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It’s Prime Time for Pancreatitis

Dr. Shea Cox on why this disease is so common during the holidays.

by Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV
Updated December 13, 2021
Sad Golden Retriever lays down next to food
Phuttharak / Adobe Stock

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Throughout the year, I see many dogs in the ER because of stomach problems. Birthday parties, summer barbecues, and winter holiday dinners are prime times for dogs to not only score more food than usual, but often, food that doesn’t agree with them. These indulgences can set them up to develop pancreatitis, a potentially life-threatening disease. Keep reading to learn what pancreatitis in dogs is, the signs to lookout for, and how to seek the best treatment. 

What Is Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Put simply, pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas that can be either acute (comes on quickly) or chronic (develops over time). Before getting into how and why that inflammation happens, it’s helpful to understand what the pancreas is and what exactly it does. 

The pancreas sits just under the stomach, along the first part of the small intestine. The pancreas has two main jobs: It secretes digestive enzymes to help break down food in the small intestine, and it secretes the hormones insulin and glucagon to regulate the body’s blood glucose (sugar) levels. When a dog develops pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes are the problem: Inflammation occurs when the digestive enzymes are activated within the pancreas itself, before they get to the GI tract, and begin to digest, irritate, and harm this small organ, as well as nearby organs and tissues.

As inflammation and tissue destruction continue, damage begins to spread to the liver. If not treated quickly, toxins released during this process circulate more broadly, causing a body-wide inflammatory response. If the dog’s pancreas becomes severely compromised, it may not be able to produce insulin as well, which can result in diabetes. The good news is that usually, the inflammation is confined to the liver and pancreas, and with veterinary help, most dogs make a full recovery from acute pancreatitis.

What Are the Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs?

The classic symptoms of pancreatitis are:

For dogs with chronic pancreatitis, symptoms may develop slowly over time, making it more difficult to diagnose. In addition to the symptoms above, during a sudden, acute pancreatitis attack, a dog may hunch their back or take a “praying” position (rear in the air and head on the floor, similar to a play bow). Other possible symptoms of acute pancreatitis include difficulty breathing and shock; left untreated, a dog could die. To be clear, pancreatitis is a serious illness and requires immediate veterinary care to prevent life-threatening consequences. DIY treatments are not recommended.

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What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?

In most cases, the cause of pancreatitis in dogs is unknown. But we do know some things that may trigger it:

High-Fat Foods

A high-fat diet, or eating a large serving of fatty foods, especially human foods. (Think uncooked bacon, poultry skin, gravy, or a fatty piece of meat.)

Dietary Indiscretions

Indiscriminate eating habits such as scavenging for food off the sidewalk. 

Pancreatic Duct Backflow or Obstruction

Reflux or blockage of the organ’s enzyme ducts.

Hormonal Imbalances

Most commonly canine diabetes, hypothyroidism, and high calcium levels.

Toxins

Certain drugs, including those used in chemotherapy treatment and the anti-seizure medication potassium bromide. (Steroids were once thought to trigger the condition, but this appears not to be true. Exposure to organophosphate insecticides has also been implicated.)

Trauma to the Pancreas

Blunt trauma, such as being hit by a car, or even surgical manipulation.

Genetic Predisposition

In particular, Miniature Schnauzers (who often have an altered fat metabolism), Miniature Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, and some Terrier breeds. (Older and overweight dogs may be more predisposed as well.)

How is Pancreatitis in Dogs Diagnosed?

One way veterinarians diagnose dogs with pancreatitis is through the use of a blood test called the SPEC cPL (specific canine pancreatic lipase) test. The SPEC cPL test, which is run overnight by a reference lab, detects 83% of pancreatitis cases in dogs and excludes other possible diseases in 98% of cases.

The SPEC cPL test should not be confused with an in-hospital pancreatic test, which provides either an “abnormal” or “normal” result. I am personally not a huge fan of the in-house test because other disease processes, such as liver or gastrointestinal disease, can also cause an abnormal result.

Ultrasound is another tool that veterinarians use to diagnose pancreatitis. It not only detects 68% of cases, but it also provides an opportunity to look at other organs. Since pancreatitis may be accompanied by a tumor near the pancreas, ultrasound is an important tool for catching additional complicating factors. I discuss and recommend this diagnostic tool for all patients I suspect of having pancreatitis.

How Is Pancreatitis in Dogs Treated?

The first step is to give the pancreas a rest. Because the passage of food through the intestine stimulates the pancreas, we generally withhold food and water for two to three days (especially in serious cases), supporting the dog with IV fluids, including electrolyte supplementation. A critically ill dog will need 24-hour care, as well as multiple daily blood draws to monitor the condition. In severe cases, a plasma transfusion may be needed.

Pancreatitis can be a very painful condition for dogs, and pain management is crucial for the dog’s recovery and treatment. Untreated pain affects the immune system and has been shown to increase the death rate. In addition to pain medication, antibiotics and anti-nausea medications are given. While pancreatitis is not a bacterial disease, antibiotics are used to prevent a commonly associated problem: bacterial invasion from a diseased intestine.

How Long Does It Take a Dog to Recover from Pancreatitis? 

Recovery from pancreatitis begins after about two to three days, once the initial resting phase has passed and the patient has started to eat again. A low-fat diet is recommended to minimize pancreatic stimulation.  Pancreatitis resolves rather than is cured; with treatment, the body heals itself. Since there’s always potential for the pancreas to become inflamed again, we also recommend long-term use of a low-fat diet to reduce the risk of recurrence.

How Can Pancreatitis in Dogs Be Prevented?

Pancreatitis can be a very severe and painful disease. To avoid triggering it in your dog, take these simple steps:

  • Keep your countertops clear. Even the most well-behaved dog can be tempted by food left on the counter.

  • Avoid kitchen hazards. This includes promptly disposing of garbage in a secure outside container.

  • Help your dog stay fit. Make sure they get enough exercise and eat a healthy diet.

Dr. Shea Cox, DVM, CVPP, CHPV

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.