Jaundice in Cats. What Are the Chances My Cat Will Survive?


Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a condition in cats where there is an excessive buildup of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow pigment that is formed from the breakdown of red blood cells. An elevated level of bilirubin causes a yellow discoloration in the cat’s skin, gums, and eyes. This is due to the deposition of bilirubin in the tissue.

There are several potential causes of jaundice in cats. It often indicates an underlying issue with the liver, such as inflammation or obstruction of bile ducts preventing the liver from excreting bilirubin. Jaundice can also occur due to hemolytic anemia, where red blood cells are broken down too rapidly. Pancreatitis, infections, and certain toxins can also lead to jaundice.

Common symptoms of jaundice in cats include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes. Jaundice itself does not cause these symptoms, but rather they arise from the underlying condition causing the buildup of bilirubin.

Causes of Jaundice in Cats

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

Liver Disease

Liver disease is a frequent cause of jaundice in cats. Conditions like hepatitis, cirrhosis, liver cancer, or liver failure can prevent the liver from properly processing and excreting bilirubin. This leads to a buildup of bilirubin that causes jaundice (1).

Bile Duct Issues

Problems with the bile ducts, such as gallstones, inflammation, infections, or blockages, can obstruct or prevent the flow of bile. This causes bilirubin to accumulate in the bloodstream rather than being excreted through bile, resulting in jaundice (2).

Destruction of Red Blood Cells

Excess breakdown of red blood cells releases a large amount of bilirubin into the bloodstream. The liver may not be able to process it quickly enough, leading to jaundice. Causes include autoimmune diseases, blood parasites, cancer, toxins, and certain medications (3).

Certain Medications

Some medications are linked to drug-induced jaundice in cats. These include antibiotics like amoxicillin and ampicillin, anti-seizure medications, cancer drugs, and acetaminophen. These can damage the liver or red blood cells (4).

(1) https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/icterus-or-jaundice-in-cats

(2) https://www.kingsdale.com/5-important-causes-of-a-jaundiced-cat

(3) https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/digestive/c_ct_jaundice

Symptoms of Jaundice in Cats

The most noticeable symptom of jaundice in cats is a yellowing of the skin, gums, and whites of the eyes. This is caused by a buildup of bilirubin in the bloodstream, which leads to the yellow pigmentation. Some other common symptoms of jaundice in cats include:

  • Yellow skin, especially visible on the ears, mouth, or paw pads
  • Yellow gums and yellowing of the whites of the eyes
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Loss of appetite or refusing food

In addition to the yellowing effect on the skin, gums, and eyes, jaundice may also cause pale gray or orange discoloration in a cat’s urine and feces. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain or discomfort are also possible symptoms in some cases.

The specific symptoms and their severity depends on the underlying cause of the jaundice. Mild cases may only involve slight yellowing of the gums, while more advanced cases can involve yellowing over much of the body, lethargy, and appetite loss. If jaundice is suspected in a cat, veterinary examination is highly recommended.

Diagnosing Jaundice in Cats

There are several methods vets use to diagnose jaundice in cats:

Physical Exam

The most obvious sign of jaundice is yellowing of the cat’s skin, gums, and eyes that the vet will look for during a physical exam. They will thoroughly check the cat for signs of illness and feel the abdomen to check for enlarged organs like the liver or spleen that could be causing jaundice (1).

Blood Tests

Blood tests allow the vet to check liver enzyme levels like ALT, AST, and ALP which are often elevated with liver disease. A complete blood count can check for anemia and signs of infection. Blood tests also allow the vet to check bilirubin levels which are increased with jaundice (2).


Abdominal ultrasound allows the vet to visualize the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, pancreas, and other organs to look for masses, inflammation, or blockages that could be disrupting bile flow and causing jaundice (3).

Tissue Sample

If an underlying cause still can’t be found, the vet may take a sample of liver tissue for biopsy to examine under a microscope. This can help identify cancer, inflammation, or other changes in liver cells (1).

(1) https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/icterus-or-jaundice-in-cats

(2) https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/gastroenterology/the-yellow-cat-diagnostic-therapeutic-strategiesce-article/

(3) https://www.petmd.com/cat/conditions/digestive/c_ct_jaundice

Treatment for Jaundice in Cats

The treatment for jaundice in cats focuses first on identifying and addressing the underlying cause. Once the cause is determined, the vet will recommend an appropriate treatment plan which may include:

IV fluids – Administering intravenous fluids can help flush toxins from the body and support kidney function.1

Medications – Medications may be prescribed to improve liver function, fight infection, or manage other symptoms depending on the cause. Antibiotics, steroids, liver supplements, or other drugs may be used.2

Surgery – If there is an obstruction in the bile ducts preventing bile flow, surgery may be required to remove the blockage and allow drainage.3

In many cases, treating the underlying condition will allow the jaundice and associated symptoms to resolve. However, severe or long-standing cases of jaundice can sometimes cause permanent liver damage. Close monitoring and follow-up care is important to ensure the cat makes a full recovery.

Prognosis for Jaundice in Cats

The prognosis for jaundice in cats is dependent on the underlying cause. Some diseases causing jaundice can be fatal if left untreated, but many cats have a good prognosis for full recovery if the proper treatment is provided (VCA Animal Hospitals).

With prompt veterinary care and treatment, many cats will respond quickly to diagnosis and treatment, with the jaundice resolving within days to weeks. However, some cats will have more severe liver disease or damage and may require longer treatment and monitoring (PetMD).

Once the vet determines the exact cause of the cat’s jaundice and develops an effective treatment plan, many cats can live for many more years. However, cats with chronic liver disease will need ongoing care and monitoring for the rest of their lives (WagWalking).

Overall, the prognosis for jaundice in cats can be good in many cases with prompt veterinary treatment. However, ongoing monitoring and care may be needed for cats with chronic liver issues. The key is to identify and treat the underlying cause of the jaundice as early as possible.

Jaundice Survival Rates in Cats

Survival rates for cats with jaundice can vary significantly depending on the underlying cause. Some key statistics on jaundice survival rates include:

Feline hepatic lipidosis: Left untreated, this condition has a mortality rate upwards of 90%. With early treatment, the recovery rate can be 80–90% [1].

Liver failure: Liver disease in cats has a mortality rate of above 90% if untreated. Most cats die from severe malnutrition or toxins building up [2].

Cholangitis: This condition has a guarded prognosis, with a mortality rate around 25% [3].

In general, early diagnosis and treatment are critical for improving survival odds. Cats with treatable causes of jaundice tend to have better prognoses if addressed promptly before their condition declines further.

Caring for a Cat with Jaundice

Caring for a cat with jaundice will involve some special considerations to help support your cat during this time. Here are some tips for caring for a jaundiced cat at home:

Special diet: Your vet may recommend feeding your cat a special diet lower in protein and fat while recovering from jaundice, as these can be hard for a damaged liver to process. This may include prescription veterinary diets made for liver disease. Be sure to follow your vet’s recommendations.

Monitoring: Keep an eye on your cat’s symptoms and alert your vet if the jaundice seems to worsen or if your cat seems lethargic or stops eating. Monitoring litterbox habits can also help catch any concerning changes.

Follow vet instructions: Stick to any medications, supplements, or home care instructions provided by your vet. Things like fluids, anti-nausea meds, antioxidants, or vitamin supplements may be prescribed. Follow up on all recheck exams and lab work.

Comfort: Help your cat feel comfortable and loved during recovery with soft bedding, brushing, and affection. Reduce stress by keeping their environment calm.

Patience: It can take some time for jaundice to fully resolve. Be patient with treatment and allow your cat time to heal.

With supportive at-home care and close work with your vet, many cats can recover fully from jaundice. Be vigilant and don’t hesitate to contact your vet if you have any concerns caring for your jaundiced cat.

Preventing Jaundice in Cats

There are a few things cat owners can do to help prevent jaundice in their feline companions:

Get annual exams. Cats are masters at hiding illness, so getting your cat checked out once a year by your veterinarian can help catch problems like infections, liver disease, or cancer early when they are most treatable. Early detection and treatment can help prevent jaundice.

Treat illnesses promptly. If your cat is sick, don’t delay in getting veterinary care. Quick treatment of infections, cancer or other diseases may prevent progression to jaundice in some cases.

Avoid toxins. Keep antifreeze, chemicals, plants toxic to cats, and medications out of your cat’s environment. Exposure to toxins is one cause of liver damage and jaundice in cats. Make your house and yard cat-safe.

With proactive veterinary care and a safe home environment, cat owners can help minimize the chances of their cats developing jaundice.

When to See a Vet

If your cat is exhibiting any symptoms of jaundice, such as yellowing of the skin, gums, or eyes, lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, or dark urine, it’s crucial to take them to the vet immediately. Jaundice is a sign of serious underlying illness, usually involving the liver or red blood cells. Without prompt veterinary treatment, jaundice can rapidly become life-threatening.

Some key reasons you should rush your jaundiced cat to the vet include:

  • Jaundice indicates a medical emergency. Liver disease, cancer, infections, parasites, toxins, and other conditions causing jaundice can lead to permanent liver damage or even death if left untreated.
  • Early treatment greatly improves prognosis. Catching and addressing the underlying cause of jaundice as soon as possible gives your cat the best chance of recovery.
  • Diagnostic testing is needed. Your vet will run blood work, imaging tests, biopsies, and other diagnostics essential for determining the cause and guiding appropriate treatment.
  • Hospitalization may be required. Severe jaundice cases often warrant supportive care like IV fluids, appetite stimulants, anti-nausea medications, and more.
  • Jaundice can progress rapidly. Even if jaundice seems mild at first, it can worsen quickly in just days or hours as liver function and red blood cells deteriorate.

Jaundice should always be treated as a veterinary emergency. Don’t wait to see if jaundice improves on its own. Get prompt veterinary care as soon as you notice any jaundice signs in your cat. Early treatment can help prevent serious complications and gives your cat the best chance for recovery.

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