Pancreatitis in dogs is a serious and even life-threatening medical condition. The good news is that it’s often preventable. Integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby explains the signs, symptoms, and treatment for canine pancreatitis so you can be vigilant in helping your dog.
I rarely hospitalized patients when I owned my own veterinary hospital. My guiding principle was that pets were often better off overnight at home with their families than they were in my hospital alone, but I made an exception for a condition called pancreatitis. In fact, pancreatitis was one of the most common reasons that I hospitalized dogs and cats.
Pancreatitis—which means inflammation of the pancreas—is painful for dogs, expensive for owners, and often preventable. By knowing the signs, risk factors, and treatment options you can help your dog have the best possible outcome if he or she is ever diagnosed with pancreatitis.
First, let’s meet a Miniature Schnauzer named Ellie who was diagnosed with and treated for pancreatitis. Through her true story, you’ll gain insights into why dogs get pancreatitis along with the medical facts.
How does a vet diagnose pancreatitis?
To understand how a vet diagnoses pancreatitis, let’s start with Ellie’s vet visit.
This 10-year-old female Miniature Schnauzer sat looking miserable on my exam table. Her mom was rightly worried about her dear dog’s loss of appetite and vomiting. At previous appointments, Ellie seemed to have boundless energy. From her prancing feet to her wagging tail—her metronome of happiness—she was a “non-stop” kind of girl. I considered her a kindred spirit.
On this particular day, however, I was seeing a completely different dog. She was very lethargic. Her mom reported that she seemed painful around her belly, because she would tense when picked up. I was glad that Ellie’s mom brought her to our hospital right away because it was obvious that this dog was hurting.
What to expect at the veterinary appointment
Before I began my physical exam, I asked a series of questions. Gathering a complete medical history is just as important as the diagnostic tests that we recommend for sick pets.
I already knew about some recent changes in their home: Ellie’s sister, Sophie, had passed away unexpectedly of cancer about a month ago. Because Ellie had become lonely, her mom had welcomed a senior Chihuahua named Tabitha into their family.
When I asked about dietary changes, I learned Ellie had been stealing some food from Tabitha’s bowl over the past week. Also, Ellie’s mom reported that her own mother had been staying in their home recently, and Ellie had been sneaking table scraps from “grandma” every night at dinner.
One plus one usually equals two. My patient was exhibiting classic signs and had eaten human foods, which made me immediately suspect pancreatitis.
By the way, if you’re reading this article because you suspect your dog has pancreatitis, it’s important to make an appointment with your veterinarian immediately. Early diagnosis and prompt medical attention are key. Additionally, by coming to your vet visit prepared, you’re giving your beloved dog the best chance for a good outcome.
Tips for preparing for your vet visit:
- Make a list of foods your dog has eaten. Check with family members to see if your dog has consumed any human food, eaten out of the garbage, or even counter surfed any foods, especially high-fat foods like pork, beef, or bacon.
- Plan for your veterinarian to give your dog a thorough physical exam and ask for your dog’s history. Knowing your dog’s past history is especially important if it is after-hours for your regular vet so you are going to an emergency veterinary clinic.
- Keep a record of your dog’s symptoms. How many times did he or she vomit? What did the vomit look like? Is he or she still eating and drinking? When did the signs start? Is he or she getting worse, better, or staying the same?
- Know that your vet may recommend blood tests, X-rays, or an ultrasound. These tests assess your pet’s overall status and can help distinguish pancreatitis from other similar-appearing conditions.
- Take a deep breath and mentally prepare yourself for the time it may take to complete the testing. Sometimes the vet may start with one test, then recommend another once he or she has evaluated the results of the first test. This is all part of the diagnostic process.
- Prepare yourself for potentially spending some time away from your dog. Pancreatitis can be very serious and even life-threatening at times. Your vet may recommend hospitalizing your dear dog for additional care and observation.
- Know that you may be referred to an emergency clinic, especially if your vet thinks your dog needs critical treatment that is beyond the scope of what a general practice can provide.
If your veterinarian does diagnose your dog with pancreatitis, he or she will likely share a bit of anatomy about the pancreas, the organ that’s affected.
The role of the pancreas
The pancreas is a critically important organ in your dog’s body and is located close to the stomach. It has two major functions, which veterinarians label as “endocrine” and “exocrine.”
The endocrine function of the pancreas is the production of hormones that are secreted into the blood to control blood sugar, like insulin and glucagon. (Diabetes mellitus results when this process goes awry.)
Additionally, the pancreas has a vital “exocrine” role that is directly related to its location in the body. The pancreas is positioned in the dog’s abdomen adjacent to the first part of the small intestines, close to the stomach and liver. The pancreas releases important digestive enzymes into the duodenum (the beginning portion of the small intestines) in a non-active form when your dog eats a meal. The digestive enzymes become activated in the small intestines and start to digest food.
In the case of pancreatitis, the enzymes become activated inside of the pancreas instead of inside the small intestines. It sounds like something out of an alien movie, but in a nutshell, the pancreas begins to digest itself. As you can imagine this is terribly serious and painful. On top of that, the damaged pancreas also leaks the activated enzymes into the abdomen. This causes serious injury to other internal organs such as the liver and kidneys.
What is pancreatitis in dogs?
To answer this question, let’s break the word “pancreatitis” into two parts. “Itis” means inflammation and “pancreas” is the organ near the stomach that breaks down food and produces hormones. So pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. Unfortunately, the result of this inflammation can be serious and even life-threatening. As explained above, when enzymes that should be digesting food inside the small intestine instead activate inside the pancreas, the pancreas begins to “eat” or dissolve itself.
What are the signs of pancreatitis in dogs?
Signs of pancreatitis can vary. Some dogs display absolutely no signs, some have mild signs, and some have severe signs. That said, dogs with pancreatitis can feel terrible. They can have a fever. Their bellies can hurt.
The most common signs of pancreatitis in dogs include:
- Loss of appetite
- A lethargic dog/Depression
- Abdominal pain
If your dog is showing these symptoms, make an appointment with your veterinarian. Pancreatitis is a serious, and sometimes deadly, condition.
Next, it’s worth diving into the last symptom mentioned on the list above, abdominal pain. It’s important to understand how it presents in dogs with pancreatitis.
What does abdominal pain as a sign of pancreatitis look like?
This Miniature Schnauzer’s abdomen was sensitive to the touch and seemed very tense. This is in keeping with abdominal pain. Another sign of abdominal pain is a dog stretching forward and assuming a yoga-like “prayer” position. The photo below is a good example of this stretching action.
In this stance, the dog looks like he is stretching—his head is low to the ground and front feet outstretched while his hind end is up in the air. A normal dog might stretch like this after a nap or when he is about to initiate playtime. However, if your dog assumes this position more than once with anything other than a relaxed facial expression, then he may be experiencing abdominal pain.
Causes of pancreatitis in dogs
Many pancreatitis cases are idiopathic, which means that there is no identifiable cause. However, there are some known risk factors. Check this list to see if your dog is at higher risk for pancreatitis.
1. Certain breeds may be predisposed to pancreatitis.
Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Terriers, and Cocker Spaniels all have a genetic predisposition toward pancreatitis. This puts them at a higher risk than dogs of other breeds. However, keep in mind that any breed of dog can get pancreatitis.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, Miniature Schnauzers, like my patient Ellie, are the most common breed identified in studies on pancreatitis. This may have something to do with the fact that Schnauzers are more likely to have higher fat content in their blood than other dog breeds. This condition, known as hyperlipidemia (hyper = high, lipid = fat, -emia = in blood), increases the risk of pancreatitis.
2. A high fat diet may be the culprit.
When your dog eats food that isn’t a normal part of his diet, he is at a higher risk for gastrointestinal upset like vomiting and diarrhea. New foods and table scraps, especially fatty foods, can increase the risk for pancreatitis. Make sure to avoid giving these altogether.
As an example, this morning my young son asked me if he could give his hound dog a piece of bacon from his breakfast plate. “No way!” I gasped. “That is pancreatitis waiting to happen!”
As I cautioned my son, we must resist the temptation to share love in the form of human food with our four-legged family members. Of course, the temptation is heightened during the holidays when our celebrations often revolve around feasts and special tasty treats. Not only is pancreatitis a possibility, but also some holiday foods are dangerous for dogs.
Finally, if you do need to switch your dog’s diet, remember to do so gradually over five to seven days to reduce the risk of GI upset or pancreatitis.
3. Obesity increases the risk of severe pancreatitis
It is important to keep your dog at a healthy weight for many reasons, including the fact that obesity increases the risks that your dog will develop severe (and sometimes fatal) pancreatitis. To learn whether your canine companion is overweight, please check out my article on determining your dog’s body condition score. Then, if you decide some doggie weight loss is in order, head over to my blog, How to Help a Dog Lose Weight for four helpful tips.
4. Endocrine disorders may increase the risk for pancreatitis.
Your dog’s endocrine system is responsible for the regulation and release of numerous hormones, many of which can affect the pancreas. Diseases associated with the endocrine system like Cushing’s disease in dogs, hypothyroidism in dogs, and diabetes mellitus increase your dog’s risk for developing pancreatitis.
5. Some medications may contribute to pancreatitis.
The use of certain medications can increase the risk of canine pancreatitis. These include:
- Immunosuppressive drugs like azathioprine.
- Medications used to treat seizures in dogs like phenobarbital and potassium bromide.
- Antibiotics like sulfonamides and tetracycline.
- Certain diuretics (medications to help remove excess fluid from the body).
- Chemotherapeutic drugs like L-asparaginase.
If your dog is taking a medication long term and is experiencing pancreatitis symptoms, make sure to contact your veterinarian.
6. Injury, cancer, and bacteria are other factors which may increase the risk of pancreatitis.
Infections rarely cause pancreatitis in dogs, but there have been reports of certain bacteria causing pancreatitis. Trauma and physical injury can also trigger inflammation of the organ. Additionally, dogs can develop cancer of the pancreas, which may manifest as pancreatitis.
What is the difference between acute and chronic pancreatitis in dogs?
It’s worth noting that there are two categories or forms of canine pancreatitis—acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis, as the term “acute” would imply, has a sudden onset. Your dog is fine and then he or she is sick. Sometimes acute pancreatitis is mild, meaning that the dog shows minimal symptoms or perhaps slight GI upset or abdominal pain that resolves easily with treatment.
In other cases, acute pancreatitis can be severe. These dogs are very sick. They may have severe vomiting and abdominal pain, significant lethargy or weakness, and sometimes have free fluid in their abdomen. Some dogs with acute severe pancreatitis do respond well to aggressive treatment. Unfortunately, other dogs will go into shock, multi-organ failure, or disseminated intravascular coagulation (a dangerous condition where the blood clots abnormally). These conditions may be fatal.
Some dogs are also prone to recurrent acute pancreatitis. This means their bout of pancreatitis resolves, but then they get acute pancreatitis again, possibly because of one of the triggers listed above. Thus, once your dog has had pancreatitis, it is critical to try to decrease his or her risk factors. Some factors, such as breed or underlying medical conditions, can’t be changed. However, you do have control over your dog’s diet and weight.
With chronic pancreatitis, symptoms will look the same as acute pancreatitis but tend to be milder as a general rule. Sometimes the exact cause of chronic pancreatitis is unknown. In other cases, it may happen due to recurrent bouts of acute pancreatitis or as a result of an autoimmune disorder found in English Cocker Spaniels. However it develops, the symptoms of chronic pancreatitis tend to come and go due to long-term, smoldering inflammation of the pancreas. This leads to irreversible damage which may decrease the amount of functional tissue left in the pancreas.
Remember how we talked about what the pancreas does? Well, when enough tissue is destroyed, the pancreas can’t do its job anymore. This means the dog could develop diabetes mellitus (due to a lack of insulin production) or exocrine pancreas insufficiency (a lack of digestive enzymes which causes poor absorption of nutrients from food).
With veterinary treatment, dogs may recover from bouts of chronic pancreatitis. However, they are more prone to future attacks of pancreatitis, which makes it all the more important to avoid possible triggers.
How does a vet diagnose pancreatitis?
The definitive diagnosis of pancreatic inflammation can be challenging. This is because other factors can affect the accuracy of the tests.
Routine blood tests might show elevations in certain enzymes, but other illnesses besides pancreatitis may affect these numbers. The pancreas is tricky to visualize on X-rays, and although it can be seen well on ultrasound, up to one-third of dogs with pancreatic inflammation may have normal findings on abdominal ultrasound.
In recent years, diagnosing pancreatitis has become a bit more black and white. An in-hospital, 10-minute test that looks for levels of pancreatic lipase in a dog’s blood has become commercially available to veterinarians. If the test is negative, then pancreatitis is unlikely. If the test is positive and your dog is showing clinical signs, then it is highly likely that he has pancreatitis. For more in-depth information about testing, this report from Veterinary Information Network is a trusted online resource.
Treatment of pancreatitis in dogs
Unlike antibiotics given to treat a bacterial infection, there is no magic bullet for treating pancreatitis. Your veterinarian will recommend supportive care. This may involve:
- Fluid therapy to correct dehydration, keep up with fluid loss from vomiting, and supply fluid to keep up with normal daily requirements. Sometimes in mild cases, your vet can administer fluids under your dog’s skin and send him or her home with you. However, many cases of pancreatitis will require hospitalization for IV (i.e. intravenous or in the vein) fluid therapy. This is one of the mainstays of pancreatitis treatment.
- Anti-nausea medications to reduce the nausea your dog is experiencing and keep him or her from continuing to vomit. The anti-nausea medication, Cerenia (maropitant), has become popular with many vets for the treatment of pancreatitis because it is believed to also have some abdominal pain-relieving properties.
- Pain-relieving medications to decrease abdominal pain and keep your dog more comfortable. Generally, vets prefer opioid medications over non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).
- Low-fat, highly-digestible diet to keep the GI tract moving and restore the dog’s appetite. The low-fat component is important because a high-fat diet is a risk factor for pancreatitis. Some dogs will need to stay on a low-fat diet for life. This is something your vet can advise you about for your dog’s specific situation.
- Steroids such as prednisone for dogs are sometimes used in severe cases that are not responding to the traditional therapy.
- Surgery is occasionally needed if bile flow is obstructed or there is a pancreatic abscess or pseudocyst (walled-off collection of pancreatic secretions).
Can supplements be used to prevent or manage pancreatitis in dogs?
Understandably, many of my clients ask me if there are any supplements, or other good options for decreasing their dog’s chances of developing pancreatitis. Unfortunately, there aren’t any supplements that look very promising at this point.
Some studies in humans with pancreatitis indicated that supplementation with pancreatic enzymes made people feel better but didn’t change the level of inflammation. At this point, we don’t have a lot of evidence to say that pancreatic enzyme supplementation will benefit dogs who are prone to pancreatitis but still make enough pancreatic enzymes on their own. Dogs with exocrine pancreas insufficiency, however, do benefit from pancreatic enzyme supplementation.
Antioxidants have also been proposed as potentially beneficial in people (and therefore possibly dogs) with chronic pancreatitis. However, researchers have not identified the best antioxidant combination or product yet. Some people have also tried probiotics in hopes that balancing a dog’s gut flora will decrease the pancreatitis risk.
How can you decrease the risk of your dog getting pancreatitis?
Since the jury is out regarding supplements, I usually tell my clients to focus on the things that we know can make a difference—your dog’s diet and weight. As discussed in the treatment section, your vet may recommend continuing to feed a low-fat diet even after your dog has recovered from the pancreatitis episode. This, in conjunction with being extremely vigilant in preventing your dog from eating anything other than his or her dog food, can make a big difference.
If your dog is overweight or obese, work with your vet or a veterinary nutritionist to formulate a weight loss plan. Not only will being at a correct body weight reduce your dog’s pancreatitis risk, but it will also decrease stress on his or her joints and organs. Overall, weight loss is a win-win situation for everyone.
Finally, if you think your dog has pancreatitis, the most important thing you can do is to get him or her to the vet ASAP. Don’t waste time trying home remedies or take a wait-and-see approach. Pancreatitis is serious and can be life-threatening.
What is the prognosis for dogs with pancreatitis?
Dogs with mild symptoms that respond quickly to treatment have an excellent prognosis. However, dogs with more significant symptoms may take longer to respond to therapy or need more intensive care.
Dogs with severe pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer or necrotizing pancreatitis (where part of the pancreatic tissue has died), have a guarded to poor prognosis. Unfortunately, some dogs with severe pancreatitis die or are euthanized due to life-threatening complications like multi-organ failure, shock, or disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC).
Like almost every medical diagnosis, there is extreme value in early detection and treatment. Make sure to contact your veterinarian right away if your dog ever has signs of pancreatitis.
Treating my Miniature Schnauzer patient
Are you wondering how things turned out for my Miniature Schnauzer patient? I promptly hospitalized Ellie and started her on intravenous (IV) fluids. She also received injectable pain medication to help with her belly pain, and she received anti-nausea medication that seemed to take effect quickly. By the following day, Ellie had perked up and was eating dog food on her own!
Particularly because she was a Miniature Schnauzer, a breed prone to hyperlipidemia (i.e. high fat levels in the blood) which can be a pancreatitis risk factor, I prescribed a low-fat, canned diet which she continued to eat long term.
When I saw Ellie at her progress exam a week later, she was back to her bouncy self. I was relieved to see that metronome of happiness beating once more!
Even though we never determined a definitive cause, it is likely that her dietary changes tipped the scales in favor of pancreatitis. What’s on the menu for my patient now? For her welfare, the entire family is united in giving her only a low-fat, canned dog food diet.
By sharing Ellie’s story, I hope that proactive dog owners adopt a “just say no” policy about sharing temptations with dogs. While some dogs may be able to handle abrupt diet changes, the potential for pancreatitis is not worth the risk.
Finally, if you suspect your dog is showing signs of pancreatitis, please do not wait. Seek veterinary care immediately.
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