Icterus in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Keeping your feline friend strong and healthy will always be on your priority list. A happy cat means a happy home. Unfortunately, they do get sick once in a while, in which case you need to take immediate action to get them checked up.

One of the illnesses cats suffer from is icterus, which often bears physical symptoms such as yellow discoloration of specific body parts including the ear flaps, foot pads, gums, and eyes.

So, what causes this disease? What are the risk factors? Which signs should you look out for? How is diagnosis done? And more importantly, what treatment options are available to get your cat back to good health?

Table of contents:

icterus in cats
FIGURE 1: A cat with an icteric pinna. Source: Today’s Veterinary Practice.

What is icterus in cats?

Icterus in cats is the yellow discoloration of the eyes, ear flaps, skins, foot pads, and gums caused by excessive accumulation of a yellow pigment called bilirubin in the tissues and blood vessels. Also called jaundice, icterus can be hard to detect in cats with dark or pigmented skin or gums. The condition can sometimes indicate the presence of a more serious illness.

Causes of icterus in cats

There are multiple causes of icterus or jaundice in cats. The cause of the illness will determine the appropriate mode of treatment. Common causes include:

  • Hemolysis (i.e. destruction of the red blood cells)
  • Obstruction of the bile duct (causes inflammation of the ducts)
  • Liver disease that causes damage to the liver cells
  • Infections such as viral and bacterial infections
  • Exposure to chemicals (causes toxic hepatopathy)
  • Cancers of the gall bladder, pancreas, and lymphatic system
  • Hepatic amyloidosis (caused by the accumulation of amyloid in the liver)
  • Fatty liver or hepatic lipidosis
  • Cholangiohepatitis complex (inflammation of the liver or bile ducts)
  • Enlargement of the liver
  • Blood parasites
  • Feline infectious peritonitis
  • Heartworm

Risk factors of icterus in cats

Risk factors are things that increase the probability of a cat suffering from icterus or jaundice. Notable risk factors include:

  • Infection with feline peritonitis virus
  • Infection with feline leukemia virus
  • Presence of ticks or fleas
  • Living in or visiting areas with high rates of liver flukes or fungal diseases
  • Prolonged anorexia
  • Ingestion of toxins or drugs

Symptoms of icterus in cats

The most common symptoms you will notice if a cat has icterus include:

  • Yellow discoloration of the skin, eyes, ear flaps, or gums
  • Fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites)
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Prolonged anorexia
  • Bright orange urine
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Prolonged bleeding
  • Diarrhea and dehydration
  • Rough coat or lack of grooming

Diagnosis of icterus in cats

There are several tests a vet can use to determine if a cat has icterus. The most basic one is a physical examination while advanced options include urinalysis and liver biopsy.

a). Physical examination

The vet examines the skin, eyes, gums, and ear flaps for yellow discoloration. If any of these parts show signs of discoloration, the vet will do additional diagnostic tests to confirm that the cat is indeed suffering from the disease.

b). Blood test

This involves doing a complete blood count (CBC) to measure things such as the number of red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells. The vet will also do a test called packed cell volume (PVC) to determine the proportion of red blood cells in the blood.

PVC test helps determine whether or not there is hemolysis (i.e. the destruction of the red blood cells). The next step is to do a microscopic examination of the blood to check for abnormal or immature red blood cells and also blood clumps.

c). Urinalysis and biochemical profiling

Depending on the outcomes of previous tests, including examining the liver and kidneys, the vet may find it necessary to conduct a urinalysis and do a biochemical profile. These tests will help identify changes in the blood cells, the presence of anemia, urine concentration, and the presence of bilirubin in the urine.

d). Other advanced tests

The vet may order additional advanced tests if the early findings make it necessary. Advanced tests include a liver biopsy, a Coombs test, a serologic test, and an ultrasound or X-ray. The Coombs test is used to identify the presence of antibodies destroying the red blood cells, which in turn can induce hemolysis. On the other hand, a serologic test is used to determine if the cat has toxoplasmosis, feline infectious peritonitis, feline leukemia virus, or feline immunodeficiency virus.

Treatment of icterus in cats

The cause of the disease will dictate the right approach, which may include treating the cause or providing supportive care. For instance, if the cause is determined to be a viral or bacterial infection, antibiotics or steroids will be prescribed.

If the cause is toxins, activated charcoal will be administered to eliminate the poison. The vet may also choose to induce vomiting if it’s necessary or the better alternative.

If the cause is hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver, the vet will recommend changes in the cat’s diet, which include adding high-protein, high-calorie food to the diet.

Cats suffering from feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV) will need supportive care to allow the cat’s immune system to handle the infection.

A cat with liver cancer has to undergo surgery and chemotherapy, one with hepatitis will need corticosteroids to reduce liver inflammation, while an obstruction of the biliary tract calls for corrective surgery. Anemic cats will need blood transfusions.

There are also medications the vet can prescribe depending on the test results. They include pain medications, nutritional supplements, and antioxidants.

Cats’ recovery from icterus

The cause of the disease will determine whether the cat can recover fully or not. In most cases, the cat will recover fully. However, if the cause is a terminal or fatal infection such as feline infectious peritonitis, there will be little good news to give.

Final thoughts

Icterus in cats is, in most cases, a curable or manageable condition. You need to seek immediate veterinary care for your cat the moment you notice any of the signs highlighted above. If your cat is put under a prescription, make sure to stick to the prescribed routine to increase the chances of full recovery.

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