Understanding Pancreatitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment & More

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While sharing non-toxic human food with your pup may seem like a sweet way to share love, when a dog eats these fatty treats, it can lead to clinical signs of pancreatitis in dogs. Pancreatitis in dogs can be a deadly disease — and treats simply aren't worth the gamble.

Read on to learn more about what pancreatitis is, some of the signs that your dog may have it and what you can do as treatment.

Pancreas 101

The pancreas is a flat, lobulated organ located in the front of the abdomen near the stomach. While one part of the pancreas produces hormones such as insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood sugar, the other produces digestive enzymes that are released into the intestines to aid in the breakdown of food. Because these enzymes are relatively indiscriminate in what they will break down, the pancreas has multiple safety mechanisms in place to try and ensure that these enzymes are not activated prematurely.

In both people and animals, the exact triggers of pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) are poorly understood. However, what is relatively well known is that whatever the inciting triggers may be, there is a common endpoint where digestive enzymes are released prematurely. These enzymes then start to digest pancreas tissue, causing it to become inflamed and painful. These digestive enzymes may also eventually start leaking into the blood stream where they can be carried to other organs and cause damage.

Most cases of pancreatitis in dogs are sudden and acute in nature. With these cases, your veterinarian may be able to point to a single incident responsible for the havoc, such as excessive fatty scraps and gravy at special family gatherings. Though signs may be slightly more subtle, chronic pancreatitis can also occur.

Young female German shepherd in the woods on a cloudy spring day

Clinical Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Dogs suspected of having pancreatitis may experience vomiting, lethargy and a painful abdomen, but clinical signs can be more vague. Pancreatitis can be mild or severe. Mildly affected dogs may experience dehydration, slight inactivity or an abnormal hunched posture (due to abdominal pain). On the opposite end of the spectrum, severely affected dogs may have the following clinical signs:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Decreased body temperature
  • An enlarged, fluid-filled belly
  • Yellowing of the eyes, skin and gums
  • An abdominal mass
  • Episodes of collapsing

Any dog can develop pancreatitis, and middle-aged to older dogs are at increased risk for developing the condition. Overweight dogs are also predisposed, along with dogs who are diagnosed with hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, Cushing's disease and hyperlipidemia, according to the Veterinary Information Network. Certain breeds, such as German Shepherds, are also more prone to developing chronic pancreatitis.

Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, Silky Terriers and Miniature Poodles may be at increased risk of developing pancreatitis. Both males and females may be affected. While any dog can develop pancreatitis, the best way to prevent a dog from developing this serious condition is to avoid feeding them fatty table scraps and treats.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Dogs

Reaching a diagnosis of pancreatitis can be quite complicated as the clinical signs are so vague. Your vet may recommend several types of blood tests and X-rays, including:

  • Routine blood tests to look for other diseases with similar signs
  • Specialized blood tests that look for an enzyme in the bloodstream that is increased with pancreatitis
  • An abdominal ultrasound to look for an enlarged, swollen pancreas. If your vet does not have an ultrasound, they may refer your dog to a veterinary specialist for this examination.

Yorkshire Terrier for a walk. Image with selective focus and toning.

Treatment for Pancreatitis in Dogs

Dogs with acute pancreatitis usually require hospitalization for fluid therapy, medications for pain and vomiting, and other supportive care. It's also essential to get these dogs eating as soon as possible once their condition is stable as this has been associated with improved case outcomes. Because these dogs usually don't feel well and understandably may not have much of an appetite, your vet may recommend placement of a temporary feeding tube to ensure their caloric needs are being met until they've had more time to recover. While most dogs successfully recover from episodes of acute pancreatitis, this disease can be life-threatening and pets can deteriorate rapidly despite prompt, appropriate treatment. Pain medications are an important part of treatment because the condition is very painful, according to Today's Veterinary Practice. If your vet suspects pancreatitis, they may recommend transitioning your dog to a highly digestible, low-fat food to help prevent recurrent episodes or flare-ups.

Long-Term Outlook

The prognosis for dogs with pancreatitis is a challenge to predict. Most dogs will regain their health and pull through this disease, unless they are extremely ill when they arrive at the veterinary hospital. Even if your dog does require a lengthy hospital stay, this is not necessarily an indicator that they won't recover from this disease. The best outcomes are associated with prompt veterinary intervention, so if you catch clinical signs of pancreatitis in dogs, do not wait and see if they resolve on their own.

The prognosis for dogs with milder acute or chronic pancreatitis is generally better, particularly if a few lifestyle changes are made. Switching to foods low in protein and fat (since both are potent simulators of pancreatic secretion), along with the addition of antioxidants and a program to support a healthy weight may all be recommended by your vet. However, it's important to understand that flare-ups may occur from time to time, even with a good response to your veterinarian's treatment plan. With a little patience and teamwork with your vet, as well as being able to recognize the early warning signs of a problem, you can give your pup a great chance at a relatively normal, healthy life.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible

Dr. Laci Schaible is a small-animal veterinarian and veterinary writer. She has won numerous awards for her commitment to pet owner education and is considered a leading veterinary telehealth expert.

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