Jaundice in Cats – Symptoms and Causes

The jaundice is defined as the yellow pigmentation of the skin , urine, serum and organs caused by the accumulation of bilirubin in blood and tissues. It is a clinical sign that can originate from multiple diseases. If your cat has an abnormal coloration in some part of the body, the veterinarian should perform different tests to establish a differential diagnosis.

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If your cat suffers from these changes and you would like to know a little more about their origin, read this YourCatCareguide article where we explain in detail the most common causes of jaundice in cats .

What is bilirubin?

Bilirubin is a product that results from the breakdown of erythrocytes (red blood cells) when they reach the end of life (lasting about 100 days). Red blood cells are destroyed in the spleen and bone marrow, and from the pigment that gave them hemoglobin color, another pigment, yellow in color, forms bilirubin.

It is a complex process in which hemoglobin begins by being transformed into biliverdin which turns into fat-soluble bilirubin. Bilirubin is subsequently released into the circulation, traveling together to a protein until it reaches the liver.

In the liver, the body’s great purifying machine, it turns into conjugated bilirubin and is stored in the gallbladder . Each time the gallbladder empties into the small intestine, a small portion of bilirubin leaves with the remaining components of the gall. Through the action of certain bacteria, bilirubin is transformed into the normal pigments we see daily: stercobilin (gives color to feces) and urobilinogen (gives color to urine).

Why does jaundice appear in cats?

By now you must have realized that the liver is the key. Jaundice occurs when the body is unable to properly excrete bilirubin and the remaining components of bile. Determining the timing of this failure is the most complicated task.

To simplify this complex subject we could speak of:

  • Hepatic jaundice (when the cause is in the liver).
  • Post-hepatic jaundice (liver does its job properly but there is a failure in storage and transport).
  • Non-hepatic jaundice (when the problem has nothing to do with the liver, nor with the storage and excretion of the pigment).

Symptoms of jaundice in cats

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, jaundice is a clinical sign indicating that the cat suffers from a health problem. The most obvious sign of this problem is the yellow color of the skin, being more evident in the mouth, ear and in the areas with less hair.

Hepatic jaundice

Hepatic jaundice occurs when something fails at the level of the liver, that is, when it can not fulfill its mission and is not able to excrete the bilirubin that reaches it. Under normal conditions, hepatic cells (hepatocytes) excrete this pigment into the bile ducts and then pass into the gallbladder. But when cells are affected by some pathology, or there is inflammation that prevents the passage of bilirubin into the bile ducts, an intrahepatic cholestasis occurs .

What causes can cause hepatic jaundice in cats?

Any pathology that directly affects the liver can produce this accumulation of bilirubin. In cats we have the following:

  • Hepatic lipidosis : The fatty liver in cats may appear as a consequence of prolonged fasting in obese cats. The fat is transferred to the liver in an attempt to obtain nutrients, among other reasons. Sometimes one can not know what this movement is due to and we should call the problem of idiopathic hepatic lipidosis.
  • Neoplasia : especially in older patients, primary neoplasms are the most frequent cause of liver failure.
  • Feline hepatitis : hepatocytes can be destroyed by substances that the cat ingests accidentally and that can lead to hepatitis.
  • Biliary cirrhosis : Biliary canal fibrosis causes an inability to fulfill the mission of transferring bilirubin into the gallbladder.
  • Alterations at the vascular level .

Sometimes there are changes that can cause liver failure at secondary level, that is, produced by pathologies that have side effects in the liver. We can find, for example, livers affected by neoplasias secondary to feline leukemia . We may also find changes or liver damage caused by feline infectious peritonitis, toxoplasmosis or even due to diabetes mellitus. As a consequence of any of these problems, we will see a very obvious jaundice in the cat.

Post-hepatic jaundice

The cause of accumulation of bilirubin is outside the liver , when the pigment has passed through the hepatocytes to be processed. For example, a mechanical obstruction of the extrahepatic bile duct, which drains the bile into the duodenum. This obstruction can be caused by:

  • A pancreatitis , inflammation of the pancreas.
  • A neoplasm in the duodenum or pancreas, which compresses the area by proximity and makes it impossible to excrete the contents of the gallbladder.
  • A rupture due to a trauma of the bile duct, with which you can not evacuate the bile to the intestine (trampling, blowing, falling from a window …)

In cases where there is a complete interruption of the bile flow (bile duct rupture) we can see the yellow coloration of the mucous membranes or skin. There may also be feces without coloration, since the pigment that gives them color does not reach the intestine (the estercobilina).

Non-hepatic jaundice

This type of jaundice in cats happens when the problem is an overproduction of bilirubin , such that the liver is not able to expel the extra amount of pigment, although nothing is damaged in it, nor in transport to the duodenum. It happens, for example, in hemolysis(rupture of red blood cells), which may be due to factors such as:

  • Toxic : for example paracetamol, naphthalene or onion are substances that cause the rupture of healthy red blood cells, causing anemia and an overload in the system that is in charge of destroying the remains of these globules.
  • Viral or bacterial infections , such as hemobartonellosis. On the surface of the red blood cells antigens are deposited and the immune system identifies them as targets for destruction. Sometimes external help is not needed and the immune system itself fails and begins to destroy the erythrocytes themselves for no reason.
  • Hyperthyroidism : The mechanism by which jaundice occurs in cats with hyperthyroidism is not well known but may be due to increased red cell degradation.

How do I know the cause of jaundice in my cat?

The laboratory tests and diagnostic imaging are fundamental, as well as the detailed clinical history that the Veterinarian will elaborate from the information we provide. While it may seem irrelevant, we must communicate every detail to the detail.

Performing a blood count and serum biochemistry, as well as determining the hematocrit and total proteins, are the beginning of a series of complementary tests.

In cats with jaundice, it is common to find elevated liver enzymes , but this does not tell us whether the cause is a primary or secondary hepatobiliary disease. Sometimes an excessive increase of one of them in relation to the others may guide us, but an ultrasound and radiological study must always be carried out (we can detect masses, obstructions of the duodenum, infiltration of fat …). In addition, prior to all this, medical history and physical examination may allow the veterinarian to find lumps in the thyroid, fluid in the abdomen (ascites), and even detect possible exposure to hepatotoxic drugs.

We should look at jaundice as a clinical sign shared by dozens of changes of all kinds, so it is essential to check its origin with a thorough history, physical examination and laboratory and diagnostic tests.

This article is purely informative, in YourCatCareguide.com.br we do not have the capacity to prescribe veterinary treatments nor to make any type of diagnosis. We suggest you bring your pet to the veterinarian in case of any type of condition or malaise.

If you would like to read more articles similar to Jaundice in cats – symptoms and causes , we recommend you to enter our section on Other health problems .

Emily Harris

Hi Guys, Girls, and Cats:-p I am Emily Harris, and you can see in above pic. She loves me I swear. I saved her from a dumpster a few weeks back.

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