by Dr. Hammond
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) Pancreatitis in dogs can be life-threatening, and it can affect nearly any pet. So, it’s essential for all pet owners to learn how to recognize the signs, symptoms, and risk factors that contribute to this disease.
While the causes of pancreatitis aren’t always clear — and not all cases can be prevented — there are steps that dog owners can take to dramatically reduce the likelihood of their dog developing this dangerous condition. This article covers everything you need to know about pancreatitis in dogs so you can quickly recognize the symptoms of pancreatitis in your dog, reduce your dog’s risk of developing pancreatitis, and understand the next steps after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatitis.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is a relatively common, potentially life-threatening ailment. Many pet parents are unfamiliar with the condition until their own dog is diagnosed with it. In fact, the pancreas itself is a relatively unrecognized organ despite its vital role in the digestion of nutrients in small animals and people.
What Is the Pancreas, and What Does It Do?
The pancreas is a thin, L-shaped organ that lives next to the duodenum, the first segment of the small intestine. It’s close to the liver and the stomach in the abdominal cavity. This small organ has two important jobs. One job is endocrine (hormonal), and the other is exocrine (secretory). As an endocrine organ, the pancreas is responsible for producing and releasing the hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar. Its exocrine function consists of secreting digestive enzymes into the small intestine via connective ducts to break down fat, protein, and starches for absorption.
How Does Pancreatitis Alter Normal Functions?
Normally, the digestive enzymes are packaged into “zymogens” and rendered inactive inside the pancreas until they enter the small intestine, where they are released. Enzyme inhibitors within the pancreas also circulate in the bloodstream to prevent premature enzyme activation. In cases of pancreatitis, the enzymes are activated while they’re still in the pancreas, or the inhibitory substances are blocked, and the pancreas begins to digest itself. This self-digestion causes further damage to the pancreatic tissue, leading to a snowball effect of enzyme leakage. To make matters worse, surrounding abdominal organs, particularly the small intestine, liver, gallbladder, stomach, and kidneys, are at risk of tissue invasion and injury from the leaking pancreatic enzymes during bouts of pancreatitis.
Types of Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis in dogs is categorized as acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis develops suddenly, and cases are often more severe, whereas chronic pancreatitis is an ongoing, low-grade inflammatory condition with milder clinical signs. Chronic pancreatitis in dogs and cats is often the result of recurrent bouts of acute pancreatitis. It can eventually lead to diabetes mellitus or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) due to organ scarring, which reduces the organ’s ability to function optimally.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs
A dog that is experiencing pancreatitis may exhibit one or more of these symptoms. If your dog is displaying multiple symptoms, seek veterinary care immediately.
- Vomiting, especially multiple times in a short period
- Diarrhea, with or without blood
- Loss of appetite or reduced appetite
- Arched or hunched posture
- Abdominal pain or sensitivity when the abdomen is touched
- Panting and restlessness
- Weakness or collapse
A pet’s clinical signs largely depend on the intensity of pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis generally results in more severe symptoms than chronic pancreatitis. Affected dogs often display a combination of these signs and symptoms.
Breeds Commonly Affected by Pancreatitis
Most affected dogs are middle-aged when they experience their first case of pancreatitis, and male and female dogs are equally affected. Breeds with a reported predisposition for pancreatitis include the miniature schnauzer, dachshund, miniature poodle, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, English cocker spaniel, collie, boxer, Yorkshire terrier, and other small terriers. Veterinarians believe that these breeds have genetically higher triglyceride levels and potentially a reduced ability to inhibit pancreatic enzymes. In some breeds, such as the English cocker spaniel, an overactive immune system is suspected to play a role. And while some breeds may have a higher risk of developing pancreatitis, this condition can affect dogs of any breed.
Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs
The classic case of canine pancreatitis is an overweight dog who regularly enjoys cheese, potato chips, and french fries, or one who helped themself to a feast from the garbage bin the day before symptoms began. However, pancreatitis has been linked to several causes, and many cases are deemed spontaneous or of unknown origin.
Common triggers and risk factors for pancreatitis in dogs include:
- High-fat diets
ObesityDietary indiscretion (or eating something they shouldn’t)
- History of gastrointestinal disorders
- Endocrine disorders (hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus)
- Toxin exposure (zinc, organophosphates)
- Pancreatic trauma (surgical manipulation, blunt force
Fatty Foods and Pancreas Problems in Dogs
As previously mentioned, dogs who regularly consume fatty foods and table scraps are at a higher risk for pancreatic inflammation. French fries, potato chips, cheese, chicken skin, bacon, and buttery treats are frequent culprits of the disease, but high-fat dog foods and even raw meat diets, which are high in fat, can lead to pancreatitis. Since pancreatic enzymes process most of the fat consumed by dogs, the more fat dogs eat, the harder the pancreas has to work. Additionally, excess cholesterol and triglycerides circulating in the bloodstream can potentially trigger the inactive enzymes in the pancreas to begin digestion, leading to pancreatitis. Dietary indiscretion, meaning the dog has a tendency of eating anything and everything, is another risk factor for developing inflammation of the pancreas. Dogs who regularly “counter surf” or dumpster dive are likely to indulge in fatty foods and possibly even ingest toxic substances, which can trigger pancreatitis. High-fat diets lead to high cholesterol and high triglycerides, and the dense calorie content of these fatty foods is also likely to cause obesity.
Certain endocrine disorders, namely diabetes mellitus, hyperadrenocorticism (also known as Cushing’s disease), and hypothyroidism, have been linked to higher incidences of pancreatitis in dogs. These endocrine disorders predispose dogs to obesity, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides and can result in high levels of inflammation within the dog’s body, which can contribute to the development of pancreatitis.
Epileptic canines, primarily those who receive the anticonvulsant medications potassium bromide or phenobarbital, are at a higher risk for pancreatitis. While the exact mechanism behind this connection is unclear, epilepsy medication often makes dogs hungrier than usual, which may result in them seeking out inappropriate food or begging for treats more frequently.
While pancreatitis can happen to any dog, you can lower your dog’s chances of developing pancreatic inflammation by:
- Feeding a high-quality, veterinary-approved diet that has a moderate or low fat content
- Serving 2-3 smaller meals per day as opposed to one large meal daily
- Not sharing fatty table scraps with your dogs
- Keeping the garbage bin inside a drawer or closet to make it less accessible.
- Regularly exercising your dog to help them achieve weight loss or maintain a lean body condition
- Using probiotic supplements, like Native Pet’s Probiotic for Dogs, to support gastrointestinal health
- Adding a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids, like Native Pet’s Omega Oil, to reduce total body inflammation and lower triglyceride levels
- Only giving healthy snacks such as unseasoned, unbuttered carrots, broccoli, or green beans, or dog-safe fruits
- Getting annual blood tests during veterinary visits to measure cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as screen for the development of endocrine disorder
How Veterinarians Diagnose Pancreatitis
If you suspect your dog has pancreatitis, or if they match any of the clinical signs above, take them to a veterinarian right away. Remember, the longer the pancreas is attacked by its own digestive enzymes, the worse the condition and damage becomes, making it harder and more costly to treat. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam to determine the severity of your dog’s condition. A detailed history and physical exam can help guide a veterinarian to the diagnosis of pancreatitis. Blood tests help rule out any underlying causes and check the surrounding abdominal organs for damage, and urine tests help determine the level of dehydration and look for any indication of kidney damage or disease. In addition to routine blood and urine tests, your veterinarian will check the levels of canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (cPLI) or pancreatic specific lipase (PSL). While this test is unfortunately not 100% accurate, an elevation of cPLI or PSL in a dog with appropriate clinical signs is strongly suggestive of pancreatitis. For severe cases, especially those in which blood tests show inflammation or damage of the liver and kidneys, your veterinarian may also suggest an abdominal ultrasound. An ultrasound is the best way to visualize the pancreas, which is often not visible on radiographs (X-rays). An ultrasound can also provide insight into the health of the rest of the abdominal organs. Even when ultrasound findings are negative and nonspecific, the procedure helps to rule out other disorders that can mimic pancreatitis.
Treating and Managing Pancreatitis
Supportive care is the mainstay of treatment for pancreatitis. Each dog’s body is unique, so treatment will be tailored specifically to each dog and be based on the severity of the disease, as well as any other complications. Some dogs can be treated on an outpatient basis, but many will require hospitalization for one or multiple days. The majority of pancreatitis cases will be treated with the following methods:
As dogs recover, they will begin eating a prescription low-fat diet specifically formulated for gastrointestinal health and digestibility. Over time, some dogs can be weaned off this prescription diet, but owners should continue to feed their dogs a low-fat diet, make sure they avoid table scraps, and follow the other guidelines to prevent pancreatitis. Some dogs will need to stay on the prescription diet long term due to repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis or the development of chronic pancreatitis. Supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids has been found to reduce circulating lipid levels, and may help prevent pancreatic inflammation.
Fluid therapy where your vet will administer intravenous fluids (or an IV) to correct or prevent dehydration from fluid loss caused by vomiting and diarrhea
Pain medications or anti-inflammatory medication to ease abdominal pain and discomfort associated with pancreatic inflammation
- Antinausea medication to prevent vomiting and allow patients to rest comfortably
- Anti-diarrheal medication to settle the lower gastrointestinal tract and stop further fluid loss through the bowel
Resting the pancreas by withholding food for a period of time
- Antibiotics, if necessary, due to small intestinal damage and secondary bacterial leakage
Placement of a feeding tube in severe cases for nutritional support
Additional medications to correct any underlying conditions, such as diabetes mellitus, hyperadrenocorticism, or hypothyroidism
Prognosis for Pancreatitis in Dogs
For patients with mild or moderate acute pancreatitis, the prognosis is good. However, patients with severe acute pancreatitis have a more guarded prognosis. The prognosis is also better for dogs who receive prompt, early care. Dogs who receive no treatment or only receive at-home therapies are likely to suffer severe consequences, including sudden death from shock. Unfortunately, dogs who have experienced pancreatitis once are at risk of developing the condition again. Repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis can lead to the development of chronic pancreatitis. As previously mentioned, chronic pancreatitis can lead to further complications from ongoing pancreatic dysfunction, such as diabetes mellitus or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).
Frequently Asked Questions
Let’s answer some common questions about pancreatitis in dogs: Can dogs survive pancreatitis? Yes. A dog can survive pancreatitis if it’s detected at an early stage. An aggressive treatment can stop the progress. However, if the dog is not treated in time, it can lead to sudden death. What is the survival rate with pancreatitis in dogs? If the dog has mild pancreatitis or a chronic but moderate pancreatitis, there is a good chance of survival. But for acute and severe pancreatitis, the results might be less positive. If acute pancreatitis is not treated, it might lead to severe consequences or even death. What can trigger pancreatitis in dogs? There are several common triggers for pancreatitis in dogs:
What food can cause pancreatitis in dogs? Any fatty food can trigger pancreatitis. Foods like beef or pork are the most common culprits. Many types of high-fat food that we humans eat can also cause pancreatitis. Foods like fried potatoes, cheese, bacon or anything with a high quantity of butter or oil can lead to pancreatitis.
A high-fat diet (this can also trigger obesity)
- Unrestricted eating — a lack of rules about when and what to eat
Endocrine diseases like hypothyroidism
Protect Your Dog’s Pancreas
As loving dog parents, we never want to see our dog suffer from pancreatitis. Although pancreatitis can’t always be prevented, arming yourself with knowledge of the disease is the first step to creating a healthy lifestyle and reducing the risk of pancreatitis in dogs. Help your dog maintain a healthy weight, avoid feeding high-fat table scraps, choose a moderate or low-fat dog food, supplement with probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids, and keep your dog from counter surfing and dumpster diving. If you ever notice any of the signs of pancreatitis, including vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and an unusual hunched posture, take your dog to the vet immediately. Dogs who receive early treatment have the best chances of surviving a bout of pancreatitis. For more information on your dog’s health, check out the Native Pet blog.