Summary: 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 literally means “inflammation of the pancreas”—is painful for pets, expensive for owners, and often preventable. Inspired by that last reason, I confess that it’s not a coincidence we are discussing pancreatitis in dogs as the holiday season looms.
Pancreatitis in dogs: signs, symptoms, treatment
Though not exactly “Part I” of this article, we recently published a blog post called “Why is my old dog not eating?” One of the possible reasons for loss of appetite in a dog of any age is pancreatitis. To uncover the signs, symptoms, and treatment for pancreatitis in dogs, let’s meet Ellie and follow her true story.
What’s eating Ellie?
Ellie was a 10-year-old female Miniature Schnauzer dog who sat looking miserable on my exam table. Her mom was rightly worried about her 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—Ellie was a “non-stop” kind of girl. I considered her a kindred spirit.
On this particular day, however, I was seeing a completely different Ellie. She was very lethargic. Her mom reported that Ellie 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 Ellie was hurting.
Lethargy and a painful belly
Before I began my physical exam, I asked a series of questions. A good 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 for Ellie, I learned she had been stealing some food from Tabitha’s bowl over the past week. Ellie’s mom also 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. The combination of presenting concerns along with this history made me immediately suspect that Ellie had pancreatitis.
What is pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a critically important organ in our bodies. It has two major functions, which we 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.
However, the pancreas has a vital “exocrine” role in the body also that is directly related to its location in the body. It 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.
Symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs
Symptoms can vary with pancreatitis. Dogs can display absolutely no signs, severe signs, and anything in between.
The most common symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs are:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
Dogs with pancreatitis generally feel terrible and look terrible. They may even have a fever. Their bellies hurt.
Recurring stretching and a tense belly: two signs of pancreatitis
Dogs with abdominal pain can present like Ellie—her abdomen was sensitive to the touch and seemed very tense. Another sign of abdominal pain is a dog stretching forward and assuming a yoga-like “prayer” position.
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, but 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
Table scraps from Thanksgiving and Christmas are not always to blame. I say this half-jokingly because of course this diagnosis is not just linked to the holidays. However, there is truth in the fact that canine pancreatitis cases seem to spike around these times of the year. Read #2 below to understand why.
The truth is that many pancreatitis cases are idiopathic, which means that there is no identifiable cause. However, there are some known risk factors:
1. Certain breeds may be predisposed
Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels are at a slightly higher risk for developing pancreatitis. However, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, Miniature Schnauzers 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. Hyperlipidemia, elevated fat levels in the blood, is another common risk factor.
2. Dietary indiscretion
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, and if you need to switch your dog’s diet, then do so gradually over five to seven days.
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 food with our four-legged family members. 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.
3. Endocrine disorders
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 and diabetes mellitus increase your dog’s risk for developing pancreatitis.
The use of certain medications can increase the risk of canine pancreatitis. Immunosuppressive drugs like azathioprine, anti-seizure medications like phenobarbital and potassium bromide, and chemotherapeutic drugs like L-asparaginase have all been implicated. If your dog is taking a medication long term and is experiencing pancreatitis symptoms, make sure to contact your veterinarian to discuss.
5. Other causes
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. Dogs can also develop cancer of the pancreas, which may manifest as pancreatitis.
Acute versus chronic pancreatitis in dogs
It’s worth noting that there are two categories of canine pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis is a sudden onset illness in which dogs experience temporary symptoms that usually resolve with veterinary treatment.
With chronic pancreatitis, symptoms will look the same as acute pancreatitis but tend to be milder as a general rule. However, the symptoms come and go due to long-term inflammation of the pancreas, which leads to irreversible damage. With veterinary treatment, dogs may recover. However, many times they are more prone to future flare-ups, making it all the more important to avoid possible triggers.
How to test for canine pancreatitis
The definitive diagnosis of pancreatic inflammation can be challenging. This is because the accuracy of tests can be affected by other factors. Routine blood work might show elevations in enzymes, but these numbers can be affected by other illnesses besides pancreatitis. 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. If you’re interested in more in-depth information about testing, Blue Pearl (a well-known specialty and emergency pet hospital) 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, which means hospitalization for IV fluid therapy, anti-nausea medications, and pain medications. It is the critical importance of IV fluid therapy as the mainstay of treatment that caused me to hospitalize my patients with pancreatitis.
The main goals of treatment are to correct dehydration, restore the dog’s appetite, manage pain, and prevent secondary infection. Since high-fat diets increase the risk of pancreatitis, your vet will prescribe a diet that is very low in fat content and easily digestible. Dogs that do not respond to therapy may need to be given a steroid medication, or in rare cases, referred to a specialty practice for pancreatic surgery.
Pancreatitis in dogs prognosis
Dogs with mild symptoms that respond quickly to treatment have an excellent prognosis. Dogs with severe symptoms may take longer to respond to therapy and may also need to eat a low-fat prescription diet long term in order to reduce the likelihood of future bouts of pancreatitis. If severe disease is present like pancreatic cancer or necrotizing pancreatitis (where part of the pancreatic tissue has died), the prognosis may be guarded to poor.
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.
Ellie was promptly hospitalized and began receiving intravenous fluids. She also received injectable pain medication to help with her belly and anti-nausea medication that seemed to take effect quickly. By the following day, Ellie had perked up and was eating food on her own!
Particularly because she was a Miniature Schnauzer prone to hyperlipidemia, I prescribed a low-fat canned diet which Ellie continued to eat long term.
When I saw Ellie at her progress exam a week later, she was back to her normal and bouncy self. I was relieved to see that metronome of happiness beating once more!
Ellie’s risk factors for pancreatitis
Ellie had many risk factors that set the stage for her episode of pancreatitis:
- This condition is thought to be more prevalent in middle-aged to older female dogs.
- She was a Miniature Schnauzer, the #1 breed associated with pancreatitis.
- She had experienced recent changes in her diet, including fatty foods in the form of table scraps.
Even though we never determined a definitive cause, it is likely that her dietary changes tipped the scales in favor of pancreatitis. Fortunately, Ellie is back at home and enjoying playtime with her new sibling. What’s on the menu for Ellie 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 throughout the holiday season (and every day), proactive dog owners adopt a grinchy “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 to contact your veterinarian.
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