When a Cat’s Liver Fails. The Life-Threatening Impacts


Liver failure in cats, also called feline hepatic lipidosis or feline hepatopathy, is a life-threatening condition in which the liver stops functioning properly. The liver plays an essential role in metabolizing nutrients, detoxifying the body, and producing proteins and hormones. When the liver fails, these vital functions are impaired, leading to a buildup of toxins, fluid retention, loss of appetite, and even brain dysfunction.

Liver disease is common in cats – surveys estimate that 10-20% of cats have some degree of liver disease. The most common liver disorder in cats is hepatic lipidosis, which causes fat to accumulate in liver cells. This fat prevents the liver from functioning normally. Hepatic lipidosis accounts for over 50% of liver disease cases in cats.

Liver failure is a serious, often fatal condition unless treated aggressively. However, even with treatment, long-term prognosis is guarded if extensive liver damage has occurred. Catching liver issues early is key to successful management of liver disease in cats.

Signs and Symptoms

There are several signs and symptoms that may indicate a cat is experiencing liver failure or disease. Some of the most common include:

  • Loss of appetite – A decreased appetite or refusal to eat is one of the earliest and most noticeable signs of liver problems in cats. This occurs because the liver is unable to properly metabolize nutrients. Source
  • Vomiting – Frequent vomiting is common in cats with liver disorders. This happens because toxins build up in the bloodstream with impaired liver function.
  • Diarrhea – diarrhea and loose stools can signify an unhealthy liver, which disrupts digestion.
  • Weight loss – Rapid or progressive weight loss may result from poor nutrient absorption, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite associated with liver disease.
  • Jaundice – Yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes (known as jaundice or icterus) occurs due to a buildup of bilirubin. This is a classic symptom of liver failure in cats.
  • Abdominal fluid accumulation – Fluid may accumulate in the abdomen (ascites) as liver scarring impairs blood flow.
  • Seizures – neurological symptoms like seizures can manifest from toxins building up in the bloodstream.


There are several potential causes that can lead to liver failure in cats:

Toxicity: Exposure to certain drugs, chemicals, or toxins can damage the liver and lead to acute liver failure. These include certain antibiotics like amoxicillin, anti-inflammatories like acetaminophen, chemotherapy agents, anesthetics, antifreeze, and some plants or fungi.1

Infectious diseases: Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections affecting the liver can also trigger liver failure. These include feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), toxoplasmosis, histoplasmosis, feline cholangiohepatitis, and hepatic abscesses.2

Cancer: Liver tumors or cancer metastasized from other parts of the body can damage liver function and lead to failure. Lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, and adenocarcinoma are some potential cancers affecting the liver.3

Congenital defects: Rarely, cats can be born with abnormal liver anatomy or function that eventually progresses to liver failure later in life.

Chronic inflammation: Ongoing inflammation from hepatic lipidosis, cholangitis, or other chronic liver diseases can scar tissue and impair liver function over time, leading to failure.


There are several tests vets use to diagnose liver disease and failure in cats:

Blood Tests:Blood tests can identify elevated liver enzymes like ALT, AST, GGT, bilirubin, and bile acids, which indicate liver damage or impaired function. Specific patterns in these liver enzymes and values outside the normal range can help determine the underlying cause and severity of liver disease. https://www.catonsvillecatclinic.com/holmes-corner/liver-failure-in-cats/

Imaging: Ultrasounds, x-rays, and CT scans allow vets to visualize the liver and identify abnormalities like enlargement, masses, inflammation, or the presence of abdominal fluid. These imaging techniques are important for assessing the underlying cause and guiding treatment. https://emergencyvetsusa.com/cat-liver-failure-when-to-euthanize/

Biopsy: Taking a tissue sample of the liver for evaluation under a microscope can help determine the cause of liver disease and rule out cancer. This is considered the most definitive diagnostic test.


There are several treatments vets may use to help cats with liver failure, with the main goals being to treat the underlying cause if possible, alleviate symptoms, and support liver function. Hospitalization is often necessary so the cat can receive intensive care and monitoring.

IV fluids help counter dehydration and flush toxins from the body. Nutrition therapy provides calories and nutrients when the cat is not eating enough on its own. Appetite stimulants may be prescribed as well.

Medications can help reduce nausea, vomiting, and gastrointestinal bleeding. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections that may be causing liver inflammation. Steroids help reduce inflammation. Other drugs protect liver cells from further damage and prevent excess accumulation of toxins in the blood.[https://canna-pet.com/articles/cat-liver-failure-symptoms-signs/]

In some cases, surgery may be done to treat underlying issues like gallstones, tumors, or traumatic injury. However, surgery is risky for cats with compromised liver function.

Supplements like milk thistle may help support liver health, but check with your vet before giving any supplements.


The prognosis for liver failure in cats depends greatly on the underlying cause and how quickly treatment is started. According to Wag!, if caught early and treated aggressively, some liver diseases like cholangiohepatitis can have a good prognosis with cats living relatively normal lives. Unfortunately, once jaundice develops the prognosis is generally poor (Wag!).

For acute liver failure, the prognosis is grave if treatment is not begun immediately and aggressively. With supportive care like IV fluids, the prognosis is somewhat better but still guarded. Chronic liver failure tends to have a poorer prognosis than acute liver failure (PetMD).

In end-stage liver failure where jaundice has developed, most sources agree the prognosis is very poor. Euthanasia may need to be considered if the cat is suffering and unlikely to recover (Cloud9Vets). With treatment, cats may survive days to weeks but will ultimately succumb to the disease.


Preventing liver disease in cats often focuses on avoiding toxins, maintaining proper nutrition, and controlling infections and parasites. Some key ways to help prevent liver problems include:

  • Avoid exposing cats to toxins like acetaminophen, insecticides, fertilizers, antifreeze, and rodent poisons, which can damage the liver. Keep medications, chemicals, and toxic plants out of a cat’s reach.
  • Feed cats a balanced, high-quality diet. Obesity can contribute to fatty liver disease, while malnutrition can also impact liver health. Work with your vet to determine an optimal feeding regimen.
  • Treat parasites like heartworms, which put strain on the liver. Use monthly preventatives prescribed by your vet.
  • Vaccinate cats against viral infections like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) that may cause liver inflammation.
  • Provide clean, fresh water at all times to support liver function and body systems.
  • Have your vet do annual bloodwork to catch early signs of possible liver issues.

While not all liver disease is preventable, these steps can reduce risk and help maintain your cat’s liver health.

Living with a Cat with Liver Disease

Having a cat with liver disease can require some adjustments. Proper care and management are essential for your cat to have the best quality of life possible.

One of the most important things is feeding your cat a special diet formulated for liver issues. These diets are restricted in copper and contain ingredients that are easy to digest and metabolize, as liver disease can impair your cat’s ability to utilize nutrients properly. It’s critical to avoid high protein foods as well. Your vet will recommend the most appropriate diet for your individual cat’s needs.

You’ll need to monitor your cat closely for signs of complications like jaundice, fluid buildup in the abdomen, bleeding disorders, hepatic encephalopathy, and others. Catching these early allows for quicker treatment. Weighing your cat regularly and tracking appetite and energy levels are good ways to detect problems sooner.

Cats with chronic liver disease often require medications like lactulose, antibiotics, vitamins, steroids, or milk thistle extract. It’s crucial to give these consistently and as directed by your veterinarian. Setting reminders can help with compliance. Inform your vet immediately if you notice any adverse side effects.

Euthanasia Considerations

When a cat’s liver failure has progressed to an advanced stage, euthanasia may need to be considered to prevent further suffering. This is a very difficult decision, and should be made in consultation with your veterinarian based on your cat’s quality of life.

There are several factors to consider when gauging your cat’s quality of life and level of suffering:

  • Is your cat experiencing pain that cannot be managed with medication?
  • Has your cat lost interest in food, water, play, and other normal activities?
  • Is your cat having trouble breathing or moving around?
  • Are there neurological signs like seizures or disorientation?
  • Does your cat seem depressed, anxious, or irritable?
  • Is your cat experiencing frequent vomiting or diarrhea?

Euthanasia may be the most humane option if your cat is experiencing multiple symptoms that are negatively impacting quality of life on a frequent basis. It is especially advisable when symptoms are not improving with treatment. Your veterinarian can help assess if your cat’s condition has declined beyond the point of recovery.

While saying goodbye is never easy, euthanasia can be a final act of love and kindness to relieve your companion’s suffering. Take time to grieve and cherish your memories. Your veterinarian and support groups can provide guidance during this difficult time.


When a cat’s liver starts to shut down, it is a very serious medical condition that requires immediate veterinary care. Some key takeaways to remember include:

  • Signs of liver disease include vomiting, diarrhea, decreased appetite, weight loss, increased thirst and urination, jaundice, and behavioral changes.
  • Common causes include infections, toxins, cancer, and liver inflammation. Feline hepatic lipidosis is a common liver disease in cats.
  • Diagnosis is made through blood work, imaging tests, and biopsy. Identifying the underlying cause is important.
  • Treatment focuses on correcting dehydration, providing nutritional support, treating the underlying cause, and managing complications. Hospitalization may be required.
  • Prognosis depends on the cause and how quickly treatment begins. Many cats can recover with prompt care.
  • Prevention involves minimizing toxins, proper diet, and regular veterinary care to monitor liver health.
  • Cats with chronic liver disease require close monitoring and care at home. Dietary changes are often needed.
  • Euthanasia may be considered if the cat’s quality of life is very poor despite treatment.
  • Liver disease can arise suddenly in cats. Being alert to the signs and seeking prompt veterinary care is critical.

The liver performs many vital functions. When it starts to fail, cats can deteriorate rapidly. But with aggressive treatment of the underlying cause and supportive care, there is hope for recovery in many cases. Close partnership with the veterinary team is key.

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