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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Pancreatitis in Dogs

November 23, 2012 / (5) comments

It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I hope you had a wonderful time and, if you ate a little too much, your GI tract has had a chance to recover. I thought I’d use this holiday traditionally associated with overindulgence to talk about pancreatitis in dogs. Hopefully, the topic is not too timely for you, because as you’ll see, dogs that get into foods they’re not used to are at risk for developing pancreatitis. Keep those leftovers safely tucked away!

First, the pancreas is an organ we don’t think about much until something goes wrong. It is small and located between the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. The pancreas has two main functions. It produces the hormone insulin and also manufactures digestive enzymes.

Pancreatitis develops when the organ becomes inflamed, which can occur for a number of reasons (obesity, infection, trauma, metabolic disorders, etc.) or seemingly out of nowhere. The most well-recognized cause of pancreatitis in dogs is the ingestion of an atypical meal, particularly if its fat content is high.

Whatever the cause, once the pancreas becomes inflamed it begins to leak digestive enzymes. These enzymes are very irritating and start to break down any tissue with which they have contact (the inner surface of the intestinal tract, where they are supposed to be secreted, is covered with mucus and is protected by other mechanisms). This is often the beginning of a vicious cycle: inflammation begets enzyme leakage, which begets more inflammation and so on.

The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can be rather vague. Most dogs have some combination of poor appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, but others seem to have forgotten to read the textbooks. A blood chemistry screen may reveal an elevation in two pancreatic enzymes, amylase and lipase, but pancreatitis is still possible if these tests are normal. Specific blood tests for pancreatitis (fPLI or SPEC-FPL) are helpful, but not definitive on their own. It takes a combination of a dog’s history, physical exam, lab work, abdominal X-rays and/or ultrasounds, and sometimes exploratory surgery to definitively diagnose a dog with pancreatitis.

Treatment for pancreatitis is essentially symptomatic and supportive. The goal is to keep the patient comfortable and otherwise healthy while interrupting the inflammation-tissue damage-more inflammation cycle. Most dogs are hospitalized so they can receive fluid therapy, pain relievers, anti-nausea medications, antibiotics, and sometimes plasma transfusions. Once a dog’s condition is stable and he can drink, eat, and take his medications by mouth, he can go home to finish his recuperation.

Dogs that are being treated for pancreatitis, or are at high risk for the disease, should eat bland, low-fat, easily digestible foods. The goal is to provide the dog with nutrition while simultaneously resting the pancreas as much as possible. Dogs that are vomiting are typically held off food and water until they have not done so for 12 to 24 hours. Research is showing that the sooner dogs can eat again, the better they do, so aggressive anti-nausea treatment is very important. Dogs that cannot hold down food within a reasonable amount of time (a few days generally) may need a feeding tube.

Many dogs that have a single episode of pancreatitis (say from getting into the Thanksgiving turkey) recover uneventfully and never look back. In more severe cases however, pancreatitis may be acutely fatal or become a chronic and/or recurrent problem. Chronic pancreatitis can result in the destruction of enough pancreatic tissue that insulin and/or digestive enzyme production becomes insufficient leading to diabetes mellitus and/or pancreatic enzyme insufficiency respectively.

Do what you can to protect your dog from pancreatitis. Limit treats, snacks, and other "extras" to only 10-15% of his total daily caloric intake and make sure your offerings are low in fat.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Flapjack and the Thanksgiving Leftovers by Corey Seeman / via Flickr

Comments  5

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  • Pancreatitis in dogs
    11/23/2012 07:34pm

    Thank you so much for an informative article. If a dog has chronic pancreatitis and is put on Pancrezyme, or a similar porcine enzyme, will this help prevent the dog becoming EPI down the road? My 13 yr old jack russell had abdominal surgery in June 2012 and came out with a case of pancreatitis. He also is a confirmed urate stone former so has been on either Hills UD or Royal Canin Urinary UC for 12 years. After pancreatitis was diagnosed by ultrasound, food was switched to RC vegetarian diet(this is what RC recommended for pancreatitis and urates prevention). His spec cPl (825), lipase(849) and amylase(1322) remain elevated quite above normal as are his Alkp and ALT. Just wondering if the enzymes might stave off the EPI if the levels never return to normal. Thank you

  • Comment
    11/23/2012 08:04pm

    Just adding a comment so subsequent comments will be sent via email.

  • CPL is pancreatitius test
    10/10/2013 06:37am

    I didn't see the CPL test mentioned above and I know that it was available last year because my little Missy had pancreatitus. This is a blood test and is definitive either positive or negative.

  • Wet Food Ingredients
    03/08/2015 06:53pm

    My dog was diagnosed with pancreatitis a couple of days ago and we have been feeding her boiled chicken (she is not responding well to her new food). My question is about the canned food the vet sent us home with. She was given Royal Canin Gastro-Intestinal Low Fat canned food, and I am a bit concerned with the ingredients. I may be a little paranoid, but "water sufficient for processing (whatever THAT means), pork by-products, gelatin by-products and carageenan were the ones that alarmed me most (along with a lot of "ate"s). Knowing that carageenan causes gastro-intestinal problems in humans, how could this be doing any good for my puppy? I understand meat is high in fat and I am not going to find a food with real meat products that will be low-fat, but are there any guidelines regarding exactly how much fat should be in her food that will help me shop for different food within her diet range? I'd appreciate your feedback!

  • 03/09/2015 08:11pm

    There isn't one specific recommendation that works for all dogs. Some so best with around 12-15% fat on a metabolizable energy basis, while others can handle 20% or even 25% fat. The ME fat% is not usually listed on labels (only the minimum as fed) so you may have to call several pet food companies to get this information.