Understanding pancreatitis in dogs

Understanding pancreatitis in dogs

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Increasingly common in canines, pancreatitis is a condition affecting their digestive system. Here’s what you need to know to prevent, spot and treat it.

Ranging from acute to chronic, pancreatitis is a digestive disease that can be treated with help from your vet – and can be very serious (even fatal) if you do not. As well as knowing how to treat it, it’s important to know how to prevent it where possible, and spot the signs and symptoms early.

What is pancreatitis in dogs?

The American Kennel Club definition of pancreatitis is simple: “inflammation of the pancreas.” So what is the pancreas, and why is inflammation of it an issue for your dog?

The pancreas is a gland located in your pooch’s abdominal cavity that consists of cells arranged into small sections, or lobules. These cells produce a number of digestive enzymes, which are moved from ‘storage’ in the lobules via two excretory ducts into the intestine where they function in digestion.

How does the pancreas work?

The pancreas also contains unique cells which produce insulin, allowing many cells in the body to use blood sugar (glucose). This makes it an important hormone in regulating levels of glucose in your dog’s blood. Insulin is released directly into the blood where it acts to carry glucose into the body’s cells when the beta cells of the pancreas detect an increase in the blood sugar concentration.  The pancreas also produces the hormone glucagon, which acts to increase blood sugar when levels are low.

When the pancreas is working normally, the enzymes only become active when they reach the small intestine- When your dog has pancreatitis, the enzymes activate as they are released, which causes inflammation and damages the pancreas – and other organs and tissues nearby. In severe cases, the enzyme may even start to ‘eat’ the pancreas, which is as painful as it sounds for your pooch. Therefore, it is incredibly important to see your vet immediately if your dog shows signs of pancreatitis.

Acute versus chronic pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis refers to a sudden onset of disease, while chronic pancreatitis is when it develops slowly and may linger for weeks or months. Chronic pancreatitis can also refer to recurrent bouts of acute pancreatitis. Despite acute pancreatitis usually being more severe, the symptoms can sometimes be mild, and chronic pancreatitis can sometimes be severe. Acute pancreatitis usually responds well and quickly to aggressive supportive treatments, while chronic pancreatitis tends to result in longer standing inflammation, and other irreversible changes such as fibrosis or atrophy.

How to identify the symptoms

While many of the signs of pancreatitis can be common to other illnesses, it is important to seek veterinary attention if you notice any of the following:

  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy
  • Hunching their back
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain or distention in their belly – this may appear as discomfort or bloating in the abdomen
  • Diarrhoea

What causes pancreatitis

While a high fat diet is a common cause (including the sudden introduction of high fat foods), pancreatitis may also be caused by:

  • Diabetes
  • Endocrine diseases, including hypothyroidism
  • Genetics – Schnauzers, for example, have a higher likelihood of developing the condition
  • Obesity
  • Severe blunt trauma
  • Some medications or other toxins including cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, oestrogen, salicylates, azathioprine and thiazide diuretics

Some research suggests high grain diets may also be to blame as dogs in the wild used to eat a diet largely made up of meats rather than grains and cereals. While the research is currently non-conclusive, you may want to talk to your vet about providing a diet most suited to your pooch.

How is it diagnosed?

Your vet will ask for your dog’s medical history and ask about their dietary habits. As well as a physical examination of their belly, gums, hydration, heart and temperature, they will usually conduct blood tests to measure pancreatic enzymes and assess hydration. They may also rule out other causes with an abdominal ultrasound.

Treating pancreatitis in dogs

Treating pancreatitis is about managing your pet’s pain, improving hydration and avoiding triggers. Depending on the severity, your vet may:

  • Administer IV fluid therapy
  • Give medicine to stop vomiting
  • Give pain medication
  • Recommend a 24-hour food fast to rest the pancreas
  • Administer antibiotics if infection is suspected

To prevent further attacks, your vet will talk to you about providing a pancreas friendly diet – this will mean a low fat, high quality dog food, and no scraps from the table. If your dog has a predilection for scavenging their own treats, your vet will recommend strategies to keep them away from dangerous nibblies.

Some vets recommend digestive enzyme supplements which may work to reduce the work of the pancreas and inhibit pancreatic secretion. Despite its high fat content, some studies suggest a high level of fish oil may be helpful to reduce inflammation, but you should always chat to your vet before providing any supplements.

Is it fatal for dogs?

The short answer is yes, it can be if left untreated. However, by chatting to your vet, following their treatment protocol to the tee and ensuring your dog consumes a healthy, high quality low-fat diet with limited human or other high fat treats, you can reduce the risks.

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