Pancreatitis In Dogs

Pancreatitis is common; far more common than realised. It’s a major cause of unrecognised pain and sickness.

It’s also very hard to recognise. If we don’t go looking for pancreatitis, we’re often going to miss it. That’s why we don’t wait for dogs to complain. They won’t.

To read an opinionated page on pancreatitis in cats, click here. Otherwise, keep reading to learn about the disease in dogs.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Have you ever wondered how animals can digest meat without digesting their own bodies? The answer lies in the pancreas.

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.

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 usually obvious. The signs include:

It’s often fatal if untreated.

Chronic pancreatitis is subtle and easily overlooked. It commonly occurs as repeated periods of illness that get better by themselves. Dogs with chronic pancreatitis are usually:

  • Not eating
  • Quiet & withdrawn
  • Occasionally vomiting

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 A Dog Has 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 dogs. Now vets 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. It still won’t detect every case, but it probably finds the majority.

We look hard for pancreatitis because finding it usually means we can stop it coming back!

How To Treat Pancreatitis

The mainstays of treatment are:

  • Intravenous fluids: it’s critical to get these dogs well hydrated
  • Optimal pain control: severe pain isn’t just a welfare issue, it reduces the chances of survival
  • Reduction of 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 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 can get it but Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles & Terrier breeds more commonly develop acute pancreatitis. Collies, Cavalier King Charles & Cocker Spaniels are at higher risk of chronic pancreatitis.
  • 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.

So (once again!) the message is simple: take your pet’s small signs of sickness seriously. They might be all you get.

Read our related articles on What blood testing can tell us about pets and How to know when to go to the vet.