by Dr. Hammond

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Hammond received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and currently practices as a general practice and emergency veterinarian in Charleston, South Carolina.

As a primary care and emergency veterinarian, I often diagnose pancreatitis in dogs, and know how difficult and confusing it can be for pet parents to learn their dog is suffering from this disease, especially when they have no prior knowledge of pancreatitis. 

This article covers everything you need to know about pancreatitis in dogs so you can quickly recognize the symptoms of pancreatitis in your pet, reduce your pet’s risk of developing pancreatitis, and understand how pancreatitis is treated and managed if your pet receives a diagnosis of pancreatitis. 

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is a relatively common, potentially life-threatening ailment which many pet parents are unfamiliar with until their own pet is diagnosed with the troublesome condition. In fact, the pancreas itself is relatively unrecognized despite its vital role in the digestion of nutrients in pets and people.

What is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a thin, L-shaped organ that lives next to the duodenum, the first segment of the small intestine, and is close to the liver and the stomach in the abdominal cavity. This small organ has two important jobs, both endocrine (hormonal) and exocrine (secretory).  As an endocrine organ, the pancreas is responsible for producing and releasing the major hormones insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream to regulate blood sugar.  It’s exocrine function consists of secreting digestive enzymes into the small intestine via connective ducts to break down fat, protein, and starches for absorption.  

Normally, the digestive enzymes are packaged into “zymogens” and rendered inactive inside the pancreas until they enter the small intestine and are released. Enzyme inhibitors also exist within the pancreas and circulate within the bloodstream to prevent premature enzyme activation.  

In cases of pancreatitis, the enzymes are activated while they are still in the pancreas, and/or the inhibitory substances are blocked, and the pancreas inappropriately 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 and pancreatitis. 

Pancreatitis in pets 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 of the organ 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 (fibrosis), which will reduce the organ’s ability to function optimally.  

Classic signs and symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • Vomiting, especially multiple times
  • Diarrhea, with or without blood
  • Loss of appetite or reduced appetite 
  • Arched or hunched posture
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Fever
  • Panting and restlessness
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness or collapse  

Signs and symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs

A pet’s clinical signs largely depend on the intensity of pancreatitis.  Acute pancreatitis generally results in more severe clinical signs in dogs than chronic pancreatitis.  Affected pets often display a combination of signs and symptoms.

Most affected dogs are middle-aged when they experience their first case of pancreatitis, and male and female dogs are equally affected. Breeds with reportedly higher incidences of pancreatitis include the miniature schnauzer, dachshund, miniature poodle, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, English cocker spaniel, collie, boxer, Yorkshire terriers, and other small terriers.  It is believed 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 of playing a role. 

Dog Breeds Affected by Pancreatitis 

Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs

The classic canine pancreatitis case 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 signs of illness began. However, pancreatitis can be linked to several causes, and many cases are deemed spontaneous. Common triggers and risk factors for pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • High-fat diets
  • Obesity
  • Dietary indiscretion
  • Historical gastrointestinal disorders 
  • Endocrine disorders (hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus)
  • Epilepsy 
  • Toxin exposure (zinc, organophosphates)
  • Pancreatic trauma (surgical manipulation, blunt force)

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 pet foods and even raw meat diets, which are high in fat, can lead to pancreatitis.  High-fat diets lead to high cholesterol and high triglycerides, and the dense calorie content of these fatty foods is likely to cause obesity. 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, causing pancreatitis.  

Dietary indiscretion, meaning the pet 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.

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 pets to obesity, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides and can result in high levels of inflammation within the dog’s body, all of which support the development of pancreatitis.

Epileptic canines, primarily those who receive the anticonvulsant medications potassium bromide and/or phenobarbital, are at a higher risk for pancreatitis. While the exact mechanism behind this connection is unclear, these medications often make dogs hungrier than usual, which may result in them seeking out inappropriate food or begging for treats more frequently, leading to other disorders that predispose them to pancreatitis.  

Prevention of Pancreatitis

While pancreatitis can happen to any dog, several ways you can lower your dog’s chances of developing pancreatic inflammation include:

  • Feed a high-quality, veterinary approved diet that is moderate or low in fat.
  • Serve 2-3 smaller meals per day as opposed to one large meal daily.
  • Avoid sharing fatty table scraps with your pets.
  • Keep the garbage bin inside a drawer or closet to make it less accessible.
  • Exercise your dog regularly to help them achieve and/or maintain a lean body condition.
  • Supplement your pet’s diet with probiotics to support gastrointestinal health, such as Native Pet’s Probiotic for Dogs.
  • Add a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids to your pet’s diet, such as Native Pet’s Omega Oil, to reduce total body inflammation and lower triglyceride levels.
  • Give healthy snacks such as unseasoned, unbuttered carrots, broccoli, or green beans. 
  • Approve annual blood tests during veterinary visits to measure cholesterol and triglyceride levels, as well as screen for the development of endocrine disorders.
Prevention of Pancreatitis

    Vet Diagnosis of Pancreatitis

    If you suspect your pet has pancreatitis, or if they match any of the clinical signs above, they should be seen by a veterinarian right away. Remember, the longer the pancreas simmers in its own digestive enzymes, the worse the condition and damage becomes, and therefore the harder (and more costly) it will be to treat. 

    Diagnosis of pancreatitis

    Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam to determine the severity of your pet’s condition and their hydration level. A detailed history and physical exam can help guide a veterinarian to the diagnosis of pancreatitis, but blood tests are important to rule out any underlying causes and ensure that the surrounding abdominal organs have not been damaged.  Many veterinarians also recommend a urinalysis to help determine the level of dehydration, as well as any indication of kidney damage or disease, which is evident in the urine before it is detectable in the blood.  

    In addition to routine blood and urine tests, your veterinarian will check the levels ofCanine 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 the 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), and it provides knowledge on 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. 

    Treatment and Management of Pancreatitis

    Appropriate supportive care is the mainstay of treatment for pancreatitis.  Each pet’s body is unique, so treatment will be tailored specifically to each pet and be based upon the severity of the disease as well as any confounding disease factors. Some pets can be treated on an outpatient basis, while many will require hospitalization for one or multiple days. 

    The majority of pancreatitis cases will be treated using the following methods:

    • Intravenous fluid therapy to correct and/or prevent dehydration from lack of intake and fluid loss via vomiting and diarrhea. 
    • Pain medications 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 losses 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 underlying conditions if found such as diabetes mellitus, hyperadrenocorticism, or hypothyroidism.

    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 it will be important for owners to always feed a low-fat diet, avoid table scraps, and follow the other guidelines mentioned to prevent pancreatitis (See Prevention of Pancreatitis/Reducing the Risk).  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, such as Native Pet’s Omega Oil, has been found to reduce circulating lipid levels, and may help prevent future episodes of pancreatic inflammation. 

    Treatment and Management of Pancreatitis

    Prognosis and Recovery for Pancreatitis

    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 pets who receive prompt, early care, as opposed to those who present later into the disease process. Dogs who receive no treatment or DIY therapies at home are likely to suffer severe consequences, including sudden death from shock. 

    Unfortunately, dogs who have experienced pancreatitis once are at risk for 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 disease processes from ongoing pancreatic dysfunction, such as diabetes mellitus or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).  

    The Takeaway

    As loving pet parents, we never want to see our dog suffering from pancreatitis. Although pancreatitis cannot be entirely prevented, by arming yourself with knowledge of the disease, you can take steps to implement a healthy lifestyle and reduce the risk of pancreatic inflammation, recognize the clinical signs of pancreatitis, and know what to do and what to expect should your dog develop inflammation of the pancreas.

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