Your cat's liver does a lot of work; it helps her digest fats, metabolizes and eliminates waste, and synthesizes hormones and proteins. This important organ is vulnerable to injury from ingesting poisons and failure from illnesses such as hyperthyroidism. The signs of liver failure often aren't seen until it's severely affected; fortunately, it's usually possible to recover even from severe liver failure.
Your cat's liver has an impressive capacity to keep working, even when it's not in tip-top shape. Generally, more than two-thirds of the liver is affected before a cat experiences liver failure. The initial signs of liver disease -- lack of appetite, weight loss and lethargy -- are common to many other illnesses. As the illness progresses, other symptoms may include vomiting, increased thirst and fever, moving to fluid accumulation in the abdomen and jaundiced eyes or gums, as seen in advanced cases of liver failure. When a cat has severe liver failure, the organ can't process the toxins in the blood causing them to reach her brain, resulting in strange behavior, such as excess salivation, disorientation, blindness or seizures.
Generally, people consider weight loss a good thing. However, when it comes to a cat, it can be a matter of too much, too soon. Fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, is one of the most common liver disorders in cats and happens when your cat's body transfers fat from her reserves to the liver to be used for energy. This sudden buildup of fat makes her liver turn yellow and swell. The yellow in her liver will make its way into her bloodstream, giving her eyes a yellow cast. If your cat has hepatic lipidosis, she likely will have had several weeks of being off her feed as well as obvious weight loss and muscle wasting. She may suffer from diarrhea or constipation, vomiting and depression. Hepatic lipidosis is usually a result of another primary illness or condition, such as kidney disease, diabetes and stress, which may present additional symptoms.
When a cat's liver and bile ducts become inflamed, she's suffering from the second most common type of liver disease, cholangiohepatitis or cholangitis. In the case of neutrophilic cholangitis, bacteria in the small intestine enters the gallbladder and liver, causing its infection. This type of cholangitis tends to be acute, affecting mostly younger cats, making symptoms present suddenly. Lymphocytic cholangitis is idiopathic, but International Cat Care notes it may be related to an abnormality with the immune system. Cholangitis carries the typical signs of liver failure: loss of appetite, jaundice and an enlarged liver, perhaps including diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and depression. Lymphocytic cholangitis tends to be chronic, coming and going, and may show fluid buildup in the abdomen as well as enlargement of the liver.
All Signs Point to the Vet
The signs of liver failure should prompt a visit to the vet. A thorough exam to include a blood chemistry profile, complete blood count and urinalysis is a good starting point. Liver enzyme values, bile acids, red and white blood cell counts and blood protein levels may dictate further tests such as an ultrasound and liver biopsy. Treatment depends on the underlying cause, but often includes supportive care to include nutritional support, intravenous fluids to overcome dehydration and medication to bolster liver function, as well as antibiotics and appetite stimulants.