Pancreatitis is common; far more common than realised. It’s a major cause of unrecognised pain and sickness.
It’s also very sneaky. If we don’t go looking for pancreatitis, we’re going to miss it. That’s why we don’t wait for dogs or cats to complain. They won’t.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Have you ever wondered how animals can digest meat without digesting their own bodies? That’s the magic of the pancreas. Pancreatitis is when that goes horribly wrong.
The pancreas is an organ which manufactures the enzymes needed to digest fats, carbohydrates and proteins. It also makes four hormones including insulin but it’s the digestive enzymes we’re interested in.
The pancreas is like an explosives factory, carefully assembling products which can kill if an accident occurs. It’s a clever system where the enzymes are made in an inactive form in the gland, sent down the duct, and only activated (armed!) when they meet up with a separate activator once they reach the food.
By now you’ve probably guessed what happens in pancreatitis: the enzymes activate inside the pancreas. It sets off a chain reaction of increasing destruction and further enzyme release, spilling out to attack the nearby tissues like the stomach, liver and intestines.
Don’t imagine enzymes are friendly things. We’ve even seen a case where a pancreas digested a hole through the abdominal muscles and could be seen on the outside. Imagine the pain.
This is called Acute Pancreatitis. Once upon a time we used to think that this was the only way it happened. Now we know that Chronic Pancreatitis is much more common and a lot less easy to spot.
What Does Pancreatitis Look Like?
Acute pancreatitis is obvious. It more or less only happens in dogs. The signs include:
- Not eating
- Vomiting (see other causes of acute vomiting in dogs here)
- Painful, hard belly
It’s often fatal if untreated.
Chronic pancreatitis is subtle and easily overlooked. It commonly occurs in both dogs and cats as repeated periods of illness that get better by themselves. Dogs & cats with chronic pancreatitis are usually:
- Not eating
- Quiet & withdrawn
- Occasional vomiting (see other causes of vomiting in cats here)
That’s it. These animals are in significant pain but you can’t tell. It can go on for years if no one realises. You can see why we’re a little obsessed about this disease.
How To Tell If Dogs Or Cats Have Pancreatitis
If your dog develops acute pancreatitis, your vet should be able to easily make the diagnosis on routine blood testing.
Chronic pancreatitis is the challenge. Originally vets were making educated guesses and relying on ultrasound and exploratory surgery. We knew we were missing most of the cases.
Then a new test for Pancreatic Lipase allowed us to easily detect these long-suffering cats and dogs. All we have to do now is use this on pets with appropriate symptoms, or even just as wellness screening. You’ll find we include this test on most blood screens of unwell pets these days.
How To Treat Pancreatitis
The mainstays of treatment are:
- Intravenous fluids: it’s critical to get these dogs & cats well hydrated
- Optimal pain control: severe pain isn’t just a welfare issue, it reduces the chances of survival
- Reducing nausea
- Nutritional support: early feeding can improve recovery
- Management of sequelae such as liver or bile duct damage, sepsis, shock, diabetes
Pets will always be treated at home if there is the option. Dogs and cats who aren’t able to keep food and water down need to be admitted to hospital to go on intravenous fluids.
How To Prevent Pancreatitis In Dogs
In dogs, understanding the risk factors is the key:
- Weight: help your dog lose weight and you will reduce the risk
- Sex: female dogs are at a slightly higher risk
- Breed: All dogs get it but Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles & Cocker Spaniels are at higher risk
- Age: Most dogs are first affected in middle age
- Diet: Foods containing higher than average fats or oils (usually table scraps or treats) are often the trigger
You can’t change sex, age or breed, but you can certainly keep a dog at their ideal weight and feed appropriate foods.
Any dog who has had pancreatitis should be fed on an ultra low fat diet to prevent recurrence. Ingredients can include:
- Prescription low fat tinned or dry diets
- Fruits & vegetables, rice, pasta
- Dentastix™ & Greenies™
- Vege ears (not pigs ears)
Dogs kept on a strictly low fat diet almost never experience significant problems again.
How To Prevent Pancreatitis In Cats
In cats, we really don’t know enough about what causes pancreatitis, though our experience tells us that they are also generally:
- Middle-aged or older
- Any breed, though Siamese cats seem to be at higher risk
Diabetes and pancreatitis in cats are commonly linked. Feline pancreatitis is also often found with inflammatory bowel disease and liver disease (we call this ‘triaditis’) but we still aren’t sure this isn’t just coincidental. Read more about diabetes here.
Unlike dogs, there is no clear link with diet and no need to change the food other than to get cats to an ideal weight. Thankfully, most of our feline patients do very well on long term pain control.
So (once again!) the message is simple: take your pet’s small signs of sickness seriously. They might be all you get.