Pancreatitis in dogs is something dog guardians should be informed about, as symptoms of pancreatitis may not be as obvious as one would think, and leaving this condition untreated could be deadly. The symptoms of pancreatitis could be confused with other conditions, but with an awareness and some background information, you could be your dog’s best advocate against this serious health issue.
In this article, I will discuss what pancreatitis is, how to spot its symptoms, how it is diagnosed and steps to prevent and manage it in your dog.
Functions of the Pancreas
Before we discuss pancreatitis in dogs, let’s take a look at why the pancreas is so important. The pancreas serves multiple purposes. It produces hormones that control blood glucose levels, including insulin. It also secretes digestive enzymes that help the body break down protein, carbohydrates and fat. Digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas include trypsinogen, chymotrypsinogen, amylase and lipase. The pancreas also contains sodium bicarbonate, which neutralizes the acidic stomach contents that empty into the small intestine.
What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. When the pancreas is working properly, the digestive enzymes it produces remain inactive until they reach the small intestine. However, when your dog has pancreatitis, these enzymes can activate much faster and may activate as soon as they are released.
Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes leak into the pancreas, causing it to digest itself. The cause is unknown.
Dogs can suffer from acute pancreatitis, where symptoms manifest suddenly, or from a chronic form that involves a long-term low-grade inflammation. Cases of both forms can range from mild to life threatening.
It’s critical that acute pancreatitis is identified and treated immediately, as it comes on suddenly and can be deadly if left untreated.
Chronic pancreatitis is less likely to present with clinical symptoms other than an increase in pancreatic enzymes when tested.
Approximately two-thirds of pancreatitis in dogs (and cats) are chronic conditions, whereas one-third of the cases are acute.
Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs
Unfortunately, dogs cannot tell us how they are feeling; instead, they rely on us to pick up on their clues that something is wrong. You can do this by knowing the common signs of pancreatitis, which are as follows:
- Abdominal pain, often exhibited by the dog assuming a hunched position
- Anorexia (Loss of appetite)
- Difficulty breathing
- Rapid heart rate
Pancreatitis is often very painful, so you may notice your dog is uncomfortable, unable to settle down, shaky or may even be crying. If you do notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to address them as it could indicate pancreatitis, and particularly acute pancreatitis. This condition will need to be treated immediately.
Risk Factors of Pancreatitis in Dogs
A number of different factors can cause pancreatitis, including:
- Certain diseases, such as diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), chronic liver disease and Cushing’s disease.
- Certain drugs and toxins, including cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, estrogen, salicylates, azathioprine, thiazide diuretics, and vinca alkaloids.
- Genetic predisposition, as seen in Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, English Cocker Spaniels and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
- High-fat diet.
- Hyperlipidemia (high fat levels in the blood).
- Overweight or obesity.
- Severe blunt trauma.
Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Dogs
Veterinarians typically diagnose pancreatitis via multiple testing methods, including a Complete Blood Count (CBC) to check for elevated white blood cells and a serum chemistry panel that includes amylase and lipase enzyme levels. Keep in mind that dogs fed a raw diet may normally have slightly elevated pancreatic enzymes.
Your veterinarian may also perform an ultrasound or x-ray as a way to confirm pancreatitis and to rule out any other potential causes of the symptoms. These options, however, may not be the best diagnostic tools for chronic pancreatitis.
The most sensitive and accurate method for diagnosing chronic pancreatitis in dogs is testing the serum pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity concentration (cPLI) via the Spec cPL test developed by Texas A&M University and offered by IDEXX Laboratories. In 2015, Antech Diagnostics introduced the PrecisionPSL Pancreatic Sensitive Lipase Assay test, which is included at no extra charge as part of Antech’s standard chemistry panels. According to Antech, results of the Precision PSL test correlate 98.1% with the Spec cPL. Discuss the best option with your veterinarian. In either case, clinical signs and ruling out other possible diseases should also be incorporated into the final diagnosis.
Treatment of Pancreatitis
Options to treat pancreatitis and help facilitate recovery in dogs include:
- Eliminate processed kibble and feed a natural, low-fat diet.
- Fast the dog (including withholding water) for 48 hours and then introduce low-fat food and broth.
- Feed several small meals per day (6 – 8), which will create less stimulation on the pancreas.
- Supplement your dog’s diet with a species-specific probiotic.
- Feed only low-fat foods, such as white meat chicken or turkey or boiled and drained low-fat ground beef. Avoiding higher-fat foods is critical to recovery and preventing a relapse.
- A low-protein diet is not recommended.
- Some analgesic medications may be prescribed for pets experiencing pain.
- Some veterinarians may recommend an antibiotic to prevent secondary infection from occurring opportunistically.
- IV therapy may be needed in severe cases.
- Try giving anti-inflammatory nutraceuticals like T-Relief Arnica, which can be given as long as needed without negative side effects, instead of more potent NSAIDs.
Pancreatitis can be helped to ‘cool down’ with transfusion of fresh-frozen plasma (3-5 cc per pound given once or twice daily). Fresh-frozen plasma contains alpha-1 anti-trypsin to neutralize the trypsin produced and released by the inflamed pancreas. This product can be obtained by contacting Dr. Jean Dodds’ Hemopet.
Preventing Pancreatitis in Dogs
While it may not be possible to control every single cause of pancreatitis, there are steps you can take to protect your pet from developing this painful and potentially fatal condition. Here are a few of my recommendations:
- Avoid exposure to medications and toxins that can trigger pancreatitis.
- Keep your pet at an ideal weight.
- Heal your dog’s gut.
- Immediately address any concurrent medical conditions that can trigger pancreatitis.
- STEER CLEAR OF FATTY FOODS. Dogs prone to pancreatic must stick with a life-long low-fat diet.
As always, I hope you found this article helpful and that it serves to help you and your four-legged companion enjoy many healthy, happy years together.
W. Jean Dodds, DVM. (2017). Pancreatitis in Dogs.
American Kennel Club. (2015). Pancreatitis in Dogs – Symptoms, Causes and Treatment, Retrieved from http://www.akc.org/content/health/articles/pancreatitis-in-dogs/.Do you have something to add to this story? Voice your thoughts in the comments below!