Pancreatitis in dogs is a tricky and sometimes frightening condition. It’s hard to definitively diagnose, hard to treat … and it can be life-threatening.
Pancreatitis means “inflammation of the pancreas.” But inflammation in the pancreas can be devastating.
So, what is the pancreas, and why is it so important?
What The Pancreas Does
The pancreas is a solid glandular organ located in the right upper part of the abdomen. It’s tucked in along the duodenum (the first section of the intestine), under the stomach. It’s near the liver and the transverse colon.
The pancreas has both exocrine and endocrine functions. As an exocrine gland, it secretes its products through a duct system. Its endocrine cells secrete hormones into the bloodstream to travel throughout the body.
The Exocrine Pancreas
When your dog eats, the exocrine pancreas releases both bicarbonate and digestive enzymes. They go into ducts that flow to the duodenum.
Bicarbonate neutralizes the highly acidic stomach contents as they move into the intestines. Then the digestive enzymes get to work … breaking down the food so the body can absorb and use it.
The Endocrine Pancreas
The pancreas is also a vital endocrine gland. It produces 10 different hormones. The two most important ones are insulin and glucagon.
Insulin helps with energy production and lowers blood sugar. It also promotes the storage of fat.
Glucagon does the reverse. When blood sugar drops too low, it triggers liver and fat cells to release glucose and raise blood sugar levels. Glucagon also stimulates fat breakdown.
Acute Pancreatitis In Dogs
There are two types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis can be a life-threatening emergency. Inflammation creates swelling and congestion in the pancreas. This lowers hormone production, and cells may die.
But the most dangerous part of pancreatitis is inflammation of the exocrine cells. The exocrine cells make digestive enzymes. Normally they’re confined within ducts until they reach the small intestine.
But when these cells die, they leak enzymes into the surrounding tissue. They then start to digest the pancreas’s own tissues. They may even leak into the abdomen. This leads to massive inflammation … and cell death. And as you might imagine, this is very painful for your dog!
So you’ll know something is wrong with him. Here’s are some of the signs.
Symptoms Of Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs
Consult your vet right away if you see any of these possible symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Loss of appetite
- Bloody stool
- Lethargy or restlessness
If you see these symptoms in your dog, get to your vet. Acute pancreatitis can lead to very severe problems, like organ failure (kidneys, lungs, heart), septic shock or death.
There’s also a longer term, chronic kind of pancreatitis.
Chronic Pancreatitis In Dogs
Your dog may develop a low-grade, smoldering form of pancreatitis. This can produce intermittent mild signs of illness, such as:
- Occasional vomiting
- Lack of appetite
Longstanding chronic pancreatitis can lead to type 1 diabetes or pancreatic insufficiency. This is due to gradual loss of cells and replacement with scar tissue over time.
Let’s talk about why your dog might get pancreatitis.
What Causes Pancreatitis In Dogs?
Acute pancreatitis is often associated with a high-fat diet or especially fatty meal. Dietary indiscretion (aka garbage gut)is also a common cause.
Many dogs turn up with pancreatitis around the holidays. Beware of guests feeding fatty foods and table scraps (like turkey skin). Along with the stresses of the season, this sets the stage for big problems.
But there are several other things that can trigger acute or chronic pancreatitis:
- Autoimmune disease
- Concurrent hormonal diseases (diabetes, hypothyroidism, hypercalcemia)
- Certain drugs (sulfa antibiotics, seizure medications, chemotherapy)
- Organophosphate insecticide exposure
Note: Steroids, which were once blamed, are not associated with pancreatitis.
Obesity also sets the stage for pancreas issues. This is due to altered fat metabolism. But oftentimes, especially when chronic, the precise cause is never determined.
Dog Breeds At Risk For Pancreatitis
Yorkshire Terriers have an increased risk of acute pancreatitis. Miniature Schnauzers (who have issues with fat metabolism) also have a higher risk.
Breeds predisposed to chronic pancreatitis include …
- Cocker Spaniels
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
How Does A Vet Diagnose Pancreatitis?
Acute pancreatitis is usually obvious, so most dog owners seek veterinary help early. And they should … because as I said before, it can be life-threatening.
But, a definitive diagnosis is harder to pin down than you might think. Here are some common diagnostic tools your vet may use.
Ultrasound can detect close to 70% of cases in the acute phase. Ultrasound can also reveal other contributing or aggravating issues … such as blockage of the pancreatic duct.
General bloodwork can show changes in liver, kidney, and electrolyte values.
Spec cPL. This stands for serum canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity. It’s also called cPLI. It’s a much more sensitive and specific test but it can take days to get results. So many veterinary clinics can do a “snap PLI” kit that provides a quick result.If it’s negative, you can rule out pancreatitis. But if it’s positive, you’ll still need a cPLI to confirm a solid diagnosis.
A similar assay called DGGR Lipase Assay can take place at a lab. Results are usually available the next day.
Some Less Useful Tests
Radiographs (x-rays) aren’t useful in pancreatitis … except to rule out other injury or illness.
Amylase and lipase tests were once considered useful. But that was before better tests were available. These enzymes are non-specific (since they are also produced in other organs). So testing is unreliable.
Note: One positive lab test is not adequate to diagnose pancreatitis. It’s important for your veterinarian to assess the full clinical picture … including tests.
Now, let’s talk about managing pancreatitis. First, the scary one: acute pancreatitis …
6 Ways To Manage Acute Pancreatitis
If your dog has an acute pancreatitis attack, he’ll likely need emergency veterinary care.
If he’s in a conventional clinic, this means you won’t have many options to give natural remedies. But in any case, contact your holistic vet. She can help you with natural remedies once your dog’s out of danger.
There’s no single way to treat pancreatitis. There’s not an individual treatment, or combination of treatments, that will work for every dog. But there are some of the steps your clinic may take.
1. Feed Your Dog Appropriately
Fasting was once the first line of treatment. The rule was to rest the pancreas. But research now suggests that fasting isn’t appropriate for most cases.
If vomiting doesn’t worsen, a dog with pancreatitis should eat. Otherwise, the whole gastrointestinal tract could shut down.
If your dog tolerates it, he should have frequent, small amounts of food. Your dog can feed by mouth if he isn’t nauseous. Otherwise, your veterinarian can use a tube to bypass part or all the upper GI tract. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t feel as bad as it sounds!)
2. Fluid Therapy
Aggressive IV (intravenous) fluid therapy is essential. Dehydration makes a bad situation much worse. It can stress other organs as well. Subcutaneous fluids are inadequate for all but the very mildest cases.
Your dog needs hospitalization to watch his condition in case complications arise. Make sure there’s on-site, 24-hour supervision at the clinic … not just someone who checks in every few hours.
4. Pain Management
Medication is almost always needed. Pain isn’t only unpleasant. It can suppress the appetite … and it can harm your dog’s gastrointestinal, renal, and cardiovascular systems.
5. Nausea Control
The vet may also prescribe anti-nausea medication.
In cases that involve infection, your vet may prescribe antibiotics. If there’s no infection, they’re not necessary.
A Note About Conventional Treatment
Holistic therapies can be very helpful, especially long-term. But if your dog has a serious case of acute pancreatitis, he needs veterinary care early on.
It’s a very serious condition … so please don’t try to treat severe acute pancreatitis yourself at home.
If your dog’s in the hospital, you may not be able to get him holistic remedies. Don’t feel bad if your dog gets some emergency medications in the clinic. You can clean up or detox afterwards, when he gets home.
Work closely with your holistic veterinarian. Once your dog’s out of danger, she’ll able to support your dog’s healing with:
How To Manage Chronic Pancreatitis
Chronic pancreatitis is more manageable. But bear in mind it can still destroy 80-90% of pancreas cells … if it’s not well controlled.
If the disease progresses, chronic pancreatitis can lead to …
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus, requiring your dog to take insulin for life.
- Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), needing a pancreatic enzyme extract at every meal. (Plant- or fungal-based digestive enzymes are usually not enough at first … though eventually they may do the trick).
Diet is the main consideration in managing chronic pancreatitis.
Diet For Dogs Recovering From Pancreatitis
A bland diet may be useful while your dog is recovering from a pancreatitis episode … whether acute or chronic.
Bone broth can be a good choice as he starts to feel better.
If he’s ready for solid food, give a bland diet like cooked chicken breast and white rice. If you’re only feeding it for a few weeks, you don’t need to add supplements.
In the long run, you’ll want to go with a consistent, low-fat diet.
Long Term Diet For Pancreatitis
A balanced homemade diet is always the top choice, with appropriate supplementation. A raw diet is fine … but introduce (or re-introduce) it gradually. Wait until your dog’s inflammation subsides and healing is well underway.
If you’re not up for homemade, a good quality canned food can also work. But don’t give kibble. Dry food is bad for many reasons …
- High carbohydrate content
- Sprayed-on fats
- Heat processing
- Low moisture
- Lack of live nutrients
How To Prevent Pancreatitis
Many variables can be involved in pancreatitis … so it’s impossible to make any guarantees about prevention. But these factors are definitely within your control:
- Feed a healthy diet.
- Give appropriate supplements. This includes omega-3s, antioxidants, digestive enzymes, prebiotics and probiotics.
- Make sure your dog gets regular exercise and adequate rest.
- Maintain a healthy weight. This means closer to the lean side for most dogs.
- Don’t over-vaccinate. Vaccines are a major factor in autoimmune and inflammatory conditions.
- Pay attention to things that may signal a problem, such as changes in …
- Stool quality
- Energy level
- If you have any doubts, ask your holistic veterinarian.
Of course, these are also the factors that support good health for any dog. They will stand you in good stead throughout your dog’s life.
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Mansfield CS, Beths T. Management of acute pancreatitis in dogs: A critical appraisal with focus on feeding and analgesia. Journal of Small Animal Practice. 2015;56(1):27-39.