Jaundice in Cats. How Serious is it Really?

What is jaundice in cats?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a condition in cats where bilirubin builds up in the blood and tissues, causing a yellow discoloration of the skin, gums, and eyes (VCA Animal Hospitals, 2022). It indicates an underlying issue with the liver, gallbladder, blood, or pancreas.

Jaundice occurs when there is too much bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced when old red blood cells are broken down. Normally, the liver filters out bilirubin and excretes it into bile to be eliminated. But liver disease or bile duct obstruction can prevent this natural process, leading to a bilirubin buildup (PetMD, 2021).

Some common causes of jaundice in cats include (WagWalking, 2016):

  • Liver disease damaging liver cells
  • Destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis)
  • Bile duct obstruction
  • Blood parasites

Symptoms of jaundice in cats often include yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes. Other signs may include lethargy, decreased appetite, weight loss, vomiting, and fever (VCA Animal Hospitals, 2022). Jaundice indicates an underlying health issue, so veterinary assessment is recommended.

Common causes

Some of the most common causes of jaundice in cats include:

Liver disease: Conditions like hepatitis and cirrhosis can impair the liver’s ability to process and excrete bilirubin, leading to a buildup in the bloodstream. Chronic inflammation of the liver is one of the top reasons for jaundice in cats. (Source)

Gallbladder disease: Gallstones, tumors, infections, or other issues with the gallbladder or bile ducts can obstruct the flow of bile, resulting in jaundice. For example, inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) is a common cause of bile duct obstruction in cats. (Source)

Infections: Certain bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections, like feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and toxoplasmosis, can damage the liver and lead to jaundice. Bartonella bacteria has also been linked to liver inflammation and jaundice in cats. (Source)

Cancer: Liver tumors or cancers spreading from other parts of the body can interfere with normal liver function and bile flow. Lymphoma, for example, is a type of cancer that may spread to the liver in cats. (Source)

Medications: Certain antibiotics, anesthetics, anti-seizure medications, steroids, and other drugs can potentially cause drug-induced liver disease and jaundice as a side effect in some cats.

Trauma: Blunt trauma or injury to the abdominal area may damage the liver or bile ducts, leading to cholestasis and jaundice.


The most obvious symptom of jaundice in cats is a yellowish discoloration of the skin, gums, ears, and eyes. This is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the blood and tissues, which is a yellow pigment produced when old red blood cells are broken down. Other symptoms of jaundice in cats may include:

  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Rapid breathing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Change in urine color to dark yellow
  • Change in stool color to grey or clay-colored

According to PetMD, the yellowing starts around the ears, gums, and eyes, and progresses to the skin and other tissue as bilirubin levels increase in the blood (1). The severity of symptoms often depends on the underlying cause of the jaundice.


Diagnosing jaundice in cats often begins with a physical examination by a veterinarian. The veterinarian will check the cat’s skin and eyes for signs of yellowing. Blood tests may also be conducted to check levels of bilirubin and liver enzymes like ALT, AST, and ALP. Elevated levels can indicate liver disease or problems with bile flow. According to PetMD, bilirubin levels above 1.5 mg/dL are considered abnormal in cats.

An ultrasound of the abdomen may also be recommended to visualize the liver, gallbladder, and bile ducts. This can help identify gallstones, tumors, inflammation, or other issues that may be obstructing bile flow. The veterinarian may also collect a tissue sample of the liver or other organs to examine under a microscope for signs of disease.

In some cases, dye contrast imaging tests like cholangiograms or scintigraphy may be used to evaluate the flow of bile. These specialized tests can check for leaks, ruptures, or blockages in the bile duct system. Overall, diagnostic testing aims to pinpoint the underlying cause of jaundice so it can be properly treated.


Treatment for jaundice in cats depends on the underlying cause. Some common treatments include:

Medications: Antibiotics like amoxicillin may be prescribed if there is a bacterial infection causing the jaundice. Steroids like prednisone help reduce inflammation that is damaging the liver. Liver support supplements like SAM-e and milk thistle can help improve liver function.

Surgery: If there is an obstruction like gallstones blocking the bile ducts, surgery may be done to remove the blockage. Surgery can also remove cancerous tumors on the liver or gallbladder.

Dietary Changes: Eating a liver-friendly diet is important. Cats with liver disease should eat high-quality protein, moderate fat, and carbohydrates from vegetables rather than grains. Low sodium diets help reduce fluid buildup. Additional vitamins and supplements support liver health.

Outlook and prognosis

The prognosis for cats with jaundice depends on the underlying cause. Some causes are treatable while others can be fatal. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the prognosis relies on the underlying cause, as some diseases causing jaundice are fatal but others have a good chance for full recovery.

If the jaundice is due to liver disease or bile duct obstruction, the prognosis can vary. With prompt treatment, many cats recover fully. However, if there is long-term or irreversible liver damage, the prognosis may be poor. According to PetMD, the mortality rate for cats with severe liver disease or failure ranges from 50% to 70%.

For jaundice caused by blood cell destruction or infection, the prognosis is often good with appropriate treatment. According to WagWalking, once the underlying cause is identified and treated, many cats can live for years after jaundice resolves.


There are some ways to help prevent jaundice in cats. Getting your cat vaccinated against diseases like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) can help prevent infections that may lead to jaundice (source). Avoiding exposure to toxins like acetaminophen, antifreeze, or toxic plants can prevent liver damage and jaundice (source). Regular vet visits for physical exams and bloodwork can catch early signs of liver disease or infections before jaundice develops.

Keeping your cat indoors, feeding a high-quality diet, and providing adequate exercise and environmental stimulation can all contribute to good health and reduce jaundice risk. Limiting stress and avoiding cat fights that could lead to abscesses or infections may also help. While jaundice can’t always be prevented, taking proactive steps improves your cat’s overall wellbeing.

Home care

If your cat has mild jaundice, your vet may recommend caring for them at home while monitoring their condition. There are several things you can do at home to help support your cat:

Monitoring: Check your cat’s gum and skin color daily to look for improvements or worsening. Monitor their appetite, energy levels, drinking, urinating, and litter box use. Track any vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or other concerning symptoms. Bring your cat to the vet if symptoms worsen or new ones develop.

Nutritional support: Feed a high calorie diet to support liver function and prevent muscle wasting. Offer food and water frequently in small amounts. Tempt your cat with smelly, flavored foods like tuna, salmon, or clam juice. Try syringe feeding if needed. Provide fresh, clean water daily.

Comforting your cat: Keep your cat warm and calm. Cuddle and pet gently if they seem to enjoy it. confine them to limit stress and activity. Use toys, catnip, and playtime for distraction and comfort. Avoid anything too stressful until jaundice improves.

When to see a vet

Jaundice in cats is a serious condition that requires prompt veterinary attention. If you notice any signs of jaundice, including yellowing of your cat’s skin, gums, or eyes, schedule a veterinary appointment right away. The sooner jaundice is diagnosed and treated, the better the chances for recovery.

According to VCA Animal Hospitals, jaundice indicates an underlying condition causing bilirubin to build up in the bloodstream. Without treatment, jaundice can lead to serious complications. So don’t delay in getting your cat checked out.

Your vet will run diagnostic tests to determine the cause of jaundice and recommend appropriate treatment. They may perform bloodwork, X-rays, ultrasounds, or other tests. Treatment depends on the underlying condition but may include medications, intravenous fluids, nutritional supplements, or in severe cases, surgery.

While waiting for your appointment, keep your cat comfortable and watch for worsening symptoms. Monitor their food and water intake along with litter box use. Track any changes to share with your vet. With prompt veterinary care, many cats fully recover from jaundice.


Jaundice or yellowing of the skin and eyes in cats is a sign of underlying conditions affecting a cat’s liver or red blood cells. Common causes include infections, liver disease, and cancer. Symptoms include yellowing of the skin and eyes, fatigue, depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss. Diagnosis involves blood work, urine tests, imaging, and biopsy. Treatment focuses on addressing the underlying condition through interventions like antibiotics, supplements, fluids, medication, surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. The prognosis depends on the cause and how quickly it’s treated. With treatment, many cats can recover fully. Prevention involves keeping cats up to date on vaccines and preventing exposure to toxins. Home care like feeding easy to digest foods can help manage symptoms. Jaundice indicates a serious health issue in cats that requires prompt veterinary care. By understanding the causes, getting an accurate diagnosis and following the vet’s treatment plan, many cats can recover well.

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