Dog Pancreatitis: Symptoms and What to Do
By Dr. John De Biasio, DVM, DACVIM | Internal Medicine and Minimally Invasive Surgery
The pancreas is a small organ that aids digestion by releasing enzymes. When a dog’s pancreas becomes inflamed it can cause a variety of health problems ranging from nausea to loss of appetite to diarrhea and in rare and extreme cases, death. It can be hard for owners to recognize pancreatitis and only a veterinarian can confirm and prescribe medication to alleviate symptoms. We spoke to internal medicine specialist Dr. John DeBlasio about what signals may indicate that your dog has pancreatitis and what to do in that situation.
What is dog pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The Inflammation can develop when enzymes in the pancreas become active inappropriately resulting in the pancreas actually digesting itself. Normally, the pancreatic enzymes which are used in digestion are not active inside the pancreas and only become active once they are secreted into the small intestine where they break down food. When there is backflow of juices from the small intestine into the pancreas or the pancreas gets damaged through an accident, surgery or trauma, those enzymes can start to activate in the wrong location resulting in a cascade of problems including severe inflammation.
How can a dog owner recognize dog pancreatitis?
Clinical signs associated with pancreatitis, unfortunately, overlap many other conditions that affect the GI tract. The two biggest things that might be observed are vomiting and loss of appetite. They might also notice abdominal pain which can be a bit hard for the owner to perceive. Pain can manifest as their dog becoming quieter, reclusive or more lethargic. Diarrhea is also possible.
What are the most severe symptoms of dog pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis can be quite variable in severity with some dogs not even requiring hospitalization. Any combination of abdominal pain, severe vomiting and diarrhea, and complete loss of interest in eating for days to a week or more can be seen. Unfortunately, bad cases of necrotizing pancreatitis can be fatal.
When should a dog be taken to the hospital if you suspect it may have dog pancreatitis?
A dog should be taken to the hospital when they’re not able to support themselves in the home environment. For example, when they are repeatedly vomiting and can’t hold down food or water. Another concern would be if you can’t keep them comfortable and their pain level is such that they can’t be managed at home.
What should an owner do when they notice their dog has pancreatitis?
Unfortunately, an owner would not be able to determine if their dog had pancreatitis without the aid of a veterinarian and diagnostic testing. However, if their pet stops eating or has vomiting or diarrhea that isn’t resolving, they should contact a veterinarian to take the next steps.
What are the causes of pancreatitis in the dog?
Most of the time we don’t ever determine a cause. Genetics likely plays a role, and we do know that certain breeds like Miniature Schnauzers are at higher risk. One classic cause is having a sudden high-fat meal. Diseases that alter fat metabolism in the body can also increase the risk. Those diseases include obesity, diabetes, and hypothyroidism. High calcium blood levels can also increase the risk that pancreatic enzymes are activated inside the pancreas. Certain drugs can predispose a dog to pancreatitis including certain antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs like L-asparaginase, and a seizure medicine called potassium bromide.
When is dog pancreatitis considered chronic?
That’s a tricky question. Technically chronic pancreatitis is determined based on what the pancreas looks like on biopsy. One type of inflammation defines it as acute and another as chronic. Since it is rare that we biopsy the pancreas in the dog, the diagnosis of chronic pancreatitis is a bit more subjective especially since the clinical signs can look exactly the same. Personally, I tend to start thinking it to be chronic when a dog has repeated bouts of clinical signs over several months or if certain lab tests remain elevated even when the symptoms have resolved.
What should someone do if their dog has chronic pancreatitis?
If a biopsy was obtained and chronic pancreatitis was diagnosed definitively, I might consider placing the patient on immunosuppressant medications. More commonly, I don’t have biopsy information, and I try to prevent exacerbating pancreatitis by avoiding possible predisposing triggers. In that case, I recommend aggressively treating hormonal diseases like diabetes or hyperthyroidism if present. Also, anything relating to fat management is extraordinarily important, so I would place the dog on a very low-fat diet. Obviously avoiding drugs that can predispose to pancreatitis would be a good idea.
What’s a good diet to avoid dog pancreatitis?
If a dog has no prior history or known predisposition, I wouldn’t necessarily customize a diet to prevent it. I do think it is safe to avoid high-fat meals in general even for dogs without pancreatitis. If your dog has had pancreatitis in the past and you are trying to avoid repeat bouts or if your dog has been diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, I would recommend a diet that is moderately to severely fat restricted. Diets that meet these criteria are generally only available by prescription. Avoiding table scraps would also be a very good idea since they are often the fattiest parts of the meal.
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