The Shocking Timespan. How Long Can a Cat Actually Live with Jaundice?

What is jaundice in cats?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a condition characterized by the yellowing of the skin, gums, and whites of the eyes in cats. It occurs when there is excess bilirubin in the bloodstream, which is a yellow pigment produced when old red blood cells are broken down (1). The excess bilirubin is deposited in the tissues, causing them to take on a yellowish hue.

There are several potential causes of jaundice in cats, including (2):

  • Liver disease – Damage to the liver cells impairs the organ’s ability to process and remove bilirubin from the blood. Causes include inflammation, infection, cancer, etc.
  • Hemolysis – The premature breakdown of red blood cells releases excessive bilirubin into the blood faster than the liver can process it.
  • Bile duct obstruction – Blockage prevents bilirubin from being excreted into the intestines.

The most common symptoms of jaundice in cats include (3):

  • Yellowing of the gums, inner eyelids, and ears
  • Yellowing of the skin and coat
  • Dark yellow or orange urine
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Jaundice is often an indicator of serious underlying disease. Appropriate treatment depends on identifying and addressing the underlying cause.



How does jaundice affect cats?

Jaundice affects cats in several ways due to the buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced when old red blood cells break down. In a healthy cat, the liver filters out bilirubin so it can be excreted. But with jaundice, bilirubin accumulates and causes the yellow discoloration of the skin, gums, and eyes.

One major effect is on liver function. The liver is responsible for processing bilirubin. But diseases that cause jaundice often damage the liver, impairing its ability to filter out bilirubin. This causes a vicious cycle where bilirubin continues building up and further damages the liver.

High bilirubin levels can also have toxic effects on other organs like the kidneys and brain. Bilirubin is neurotoxic and can cause neurological symptoms in cats when it crosses the blood-brain barrier. Kidney damage occurs because bilirubin precipitates and clogs up kidney tubules.

In summary, the buildup of bilirubin with jaundice impairs liver function, damages other vital organs like the kidneys and brain, and causes the yellow discoloration of tissues seen with this condition.

Jaundice in cats can be caused by several different medical conditions that affect the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas. Some of the most common causes of jaundice in cats are:

What causes jaundice in cats?

Liver disease

Liver disease is one of the most common causes of jaundice in cats. Conditions like hepatitis, liver failure, cancer, and cirrhosis can all impair the liver’s ability to function normally. When the liver is damaged, it has trouble processing and excreting bilirubin, causing a buildup that leads to yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes. Liver disease is often indicated if jaundice occurs along with symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss, and weakness.

Blocked bile ducts

The bile ducts carry bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine. If these ducts become blocked by gallstones, scar tissue, or cancer, bile can build up in the body rather than getting excreted. This excess bile enters the bloodstream and causes jaundice. Cats with blocked bile ducts frequently show signs like yellowed skin/eyes, lack of appetite, lethargy, fever, and abdominal discomfort or distension. Conditions like cholangitis, cholecystitis, and bile duct cancer can all result in obstructive jaundice in cats.


The pancreas plays an important role in releasing enzymes for digestion. Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can impair its ability to function and release digestive enzymes. One consequence is that bilirubin can’t be properly broken down and processed, leading to its accumulation in tissues and jaundice. Pancreatitis in cats often causes symptoms like vomiting, abdominal pain, dehydration, diarrhea, fever, and lack of appetite along with yellowing of the skin and eyes. It may be triggered by high dietary fat, trauma, certain medications, or infections.

How is jaundice diagnosed in cats?

Jaundice is diagnosed in cats through a combination of physical examination, blood tests, and imaging tests.

During a physical exam, a veterinarian will check for visible signs of yellowing in the cat’s skin, gums, and the whites of the eyes. This yellow discoloration indicates a buildup of bilirubin, a yellow pigment found in bile. Jaundice is confirmed if the tissues show this distinct yellow hue.

Blood tests are also done to check liver enzymes and bilirubin levels. Elevated liver enzymes like ALT, AST, and ALP indicate liver disease. High bilirubin levels confirm jaundice is present. A complete blood count may also be done to check for anemia and signs of infection.

Imaging tests like X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans of the abdomen can help identify structural problems in the liver, gallbladder, or bile ducts contributing to jaundice. These images let vets visualize the liver size, shape, and presence of masses or inflammation. Ultrasound is commonly used since it provides clear images of the organs and is non-invasive.

By combining physical signs, bloodwork, and imaging, veterinarians can accurately diagnose jaundice in cats. These diagnostic steps allow the underlying cause to be determined and proper treatment to begin (VCA Animal Hospitals, 2023).

How is jaundice treated in cats?

Treatment of jaundice in cats focuses on addressing the underlying cause, protecting the liver, and providing supportive care. Some key aspects of treatment include:

Treating the underlying condition: Once the specific cause of jaundice is diagnosed, the vet will prescribe medications or recommend procedures to treat the underlying disease, infection, obstruction, etc. For example, antibiotics for infections, chemotherapy for cancer, or surgery to remove obstructions.

Liver protectants: Drugs called hepatoprotectants may be given to help protect liver cells from further damage. These include medications like SAM-e, silybin, and Vitamins E and C.1

Intravenous fluids: Fluid therapy provides hydration and allows the body to eliminate toxic wastes through urination. This helps support liver and kidney function.

Nutritional support: Appetite stimulants and prescription liver diets help ensure cats are getting adequate nutrition, calories, and protein to support recovery.

The specific treatment plan will be tailored to the individual cat based on the underlying cause and clinical signs. With appropriate treatment, many cats can recover from jaundice and live a normal lifespan.

What is the prognosis for cats with jaundice?

The prognosis for cats with jaundice depends on the underlying cause and whether it is acute or chronic jaundice. According to VCA Animal Hospitals[1], the prognosis is dependent on the underlying disease causing the jaundice. Some diseases causing jaundice can be fatal, while others have a good prognosis for full recovery.

For cats with acute jaundice caused by a treatable condition, the prognosis can be good with early diagnosis and prompt treatment. Many cats will respond quickly to treatment, with jaundice resolving in days to weeks[2]. However, chronic jaundice that develops over a longer period may indicate irreversible liver damage or advanced disease, which can carry a guarded prognosis.

Cats who respond well to treatment and have reversible damage to the liver have the best prognosis. However, if there is extensive liver dysfunction or scarring, or the underlying cause cannot be successfully treated, the prognosis worsens. Consult a veterinarian for a prognosis based on diagnostic testing and the specific cause in an individual cat.

How long can a cat survive with jaundice?

The prognosis and survival time for jaundiced cats can vary greatly depending on the underlying cause and how quickly treatment begins. Some key factors include:

Range of survival times:

– With prompt treatment, many cats recover fully from jaundice within 2-4 weeks (source).

– If the jaundice is due to an acute infection or toxin, survival times of a few months are common with treatment (source).

– For serious liver disease or cancer, jaundice indicates a grave prognosis of weeks to months (source).

Factors affecting prognosis:

– The underlying cause – curable diseases have better outcomes than chronic liver failure or cancer (source).

– How quickly treatment begins – early intervention leads to better prognosis (source).

– The cat’s overall health – younger, otherwise healthy cats tend to survive longer (source).

Statistics on survival:

– Up to 80% of cats can recover fully with prompt treatment for infectious causes of jaundice (source).

– Median survival time for cats with lymphoma or liver cancer causing jaundice is 2-3 months (source).

– Only 10-15% of cats survive more than 2 months with end-stage liver failure and jaundice (source).

How to care for a cat with jaundice

Caring for a cat with jaundice involves supporting nutrition, hydration, medications, and veterinary monitoring. Some key aspects of at-home care include:

Nutrition and hydration: Cats with jaundice often have poor appetites. Feeding soft, smelly foods like tuna, chicken, or salmon can encourage eating. Adding water or broth to food increases fluid intake. Feeding small, frequent meals aids digestion.

Medications: Vets may prescribe medications like ursodeoxycholic acid to improve liver function and appetite stimulants to encourage eating. Give all medications precisely as directed.

Monitoring and veterinary care: Weigh your cat daily and monitor energy levels, appetite, vomiting, and jaundice color. Watch for yellowing of ears and gums. Contact your vet if symptoms worsen. Regular vet checkups monitor liver function. Bloodwork helps determine if jaundice is resolving.

With supportive at-home care and treatment of the underlying condition, many cats can recover fully from jaundice. Close work with your vet provides the best care.


Preventing jaundice in cats

There are several ways cat owners can help prevent jaundice in their feline companions:

Get regular vaccinations – Vaccines can help prevent infectious diseases that may lead to jaundice, such as feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Maintaining updated core vaccines is important for protecting cat health.

Prioritize preventative care – Annual veterinary exams allow early detection of conditions like cancers or gastrointestinal diseases that could cause jaundice if left untreated. Preventative care improves outcomes.

Avoid toxins – Keep cats away from toxic substances like acetaminophen, antifreeze, lead, and poisonous plants that can damage the liver and lead to jaundice. Do not let cats outside unsupervised where they may ingest toxins.

Provide a balanced diet – Feed cats a nutritious diet to maintain healthy organ function. Obesity can increase the risk of liver disease and jaundice.

Reduce stress – Limit stressors that may weaken the immune system and make cats prone to infections leading to jaundice. Keep litter boxes clean and limit changes in environment.

With proactive preventative care and a safe home environment, cat owners can reduce the likelihood of their cats developing jaundice and liver disease.

Outlook for cats surviving jaundice

The prognosis for cats who survive an episode of jaundice can depend greatly on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. If the jaundice was caused by a treatable issue such as an infection or toxin ingestion, the outlook may be good once the initial problem is resolved.

However, jaundice often indicates substantial liver disease or failure in cats. Even if the initial cause of the liver damage is treated, the cat may be left with some degree of long-term liver dysfunction or insufficiency. This can lead to potential ongoing complications.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals (, residual liver damage after jaundice can cause recurrent fluid buildup in the abdomen as well as neurological issues due to the liver’s inability to remove toxins from the bloodstream.

Cats who have survived jaundice will need regular veterinary monitoring to check liver enzyme levels, bilirubin, and abdominal fluid. Their diet and activity may need to be adjusted based on the degree of liver dysfunction. Any abnormalities or symptoms need quick veterinary attention.

Jaundice and its underlying causes can significantly impact a cat’s quality of life. Working closely with the veterinarian and providing excellent at-home supportive care can help optimize an affected cat’s wellbeing and longevity.

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