on to another.

Dietary recommendations are all well and good unless the patient refuses the food. The adage, “It’s better to eat some of the wrong diet than none of the right diet” certainly applies to feline pancreatitis. If a cat will only eat a food that I would normally avoid, she can have it until she’s feeling better and then we have the option of making a gradual shift.

If the cat refuses to eat anything at all, it’s time for a feeding tube. I use nasogastric tubes (threaded through the nose and into the esophagus or stomach) when I think supplementary feeding will be needed for only or a few days, but esophagostomy tubes (surgically inserted into the esophagus) are a better long term solution. One of the benefits of an esophagostomy tube is that we can feed canned food blended with a little water through it. So even if a cat doesn’t want to eat a diet with the characteristics I mentioned above, we now have a low stress way of getting it into her.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Gemenacom / via Shutterstock

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Comments  11

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  • 05/10/2013 10:40am

    About 6 months ago my 15 year old cat Brisket was hospitalized with pancreatitis, liver infection, anemia, and blood clots that pretty much paralyzed his back end. The vet gave him less than a 50% chance of making it through the night. But he did...and I spent the entire next morning, day and night with him at the clinic and my little boy pulled through with no complications since! He's amazing and healthy now and I'm grateful forever to the most terrific vet in Edmonton, Alberta: Dr. Doug Heffelfinger.

  • Another One
    05/10/2013 06:21pm

    It's another one of those problems that a cat is sooooo good at hiding.

    My 18 1/2 year old Ivy Elizabeth (RIP) was doing just fine - or so I thought. Within a 12 hour period she became lethargic and quit eating. Off to the vet! I lost her the next day (she went into respiratory arrest and was subsequently euthanized) and the necropsy showed that she had severe pancreatitis (among a few other things that weren't nearly as serious).

    I've always felt guilty that she felt terrible and I didn't know it.

  • 05/11/2013 12:12am

    Feeling guilty is completely normal and I can definitely relate. I still have guilt over the death of my kitty from acute kidney failure :( It's gotten better over the last 4 years but I understand how you feel....

  • 12/01/2013 06:01pm

    I wanted to hug you when I saw your response. My Abby Cat, is currently at the vet suffering from pancreatitis. I am beside myself feeling worried and guilty that she may have had this for quite sometime and I didn't know until things got bad - she stopped eating. They are certain she has pancreatitis, but they are doing a GI blood work to rule out inflammatory bowel disease.

    My cat has always been a cat the pukes a lot. She is persian and doesn't like to be brushed. Especially on one side near her hind quarters. I use to think it was because when she was little I nicked her there while grooming, but now I wonder if she was in pain. Also she usually pukes at least once a week, which I thought was hair balls. Now I am wondering if it were the first signs of her disease.

    Now, I am just praying she gets to come home.

    Your post reminded me to not feel guilty and remember I am human. So thank you!!

  • 12/02/2013 06:28pm

    I hope Abby Cat is doing OK and has come home.

    We can only do our best when it comes to caring for our non-speaking friends. If only they could TELL us something hurts!

    Thinking back, if I knew then what I know now, the first cat I had as an adult, I could have done SO much better for him. As it was, I did my best with limited knowledge. This is the day prior to the internet and I clearly remember the vet gently suggesting a full blood panel... but it was 30 dollars!

  • 07/25/2013 09:07am

    my 3 year old male is hospitalized at the vet as of yesterday with Pancreatitis...What food besides the prescription Diet cat food is appropriate for cats to stay on during and after Pancreatitis ??? I would like to know some brand names.
    Also, what kind of treat can be given occasionally ?

  • 07/25/2013 12:06pm

    The answers to your questions depend on the exact nature of your cat's condition. Since I don't have all the details, I can't make a specific recommendation. Talk to the veterinarians who are involved in your cat's case about what foods/treats would be best.

  • 09/09/2013 12:36pm

    You've probably found a suitable food by now but just wanted you to know that my cat has done very well on
    "Royal Canin Hypoallergenic" wet food. I tried rabbit, duck and the venison but he'll only eat the rabbit. Good luck to you and your kitty. -Kim

  • Separating the food
    03/14/2014 02:02am

    Keeping the food away from the wrong cats can be accomplished easily by using a MeowSpace. Not too many people know this solution exists, but those who do are singing its praises.

  • 03/18/2014 12:55am

    My cat has IBD and has pancreatitis recently. She finished 2 weeks antibiotic for pancreatitis, but she is not eating much now. Her vet put her on another 4 days antibiotic for pancreatitis (b/c she thinks that my cat still has pancreatitis) and medication to increase her appetite. She is eating Limited Ingredient dry and canned food (which I think is high in fat). I wonder what kind of food is best for her (for both IBD and pancratitis).

  • 03/21/2014 12:08pm

    If your cat were my patient I would pick a food based on her IBD (one that she would eat) since it doesn't seem to matter what food cats with pancreatitis eat.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.

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