Pancreatitis in Dogs

Updated: November 04, 2020
Published: November 23, 2012
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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