Attention Cat Lovers: Make Sure your Cat Doesn't Have HL
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Several weeks ago, I left California for Wisconsin with three cats. I now have two. The third, Meg, died of a condition that is fatal in cats if untreated but often fully preventable or curable if caught early. Knowledge of hepatic lipidosis, or HL should be part of Cat 101—as basic as “don’t feed your pet chocolate.” And yet, it isn’t.
I was dreading the move to Wisconsin. It was necessary, because University of Wisconsin is unfortunately not located in San Diego, and I am starting a graduate program there. I didn’t want to leave California, nor did I want to torture my poor cats with a cross-country car ride, and yet I had to do both. Odds are that Meg’s death is a direct result of the move, and my ignorance. I had no idea that while humans can fast for a day or so, cats cannot. Not even for a few days.
When a cat stops taking in enough calories, her body begins to metabolize its own fat for energy. In humans, that’s called going on a diet and our society generally views it as a good thing. But cats are not equipped to live on fat. Therefore, when this happens, their livers become clogged with fat. (“Hepatic” refers to the liver and “lipidosis” to the fat.) Then the cat starts to feel ill and really does not feel like eating, causing the problem to get worse until it results in liver failure and death.
In Meg’s case, she stopped eating the day we left California and she did not eat for at least four out of the six days we were on the road. She resumed eating once we reached Wisconsin, but she did not eat enough. With three cats, it’s hard to keep track of who eats what. It was two weeks before we went to the vet, after she’d lost a fourth of her body weight and peed on my floor.
Meg is a fat kitty. My friends use euphemisms like “big boned” or “fluffy,” but my cat is enormously fat. Obese, middle-aged cats like Meg are most at risk for HL. When she started losing weight, I was happy. I knew her weight was a risk factor for health trouble, but I had no idea that rapid weight loss is dangerous in cats—and it's deadly if it goes untreated.
The good news is that this is preventable and treatable. The prescription is food. When caught early enough, the condition has an excellent recovery rate. And you have to buy cat food anyway, so if you’re lucky, you won’t even require expensive vet care and drugs.
But then there’s the bad news. First, the initial period of eating too little that triggers the condition might be due to some other health problem. If your cat feels sick and stops eating because she’s got, say, cancer, she’ll need more than food to make her better.
Second, if you don’t discover your cat’s hepatic lipidosis early enough, then getting the cat food into the cat will require a feeding tube and all sorts of other expensive vet care.
Once you reach the vet with a cat who hasn’t been eating, there are a few ways to diagnose the problem. In Meg’s case, since she was pretty far gone, the dead giveaway was the yellow pigment of her jaundiced skin, particularly on her ears. The weight loss was also a cue.
To confirm the problem, a vet might test the cat’s blood for elevated bilirubin and other liver-related enzymes like ALT (alanine aminotransferase). If they are elevated, the vet knows there is trouble in the liver. A liver biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis. Vets often wish to do an ultrasound to see if there’s anything else amiss that caused the cat to stop eating in the first place.