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How Long Does a Cat Take to Recover From Jaundice? (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Leigh Wilder DMV


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While a highlighter-yellow cat may sound like something out of a cartoon, the reality of a jaundiced cat is no laughing matter. If your feline is suffering from this serious condition, you may have many questions—including, how long will it take them to recover? While the recovery period varies, depending on the specific disease process causing your cat’s jaundice, many jaundiced felines will face an extended recovery time of at least several weeks.

In addition to prognostic information, the following article will discuss jaundice in greater detail including how it is identified, potential causes, and diagnostic and treatment options for affected cats—to shed light on this hazy condition.

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What is Jaundice?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, refers to the yellow appearance of the skin, gums, and whites of the eyes due to an elevated level of bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia).

Bilirubin is a yellowish pigment that is produced during the breakdown of red blood cells (RBCs); this occurs as part of the normal life cycle of an RBC. Bilirubin then passes through the liver, and is eventually excreted from the body. Bilirubin may become elevated in the blood, leading to jaundice, due to an excessive breakdown of RBCs, impaired processing of bilirubin in the liver, or processes that reduce normal bilirubin excretion.

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What Are Symptoms Associated with Jaundice?

Jaundice is the clinical appearance associated with hyperbilirubinemia. While severe jaundice is easily identified, mild jaundice can be subtle and easily missed by the untrained eye. In addition to jaundice, cats with hyperbilirubinemia from various causes may experience the following symptoms:

  • Lethargy or decreased energy level
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

Causes of Jaundice in Cats

Potential causes of jaundice in felines may be broken down into pre-hepatic, hepatic, or post-hepatic conditions:

  • Pre-hepatic icterus is caused by the hemolysis, or breakdown of RBCs. Potential causes include the following:
    • Infectious diseases including feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), Mycoplasma haemofelis, and Cytauxzoon felis
    • Oxidative stress secondary to drugs or toxins, including Acetaminophen (Tylenol), garlic, and onions
    • Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia
    • Erythrocyte pyruvate kinase deficiency, an inherited disorder affecting RBCs
  • Hepatic icterus results from disease processes affecting the function of the liver. Conditions resulting in hepatic icterus may include:
    • Cholangitis (inflammation of the bile duct)
    • Hepatic lipidosis
    • Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
    • Hepatotoxicity, which may be secondary to medications, such as acetaminophen, tetracyclines, or diazepam
  • Post-hepatic icterus occurs secondary to blockage or obstruction of the bile duct. This prevents the gallbladder from releasing bile (which contains bilirubin) into the intestines for eventual excretion from the body. Disease processes that may contribute to post-hepatic icterus include:
    • Feline triaditis, a syndrome involving the concurrent conditions of pancreatitis, cholangitis, and inflammatory bowel disease
    • Liver flukes
    • Cholelithiasis (gallstones)

How Are the Causes of Jaundice Diagnosed

If you are concerned that your cat may have jaundice, a prompt visit to the veterinarian is recommended. Your veterinarian will obtain a thorough history regarding your cat’s symptoms, as well as any medications or supplements they have been receiving at home. They will then perform a physical exam, taking special care to evaluate for any abnormalities (such as an enlarged liver, pain, or a mass) noted on palpation of the abdomen.

If present, jaundice will be identified during this examination—it is important to remember that while jaundice may be easily diagnosed on a physical exam, identifying its underlying cause is essential, and will likely require further testing.

Diagnostic tests often recommended for further evaluation of jaundice include a complete blood count (CBC), blood chemistry, and urinalysis, as well as testing for FeLV and FIV. Blood work, most notably a CBC, may help to determine whether the cause of a cat’s jaundice is pre-hepatic; these felines will typically demonstrate a significant anemia or low RBC count.

Based on the results of initial testing, additional diagnostics, such as abdominal ultrasound, bile acids testing, or liver biopsy may also be recommended to help differentiate between hepatic and post-hepatic causes of jaundice.

Treatment of Jaundice in Felines

Treatment for jaundice in cats will largely depend on the underlying disease process. Blood transfusion and immunosuppressive medication may be used to treat felines with pre-hepatic jaundice, for example, while treatments to support and protect the liver are often used for cases of hepatic jaundice.

Supportive care that may benefit the majority of felines suffering from jaundice can also be initiated, including:

  • Intravenous fluids
  • Pain medication
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Feeding assistance, including a feeding tube if needed

Additionally, vitamin K—an essential vitamin needed for blood clotting— may also be considered for jaundiced cats. Excessive bleeding and clotting abnormalities may be noted in felines with liver disease, due to decreased production and activation of clotting factors, and a decreased level of vitamin K secondary to an abnormal flow of bile. Antibiotic medication may also be recommended in cases of feline jaundice when an infection is suspected.

What is the Prognosis for Jaundice?

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Image Credit: Natata, Shutterstock

The prognosis and recovery period for jaundice is variable, and depends on the underlying medical condition causing hyperbilirubinemia.

In felines with hepatic lipidosis, a common condition seen in indoor cats, hospitalization may be expected for 12 weeks with an overall recovery time of 6–12 weeks. In cats with jaundice secondary to surgical obstruction of the bile duct, a poor prognosis is anticipated, and recovery may not be attainable. For many conditions causing jaundice, however, the prognosis and expected recovery period will vary, based on the severity of the disease and the response to medical management.

How to Prevent Jaundice in Your Cat

Unfortunately, many causes of feline jaundice are not preventable. Consider the following tips, however, to help keep your cat safe and minimize the risk of several conditions that can lead to jaundice:

  1. Ensure your cat’s vaccinations are up to date. FeLV is a condition that may lead to pre-hepatic hyperbilirubinemia. Vaccination for FeLV is recommended for all kittens less than 1 year of age, and adult cats at high risk of exposure to FeLV-positive cats.
  2. Store human medication safely. Acetaminophen is a common over-the-counter medication that is present in many homes, and may cause severe toxicity and possible jaundice if ingested by felines.
  3. Prevent access to human foods. Garlic and onions are members of the Allium family, and are poisonous to both cats and dogs. Ingestion of these foods may lead to RBC damage and subsequent hyperbilirubinemia.

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In conclusion, jaundice is a serious condition that may require an extended recovery period in affected felines. While certain precautions may be taken to keep your favorite feline healthy, jaundice may affect even the most well-cared-for cats.

If you are concerned that your cat may have jaundice, a timely evaluation by your veterinarian is recommended to identify the underlying cause and initiate treatment quickly—to hopefully produce the best possible outcome for your furry friend.

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