Fatty Liver Disease (Hepatic Lipidosis) in Cats

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on October 21, 2022
5 min read

Fatty liver disease, also known as hepatic lipidosis, is a buildup of fat in the liver that can happen when a cat stops eating for a period of days. Hepatic lipidosis can be fatal to your feline friend if left untreated. Recognizing the risk factors and symptoms of fatty liver disease early and intervening with appropriate treatment can ensure that your cat makes a full recovery.

In both humans and cats, the liver is a vital organ that serves numerous essential functions, including:

  • Filtering out toxins in the bloodstream
  • Manufacturing certain proteins and fats
  • Storing glycogen, an important source of energy
  • Producing bile, a fluid that aids digestion 

Fatty liver disease develops when an excess of fat builds up in and around the liver. It's fairly common in humans, and proper management can prevent it from progressing to more serious conditions or permanent liver damage. 

But fatty liver disease in cats, also known as fatty liver syndrome or hepatic lipidosis, becomes serious far more quickly. Triglycerides, a type of fat molecule, can rapidly accumulate in cats’ liver cells. When these cells become too full of fat, they fail to function properly. 

Although it’s unclear why, this process can happen extremely quickly in cats and can cause severe, and fatal, liver damage within a matter of days.

The main cause of fatty liver disease in cats is the buildup of triglycerides in hepatocytes, the cells that make up the liver. Typically, this buildup is due to anorexia, which happens when the cat doesn’t eat for a few days. 

Fatty liver disease in cats is caused by a period of anorexia. When a cat stops eating, they’re no longer getting necessary energy from food. In response, the body begins to break down stored fats to make up for the energy deficit. These fats get processed by the liver, which can get quickly overwhelmed if it breaks down too much fat too quickly. 

If the liver can’t process the fats quickly enough, they start to build up in liver cells and cause hepatic lipidosis. Overweight cats are at higher risk of fatty liver disease because they carry excess fat that can quickly fill liver cells. 

Fatty liver disease in cats can come on within a few days of the cat not eating. It's fatal if left untreated and requires immediate veterinary intervention.

There is typically an underlying reason for why a cat stopped eating. Although the primary cause of fatty liver disease in cats is a period of anorexia, there is usually another reason why the cat stopped eating in the first place. 

An underlying health condition may cause your cat to stop eating and should be treated in conjunction with treatment for fatty liver disease. Underlying health conditions that may cause a cat to stop eating include: 

  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Pancreatitis
  • Kidney disease
  • Another liver disorder unrelated to the hepatic lipidosis

Physically healthy cats may also stop eating in response to stress or changes in their environment. Possible environmental triggers that may cause a cat to stop eating include:

  • Sudden changes to the cat’s diet
  • Moving to a new home
  • Introduction of a new pet or family member
  • Loss of a pet or family member
  • Boarding in a kennel
  • An inside-only cat getting lost outside

The longer cats go without eating, the more likely they are to develop hepatic lipidosis. Common symptoms of fatty liver disease in cats include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Drooling
  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes (also known as jaundice)

If your cat is showing any of these symptoms, contact your vet immediately. In particular, jaundice is an indicator that the liver is failing and that your cat requires immediate medical attention.

If you’ve noticed that your cat is eating less than normal or has stopped eating altogether, it’s important to contact your veterinarian. Together you can make an intervention plan to prevent your cat from developing fatty liver disease.

Diagnosing fatty liver disease in cats. If you suspect your cat has fatty liver disease, take them to a veterinarian for an examination. Your vet may diagnose your cat with just a physical examination and blood work. They may also decide to take a liver biopsy or perform an ultrasound to see if the liver looks enlarged.

Treatment of fatty liver disease in cats. Cats suffering from hepatic lipidosis often need immediate delivery of nutrients in order to prevent further damage to the liver. Cats typically get intravenous delivery of fluids and nutrients and a feeding tube implanted either through the esophagus or directly in the gastrointestinal tract.

Cats with fatty liver disease may spend the first few days after diagnosis undergoing treatment at the vet but are typically brought home for the remainder of treatment. You will have to feed your cat a special food mixture through the feeding tube for 6 to 7 weeks, which you can typically do from home.

While the cat is on the feeding tube, you should offer them some regular food at least once a week to gauge whether they're ready to eat again. Once the cat begins eating again on its own, the amount of food delivered through the feeding tube can be slowly lowered, and eventually, the tube can be taken out. 

Consult with your veterinarian about moving your cat back to normal food, and don't attempt to remove the feeding tube on your own.

Prognosis for cats with fatty liver disease. Cats can make a full recovery if hepatic lipidosis is diagnosed early and treated quickly. It’s also important to determine and treat any underlying causes of fatty liver disease. Cats who recover from fatty liver disease typically won’t experience another instance of the disease.

If your cat has an underlying condition or is exposed to unavoidable stress, it may be impossible to prevent them from losing their appetite. But keeping a close eye on your cat’s food intake and behavior can help get them treatment before fatty liver disease becomes a major problem.

In addition to monitoring your cat’s food intake and behavior, there are a few other methods to keep in mind that may help prevent the onset of fatty liver disease:

  • If your cat is overweight, set up a diet plan with your veterinarian.
  • If you do change the type or amount of food that you give your cat, make changes very gradually.
  • Try to minimize stress on your cat whenever possible. 
  • Make sure your cat is up to date on any veterinary care.

Fatty liver disease in cats is caused by a buildup of fat in liver cells, typically as a result of a period of not eating. Cats may stop eating for many reasons, and it’s important to consult a veterinarian if your cat suddenly stops eating or if they show signs of fatty liver disease, like vomiting or jaundice. With early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, cats can recover from fatty liver disease, and recovered cats rarely get it again.