Updated - Oct 15th, 2022
At some point in their lives, most dogs will eat something that makes their tummy upset. Often, it is just a passing problem and your dog wakes up fine the next day, but sometimes the cause is something more serious, like a bowel obstruction or pancreatitis – both of which are critical conditions and need the attention of a veterinarian.
What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is the medical term used by doctors to describe inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is an internal organ that is in the abdomen of dogs and most other mammals, including humans. The pancreas lives at the top of the abdomen, nestled up next to the stomach and gallbladder. The pancreas is part of the digestive system, and functions by releasing enzymes, including lipase and amylase, into the small intestine. These enzymes help break down food. The pancreas also makes hormones that regulate appetite and blood sugar levels – insulin is made in the pancreas.
Pancreatitis happens when something “makes the pancreas angry” and it becomes inflamed. When a pancreas is angry, it releases digestive hormones inside itself instead of in the small intestine. These digestive enzymes cause inflammation and infection of the pancreas – they can even lead to development of abscesses within the pancreas that can kill off parts of the organ. All of this causes abdominal pain, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Severe pancreatitis can be life-threatening because inflammation in the pancreas leads to inflammation in other parts of the body, including the lungs, blood systems, and cardiovascular system.
Are there different types of Pancreatitis?
There are! Pancreatitis in dogs can be divided into two broad categories: acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis happens when inflammation in the pancreas occurs abruptly, is treated and resolved, and no permanent damage to the pancreas is done. Chronic pancreatitis happens when inflammation in the pancreas continues over a longer period of time (usually a month or more). When a pancreas is inflamed for a long time, irreversible damage can be done to the pancreas, reducing its ability to secrete digestive enzymes and insulin, and ultimately impacting a dog’s ability to digest food properly. Chronic pancreatitis can also predispose a dog to developing Diabetes Mellitus, a hormonal condition that requires insulin injections to regulate blood sugar.
What are the typical causes of Pancreatitis?
The cause of pancreatitis in dogs is often unknown, however there are many theories. Possible causes can include:
- Dietary indiscretion (the dog ate something they shouldn’t have, and made the pancreas angry)
- Feeding a dog high-fat dog food or human food (example: sharing a juicy burger or prime rib with your dog)
- Trauma to the pancreas
- Inflammation in other parts of the body leading to inflammation in the pancreas (it’s all connected)
- Medications (atropine, azathioprine, chlorothiazide, estrogen, furosemide, tetracyclines, and L-asparaginase have all been associated with the development of pancreatitis)
- Obstruction of the pancreatic duct (the tube that the digestive enzymes travel down to get to the small intestine)
- High blood calcium levels
- Bacterial infections
- Inflammation of the liver, stomach, or small intestine
- High blood cholesterol levels
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Are there any risk factors for Pancreatitis?
Any dog can develop pancreatitis, but some dogs seem to be at higher risk for the disease. Pancreatitis is most often seen in middle-aged and older female dogs that are obese. Miniature Schnauzers, Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, and Yorkshire Terriers are all reported to be at higher risk for pancreatitis.
What are the signs of Pancreatitis?
Signs of pancreatitis are mostly shown in the gastrointestinal tract, and most dogs with acute pancreatitis will experience pain in their abdomen. Dogs with chronic pancreatitis may not have abdominal pain. Additional signs of pancreatitis include:
- Loss of energy
- Loss of appetite
In severe cases of pancreatitis, dogs may have difficulty breathing, bleeding disorders, and collapse due to abnormal heart rhythms. Severe pancreatitis can be lethal if not treated. If you suspect your dog might have pancreatitis, call your local or emergency veterinarian immediately.
How is Pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will use a combination of history from you, physical examination findings, and laboratory tests to diagnose pancreatitis. Be prepared to answer questions about symptoms you are noticing at home, how long the problem has been going on for, any changes in the dog’s diet, any medications or other health problems, etc.
Your veterinarian will conduct a complete physical examination including vital signs. Based on your dog’s medical history and physical exam findings, they will recommend laboratory testing.
Laboratory tests that are routinely used to diagnose pancreatitis include a complete blood cell count of red and white blood cells, serum chemistry to check internal organ function, and urinalysis to check kidney function.
Additional blood work specific to the pancreas may be ordered, including serum lipase and amylase, and serum pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (cPL). These can usually be run in the hospital where your veterinarian works, and results can be available the same day.
Your veterinarian may also recommend abdominal imaging studies, such as radiographs or abdominal ultrasounds, to check the pancreas and look for any other abnormalities, like blocked bile ducts, tumors, abscesses in the pancreas, or abdominal fluid.
What is the treatment for Pancreatitis?
Most dogs with pancreatitis require hospitalization and veterinarian-supervised treatment. Treatment consists of intravenous fluid therapy to rehydrate the body, treat shock, correct electrolyte imbalances, and flush out toxins.
In some cases, surgery may be required to remove cysts, abscesses, tumors, or dead tissue from the pancreas or to unblock a bile duct.
Unless the dog can’t stop vomiting, feeding is an important part of therapy because it maintains the lining of the gut and minimizes gut bacteria moving out of the intestines and into the rest of the body, which can cause sepsis. The dog must be fed a low-fat, highly digestible diet, such as a prescribed therapeutic dog food, or rice. If the dog won’t eat, then a short-term feeding tube is placed.
There are several medications that are used to treat pancreatitis in dogs. Any or all of the following may be prescribed:
- Maripotant (trade name Cerenia) for vomiting and nausea
- Anti-inflammatory medication, such as steroids for severe cases when dogs are in shock
- Antibiotics if there is evidence of sepsis (bacterial infection in the blood)
- Pain medication for abdominal pain
Once the dog is released from the hospital, they are usually sent home on one or more of the medications above, and their pet parents are instructed to only feed them bland, low-fat diet or prescribed therapeutic food. The veterinarian may also prescribe probiotics and a follow-up visit to check how the dog is healing. It’s important to follow all instructions from your veterinary care team to avoid relapse or development of chronic pancreatitis.
What is the expected outcome of Pancreatitis?
When treated properly, most dogs have a good prognosis. If a dog has severe necrotizing pancreatitis (death of tissues), organ failure, or sepsis – the prognosis is not good. These dogs fail to respond to therapy more often and are at a higher risk of developing chronic problems associated with the pancreas.
What can you do to help prevent Pancreatitis?
Sometimes dogs develop pancreatitis and we just don’t know why, but there are steps you can take to minimize the chances of your dog developing pancreatitis, including:
- Avoid feeding high-fat treats, table scraps, or other fatty foods.
- If your dog is overweight or obese, work with your veterinarian to lose weight.
- If your dog is an at-risk breed, avoid drugs (listed above) that may precipitate pancreatitis.
- Feed a high-quality dog food that has guaranteed probiotics and prebiotics for intestinal health, and don’t switch foods around unless you are working with your veterinarian. If you do switch, do it slowly – mix in new foods over a period of days to allow for a smooth transition.
- If your dog exhibits any signs that are consistent with pancreatitis, call your veterinarian immediately.
Pancreatitis can be a scary ordeal for pet parents, but by knowing your dog’s habits, minimizing risk factors, and avoiding doing things that are known to cause pancreatitis, you can minimize your dog’s chances of developing the disease.