Is Your Cat’s Jaundice Treatable? The Facts on Feline Liver Disease

What is Jaundice in Cats?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a condition in which there is an excessive accumulation of bilirubin in the blood and tissues. This causes a yellow discoloration of the skin, gums, and eyes in cats (VCAAnimalHospital).

It occurs when there is too much bilirubin in the bloodstream. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment produced when red blood cells break down. Normally, the liver filters out bilirubin and secretes it into bile to aid digestion. But liver disease or blockages in the bile ducts can prevent bilirubin from leaving the body properly, causing it to build up (PetMD).

Some common symptoms of jaundice in cats include (KingsdaleAnimalHospital):

  • Yellow discoloration of the eyes, gums, skin, and ears
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Vomiting

Diagnosing Jaundice

There are several ways vets will diagnose jaundice in cats:

Physical exam – The vet will look for visible signs of jaundice like yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes. They will also feel the abdomen to check for enlargement of the liver or spleen which can cause jaundice.

Blood tests – Bloodwork will check levels of bilirubin which is the yellow pigment that builds up with jaundice. Elevated levels confirm the diagnosis. Blood tests can also check liver enzymes for signs of liver disease.

Imaging tests – X-rays or ultrasound can check for abnormalities of the liver, gallbladder, or bile ducts. These images help identify any obstruction or inflammation causing the jaundice.

Cats suspected of having jaundice will undergo a combination of the above tests to reach a definitive diagnosis by the vet. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the jaundice.

Common Causes

The most common causes of jaundice in cats include:

Liver disease: Conditions like hepatitis, cirrhosis, or liver tumors can impair the liver’s ability to excrete bile, leading to a buildup of bilirubin. According to Yellow Skin (Jaundice) in Cats – PetMD, liver disease accounts for over half of all jaundice cases in cats.

Red blood cell disorders: Diseases that destroy red blood cells, like feline leukemia virus or autoimmune hemolytic anemia, can cause jaundice when the destroyed cells release bilirubin into the bloodstream faster than the liver can clear it. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, hemolysis is responsible for about a quarter of feline jaundice cases.

Blocked bile duct: Obstructions that prevent bile from draining properly can cause cholestasis, leading to jaundice. Gallstones, pancreatic disease, infections, or trauma can all potentially block the bile ducts. According to Kingsdale Veterinary Hospital, obstructions account for around 15-20% of jaundice in cats.

Treatment Options

The main treatments for jaundice in cats include:

  • IV fluids – Cats with jaundice often need supportive care with intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and provide electrolyte balance. Fluids can help flush out bilirubin and support liver and kidney function.

  • Medications – Medications may be prescribed depending on the underlying cause of jaundice. For example, antibiotics for infections, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation, or ursodeoxycholic acid to improve bile flow. Vitamin K may also be given if clotting factors are reduced.

  • Surgery – Surgery may be required to treat underlying issues causing obstruction of bile flow like gallstones, tumors, or strictures. Surgery can remove obstructions and allow normal bile drainage.

The specific treatments recommended will depend on the cause and severity of jaundice in an individual cat. Mild cases may only need supportive care while severe cases often require intensive treatment. Consulting a veterinarian is important for determining the right course of treatment.

Treating Underlying Condition

The most effective treatment for jaundice in cats is to address the underlying condition causing it. Some common treatments include:

Treat liver disease:
Medications can help support liver function and reduce inflammation. These may include corticosteroids, ursodeoxycholic acid, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), or milk thistle extract. In severe cases, a liver transplant may be considered. [1]

Treat blood disorders: Blood disorders leading to jaundice like hemolytic anemia may require medications that suppress the immune system, blood transfusions, or surgery to address an underlying problem. [2]

Unblock bile duct: If a blocked bile duct is the cause, the obstruction may need to be removed through surgery or other interventions. Stenting or flushing the duct are other options in some cases.

With appropriate treatment of the underlying disease, jaundice can often be resolved. However, the prognosis depends on how early it is caught, the severity, and the cat’s overall health.


The prognosis for jaundice in cats depends on the underlying cause and severity of the condition. Acute jaundice that develops rapidly often has a better prognosis if treated promptly. Chronic jaundice that develops slowly over time tends to have a more guarded prognosis.

For example, jaundice caused by an inflammation of the liver (cholangiohepatitis) can often be successfully managed long-term with medications and dietary changes if caught early. However, long-standing choledochitis leading to jaundice has a poorer prognosis.

Similarly, jaundice resulting from a simple gallbladder obstruction may fully resolve if relieved. But severe liver disease or cancer leading to jaundice typically has a grave prognosis.

The prognosis also depends on how high the bilirubin levels are, indicating the degree of jaundice. Extremely high bilirubin levels that do not respond to initial medical management can be life-threatening. However, mild to moderate jaundice often responds well if the underlying disease process can be successfully treated.

Overall, the prognosis for jaundice ranges widely based on the specific cause and severity. In many cases, though, prompt veterinary treatment of the underlying condition greatly improves the chances of recovery. Regular veterinary care and follow-up is key for monitoring jaundice and managing any chronic conditions.


There are some steps cat owners can take to help prevent jaundice in cats:

  • Prevent liver disease by avoiding toxins and medications that could damage the liver, providing a balanced diet, and managing other health conditions that affect the liver.
  • Prevent blood disorders like hemolysis by properly treating infections, avoiding trauma, and managing conditions like cancer that can lead to abnormal breakdown of red blood cells.
  • Ensure proper bile flow by having any gallbladder or bile duct obstructions treated promptly. Feed a diet with optimal fat and protein levels.

While not all causes are preventable, being proactive about your cat’s health through regular vet checkups, proper nutrition, and avoiding toxins can reduce the chances of jaundice occurring.

Home Care

For cats with jaundice, home care is important for helping manage symptoms and supporting recovery. Some aspects of home care include:

Diet Changes

Dietary changes may be recommended by your vet to help support your cat’s liver function. This may involve feeding a prescription low-protein diet, as excess protein can put extra strain on a compromised liver. Your vet may also recommend supplements like vitamin K, SAMe, or milk thistle to support your cat’s liver health and function. It’s important to follow your vet’s feeding recommendations closely.


At home, closely monitor your cat for any changes in symptoms or condition. Look for changes in energy level, appetite, vomiting, or the color of gums/ears. Contact your vet if you notice worsening jaundice or any concerning symptoms. You may need to bring your cat in for bloodwork to monitor liver enzyme levels.


Your vet may prescribe medications to help manage your cat’s condition and symptoms. Antibiotics may be prescribed for infections causing jaundice. Anti-nausea medication can help control vomiting. Always give medications exactly as directed by your vet. Monitor your cat for side effects or improvement in symptoms.

Cost of Treatment

The cost of treating jaundice in cats can vary widely depending on the diagnostic tests, treatments, and severity of the condition. However, owners can expect the treatment to be expensive.

Initial diagnostic tests alone like bloodwork, urinalysis, x-rays, and ultrasound can cost $500-1,000 to determine the underlying cause. Hospitalization with IV fluids for several days can cost $100-150 per day. If surgery like a liver biopsy or gallbladder removal is required, this can cost $1,500-3,000. Original research and data combine to suggest the total cost to treat significant jaundice is often $3,000-5,000.

Some components influencing cost include:

  • Diagnostic tests like bloodwork, urinalysis, x-rays, ultrasound – $500-1,000
  • IV fluids and hospitalization – $100-150 per day
  • Surgery if needed like gallbladder removal or liver biopsy – $1,500-3,000
  • Aftercare and follow up appointments – $200-400

While the expenses can be high, seeking prompt veterinary care is essential for cats with jaundice to determine the underlying cause and treat it. Ignoring the condition can be fatal. Pet insurance can offset some costs of testing and treatment.

When to See a Vet

Jaundice can be very concerning for cat owners. If your cat is showing signs of yellowing skin or eyes, it’s important to have them seen by a vet promptly. Some key signs that warrant an urgent vet visit include:

  • Yellow skin or yellowing in the whites of the eyes – This yellow coloring is due to elevated bilirubin and suggests an underlying liver issue or hemolytic anemia.
  • Loss of appetite – Jaundice often causes loss of appetite in cats as they don’t feel well. This can lead to rapid weight loss and malnutrition.
  • Lethargy – Lethargy and general malaise are common with jaundice as the toxins building up make cats feel unwell. Your cat may seem depressed or withdrawn.

Bringing your jaundiced cat into the vet as soon as you observe these signs gives them the best chance at prompt treatment and recovery. Allowing jaundice to worsen untreated can lead to potentially fatal complications. So don’t delay – seek veterinary care right away if your cat has yellowing skin or eyes combined with appetite or energy loss.

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