What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?
To understand what pancreatitis is, it helps to know what the pancreas itself does.
This tiny organ sits in the digestive system close to the stomach. One of its chief roles is to release enzymes that aid with digestion. These should stay inactive until they reach the small intestine, but trouble arises when they become active prematurely in the pancreas. This leads to inflammation, which is where the ‘itis’ part of pancreatitis comes from.
Essentially, these enzymes start to digest the pancreas, which leads to a whole host of nasty symptoms and can result in secondary damage to other organs.
Pancreatitis is a medical condition that usually requires swift veterinary intervention — to ensure your dog has access to this at the right moment, you should seriously consider taking out a pet insurance policy. You can use our online comparison tool to work through the best options.
What are the Different Types of Pancreatitis In Dogs?
There are two different types of pancreatitis in dogs:
- Acute pancreatitis — This is the more common form diagnosed and is usually more easily treated. However, its onset is normally more sudden and although it’s often mild, acute pancreatitis can be severe in nature, especially if the pancreas inflammation quickly spreads.
- Chronic pancreatitis — As opposed to coming out of nowhere, chronic pancreatitis develops slowly over time and is often symptomless in the early beginnings. This sometimes makes it difficult for vets to make a diagnosis and can lead to irreversible damage if left undetected for too long.
The pancreas is a small cog in the digestive system that goes largely unnoticed when it’s functioning as intended. However, when the organ starts to play up, there can be some serious consequences.
Pancreatitis is one of the most common disorders relating to the pancreas and can be deadly if left untreated. The symptoms are sometimes non-specific and confusable with other medical conditions, so it’s important that pet parents are fully clued in on the illness.
In this handy guide to pancreatitis, you’ll come away knowing all this and more:
- There are two different types of pancreatitis in dogs — acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis
- Symptoms to watch out for include abdominal pain, decrease in appetite and vomiting
- It can be caused by underlying conditions, or inherited genetically
- Poor diet can also case pancreatitis
Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs
There’s no typical bout of pancreatitis and dogs suffering from the illness will often display different symptoms. The following have been observed in dogs with pancreatitis:
- Abdominal pain
- Decrease in Appetite
- Increased heart rate
Many of these symptoms are commonly observed in other medical conditions, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog has pancreatitis if they exhibit one or more of the above clinical signs.
At the same time, your vet won’t want to exclude the possibility too quickly due to the severity of pancreatitis if left untreated.
Causes — How Do Dogs Get Pancreatitis?
Once your vet has diagnosed a dog with pancreatitis, it’s only natural for parents to want to know the reason why the condition developed, especially as this could hold vital information for successful treatment.
Unfortunately, it can be very difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes pancreatitis in dogs. However, here are some common reasons for the condition emerging.
Although pancreatitis can develop in any dog, there are certain breeds that are more prone to the condition. It’s disproportionately diagnosed in Miniature Schnauzers in particular, but there’s also a higher incidence in some toy and terrier breeds — this includes Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, Poodles and Cocker Spaniels.
An Underlying Condition
On other occasions, pancreatitis is a secondary condition — this means it’s essentially a symptom of another medical issue from which your dog’s suffering. This can be in the following instances:
- Blunt Trauma
- Duct Obstruction
- Diabetes Mellitus
- Hyperadrenocorticism or Cushing’s Disease (an overproduction of cortisol)
- Hypercalcemia (high levels of calcium in the blood)
- Hyperlipoproteinemia (an inability to break down fats)
- Hyperthyroidism (an overproduction of thyroid)
- Ischemia (disruption of blood supply to the Pancreas)
- Pancreatic Tumor
If you only consider genetics and other health conditions, it would be tempting to see a diagnosis of pancreatitis as pure bad luck. However, one potential cause that parents have more control over is their dog’s diet.
Pancreatitis is just one of the health conditions that becomes more likely when a dog is obese. That’s why feeding your dog recipes full of top-quality meat, carbs and vegetables is so important. Our partner Dog Food Advisor has lots of recommendations if you’re in need of inspiration – including specialist food for dogs who have pancreatitis.
At the same time, pancreatitis can come about suddenly if your dog eats a lot of high-fat food in one sitting. Some vets notice a spike in canine pancreatitis cases during the days after holidays, such as Thanksgiving.
Every effort should be made to keep dogs away from human foods, as it only needs a parent to let their guard down for a second for your dog to pilfer a plate of something harmful to their insides.
How is Pancreatitis in Dogs Diagnosed?
If you witness any of the symptoms listed above in your dog, you should contact your vet straight away. They will most likely invite you and your pet into the clinic for closer observation.
When the problem looks to be with your dog’s digestive system, your vet will normally start with a few questions on their eating habits: what food do they eat every day? Are they ever fed table scraps? Is there a possibility they’ve consumed something toxic?
Once your vet has a fuller picture of your dog’s diet and health, they may conduct testing, such as a blood count, serum biochemistry analysis and urinalysis. These can rule out other causes, such as elevated liver enzymes, hypoalbuminemia, electrolyte imbalances, or an increase in white blood cells.
As well as this, a radiograph of the abdomen or an ultrasound might be carried out to locate an obstruction, displacement of organs or a hypoechoic mass.
If your vet is leaning towards a pancreatitis diagnosis, they may carry out a pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test. This only requires a small blood sample and is around 80% effective in diagnosing the disease.
However, some cases of chronic pancreatitis are pretty good at evading detection. If your dog is relatively healthy, your vet will consider the option of trying a fine needle aspiration or exploratory laparotomy to look for abnormal cell behavior.
Treatment of Pancreatitis in Dogs
After a diagnosis of pancreatitis, your vet will first seek to treat the immediate symptoms. Depending on the severity, this might need to be done in a hospital under close observation and may involve:
- Administering intravenous fluids and nutritional support to replace missed food and drink
- Offering antacids to treat gastrointestinal bleeding, anti-nausea medication or pain relief
- Withholding food and water for a short period to halt enzyme production in the pancreas and give inflammation a chance to reduce
Once your dog has recovered from the worst of the initial symptoms, your vet will establish a long-term plan to manage the condition and hopefully prevent a recurrence. This might involve:
- A permanent switch to a low-fat dog food diet (you can find a great list of these at Dog Food Advisor)
- Avoidance of medication known to aggravate the pancreas
- Changing the home environment to stop dogs from finding and eating fatty human foods or other toxic substances
- Pancreatic enzyme supplementation
- Regular veterinary monitoring of your dog’s pancreas and other organs
Can dogs live without a pancreas?
If issues with the pancreas are that serious and can’t be resolved through medication, your dog may need to have its pancreas removed. The good news is that your dog can live with a partial pancreas or even no pancreas at all. The procedure is known as a partial pancreatectomy — full surgical removal is a complete pancreatectomy — and you can read more about that here.
In the case of a complete pancreatectomy, your dog will develop type 1 diabetes, which will need to be managed on an ongoing basis.
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Recovery of pancreatitis in dogs
The good news is that the prognosis of mild to moderate cases of pancreatitis caught early is usually favorable and symptoms tend to clear up in a week or two.
Similarly, dogs diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis will be able to lead a fairly normal life, albeit with some lifestyle changes, such as dietary modifications and enzyme supplementation.
However, not all bouts of pancreatitis are so rosy. More severe instances of acute pancreatitis can ultimately lead to full-body inflammation, multiple organ failure and death. This is why it’s important to contact a vet as soon as you notice any adverse symptoms in your dog.
Pet insurance is great in an emergency, but parents should also consider taking out a wellness plan for their dog, too — regular examinations and testing can help spot health conditions that can sometimes hide away, like pancreatitis