Pancreatitis in Dogs: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery
Pancreatitis is a relatively common condition in dogs. It can occur in pups of any age, breed, or gender, although it is more common in certain breeds. Common symptoms of pancreatitis include abdominal pain, which can vary in intensity from mild to severe.
This condition can be acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term), and it may be life-threatening. Prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment are paramount for the best outcome. For dogs with chronic pancreatitis, a well-structured management plan can significantly enhance the quality of life for our furry family members.
Here’s what pet parents need to know about the signs and symptoms of pancreatitis, how veterinarians diagnose ad treat this condition, and what the path to recovery might look like for your furry friend.
What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?
Pancreatitis in dogs is a prevalent condition marked by inflammation of the pancreas. This inflammation occurs when digestive enzymes activate prematurely within the pancreas, rather than the small intestine, where they are meant to aid in digestion.
The canine pancreas, located in the abdominal cavity adjacent to the stomach, plays two pivotal roles. The first is producing hormones like insulin and glucagon, which are crucial for blood sugar regulation. The second is producing digestive enzymes, which are used by the stomach and intestines to break down fat, proteins, and carbohydrates.
In cases of pancreatitis, enzymes produced in the pancreas begin digesting food before they reach the intestines. This premature activation can lead to self-digestion of the pancreas, and in some instances, harm to adjacent tissues of the liver, gallbladder, and intestines.
What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?
The cause of canine pancreatitis can be elusive, often striking without warning. However, there are some well-established causes of pancreatitis that pet parents should be aware of:
Idiopathic: Most cases of pancreatitis are idiopathic, meaning we don’t find an inciting cause
High-Fat Diet: Dietary choices play a prominent role in pancreatitis development. While the condition can be caused by ingesting high-fat dog food, it’s more commonly associated with indulgence in fatty human foods like table scraps fed as treats. Notably, the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas see a surge in pancreatitis-related emergency vet visits due to holiday feasting.
Dietary Indiscretion: This is veterinary speak for a dog with an appetite for anything and everything. It’s not uncommon for the development of pancreatitis to occur after a dog rummages in the trash or consumes inappropriate items they find during walks or outdoor play.
Genetics/Breed Predisposition: Regrettably, certain breeds are genetically predisposed to pancreatitis. This group includes miniature schnauzers, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, and certain terrier and toy breeds.
Obesity: Dogs who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of developing pancreatitis than dogs who maintain a healthy weight.
Endocrinopathies: such as Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, and diabetes mellitus.
Severe Blunt Trauma: Traumatic incidents involving the abdomen can trigger pancreatitis.
Certain Medications and Toxins: The intake of certain medications and toxins may lead to the occurrence of pancreatitis. This includes vinca alkaloids, azathioprine, salicylates, thiazide diuretics, phenobarbital, potassium bromide, and more.
Complications from Abdominal Surgery: Although it’s very rare, pancreatitis can develop as a complication after abdominal surgery.
Underlying Medical Conditions: Hormonal imbalances, elevated triglyceride or cholesterol levels in the blood, and other underlying conditions can be risk factors for pancreatitis in some dogs.
Being aware of these risk factors can be instrumental in preventing and managing pancreatitis in dogs.
Signs and Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs
Common clinical signs of pancreatitis in dogs include:
Decreased or Absent Appetite: Many dogs with pancreatitis lose their appetite as a result of abdominal pain and nausea.
Nausea and Vomiting: Dogs with pancreatitis often experience episodes of nausea and repetitive vomiting.
Abdominal Pain: The discomfort can range from mild to intense and dogs may express it in various ways. Be on the lookout for signs such as yelping when their abdomen is touched, hunching the back, or assuming a “praying position,” with their head and forelimbs on the floor with their hind end elevated.
Abdominal Distention: Some dogs may exhibit abdominal bloating or distention.
Fever: Elevated body temperature is a common symptom that often accompanies inflammation.
Lethargy or Weakness: Dogs with pancreatitis may exhibit behavioral changes, such as lethargy or weakness.
Dehydration: Diarrhea and vomiting associated with pancreatitis can lead to dehydration, which requires prompt medical attention.
In extreme cases, pancreatitis can progress to shock and become life-threatening. It’s important to note that acute pancreatitis typically presents suddenly and with more severe symptoms, while chronic pancreatitis is ongoing and often accompanied by milder symptoms.
If your dog is showing early signs of pancreatitis, it’s important to seek veterinary care as soon as possible, since this condition can be life-threatening. Dogs with milder symptoms might be able to wait for a less urgent vet visit, but it’s always best to give your vet a call to determine the best course of action.
For dogs displaying more significant symptoms of pancreatitis, immediate emergency care is essential to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Dogs
The symptoms listed above can indicate pancreatitis — but they are also associated with many other digestive issues and health conditions. Diagnosing pancreatitis can be tricky. Therefore, veterinarians will often begin treatment based on clinical signs alone.
Nonetheless, diagnostic testing is still important to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms that could require a different treatment. Therefore, a veterinarian will do a thorough physical exam and recommend diagnostic testing in order to diagnose pancreatitis and determine the best course of treatment.
Here are some of the most common diagnostic tests that may be performed:
Ultrasound: Generally, ultrasound is our best diagnostic tool to determine if your pet has signs of pancreatitis
Bloodwork: Bloodwork, which measures blood cells, blood sugar, electrolytes, and organ function parameters. Unfortunately, bloodwork changes tend to be non-specific (associated with many different diseases, rather than specifically diagnostic for pancreatitis). However, bloodwork is still important to rule out other conditions and to check for abnormalities of electrolytes, and other parameters that may need to be addressed during treatment.
Blood tests: Blood tests for pancreatic enzymes can help diagnose pancreatitis. This includes a very specific test called canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (cPLI). However, even these tests might not be accurate in all dogs, so a vet may need to begin treatment based on symptoms alone. A negative cPLI test makes it very unlikely that your dog has pancreatitis, but not impossible.
Radiographs and Ultrasound: These imaging tests may show inflammation or other changes in some dogs with pancreatitis. They can also help rule out other conditions, such as ingestion of a toy or other object that would require surgery.
Surgery: Definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis requires a biopsy, obtained through surgery. This is often impractical to perform in a patient who’s ill. However, while less common, dogs with certain complications of pancreatitis may require surgery (such as removing a non-viable portion of the pancreas), as part of their diagnosis and treatment.
Treatment for Pancreatitis in Dogs
Treatment of pancreatitis in dogs often requires hospitalization for several days, during which supportive care measures are implemented. These include:
IV Fluids: Intravenous fluids are administered to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance.
Medication: Pain management is an integral part of treatment, including pain medications sometimes combined with anti-inflammatories. Medications to help with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are also commonly prescribed.
Nutritional Support: Pups who don’t start eating on their own in a timely manner may benefit from a feeding tube or even (rarely) intravenous nutrition. It is very important to try to get them to eat, as this helps the GI tract heal.
Complementary Treatment: Treatment of concurrent conditions may also be required, such as antibiotics if an infection is present or treatment to regulate diabetes mellitus in dogs who have that condition.
A Special Digestive or Low-Fat Diet: A low-fat, highly digestible diet is ideal for dogs with pancreatitis. In the short term, your vet might recommend bland food such as plain white meat chicken (or low-fat cottage cheese) with plain rice for a few days. In the long term, a change to a specific type of dog food may be needed.
The costs associated with treating pancreatitis are variable, depending on how sick a dog is and whether they need to be hospitalized, as well as whether long-term management is indicated for chronic pancreatitis or concurrent conditions.
Note: Never give human medications to your dog without talking to your vet. Many medications are toxic to pets.
Home Care for Dogs with Pancreatitis
It is essential to emphasize that pancreatitis should not be self-diagnosed or treated at home. This is not a situation where you should wait it out or try starting with home treatment to see whether or not your dog gets better before scheduling a vet visit.
Early diagnosis and prompt veterinary treatment significantly improve the prognosis for this potentially life-threatening condition. Severely ill dogs should be treated immediately at a veterinary hospital. For mild forms of pancreatitis, home or outpatient treatment might be possible, at your vet’s discretion.
Home care for canine pancreatitis usually involves feeding the specific low-fat food your vet recommends, giving medications, and possibly having fluids administered under the skin (during an outpatient veterinary visit, or by being taught to administer fluids at home).
Prognosis and Recovery for Dogs with Pancreatitis
Many dogs will fully recover and go on to live normal, happy lives. However, the risk of another bout of pancreatitis at some point in the dog’s life remains high.
Prognosis depends largely on how severe the pancreatitis is, whether there are complications or other health conditions that complicate treatment, how soon treatment is initiated, and how a pup responds to initial treatment.
Most dogs with mild forms of pancreatitis recover without any long-term consequences. However, severe episodes or repeated bouts of pancreatitis can lead to future complications.
Chronic Pancreatitis & Potential Complications
Some dogs develop chronic pancreatitis, which means long-term episodes of pancreatitis (of varying degrees of severity) can occur. Guardians of these pups must be especially vigilant about their diet, and eliminate table scraps, to help prevent flare-ups.
During an episode of pancreatitis, some dogs may also suffer ‘collateral damage’ to nearby organs, such as a blocked bile duct from all the inflammation. These complications may need to be addressed during, or shortly after, pancreatitis treatment.
Additionally, damage to the pancreas can interfere with the future functioning of the organ. This could include the development of diabetes mellitus due to impaired insulin production, which requires daily insulin injections.
Or, it could mean exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), where there is insufficient production of pancreatic digestive enzymes, leading to long-term digestive issues. Fortunately, EPI can be treated with supplementation of these digestive enzymes.
Many dogs who develop pancreatitis never experience complications. However, the possibility of serious complications is an important reminder as to why it’s so important to seek veterinary care as soon as possible, even when the symptoms appear mild. Early intervention remains a critical factor in mitigating the potential long-term impacts of pancreatitis on a dog’s health.
How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs
Reducing the risk of pancreatitis and preventing its recurrence or flare-ups requires careful attention to your dog’s diet and lifestyle. Here are some tips to consider:
Choose the Right Diet: Feed a low-fat, highly digestible, nutritionally complete, and balanced dog food. Many weight-loss dog foods and prescription digestive diets fall into this category. The ideal diet may vary from pup to pup. Ask your vet for a personalized recommendation, including which treats are safe to offer.
Say No To Table Scraps: Avoid feeding table scraps! This is very important. Make sure all members of the home know to keep fatty foods out of your furkid’s reach. During parties or holiday get-togethers, make sure houseguests know not to slip your pup any treats, too.
Prevent Dietary Indiscretions: Take proactive measures to prevent your dog from accessing Take precautions, such as having a trash can that locks or is inaccessible to your dog.
Follow Veterinary Recommendations: Keep up with any recommended veterinary care, especially for the management of chronic pancreatitis. This may include monitoring via bloodwork rechecks from time to time, as well as certain supplements or medications.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pancreatitis in Dogs
What Is The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Pancreatitis?
The main difference between the two is the onset. Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly, while chronic pancreatitis develops slowly over time.
Acute pancreatitis may occur in dogs who have never had the condition before and can become life-threatening quickly if the inflammation spreads. On the other hand, chronic pancreatitis often has no obvious symptoms and occurs as a result of repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis.
That being said, both acute and chronic forms of pancreatitis can range in severity and typically result in varying degrees of abdominal pain.
Can Chronic Pancreatitis in Dogs Be Cured?
Technically, chronic pancreatitis can’t be cured since it is an ongoing and progressive disease. However, its progression can be slowed or managed with proactive dietary and lifestyle modifications.
Can Dogs Live a Normal Life After Pancreatitis?
Yes, many dogs can live normal lives after recovering from pancreatitis with proper management and care.
Helping Your Dog with Pancreatitis
Every dog has unique needs, so be sure to check with your veterinarian prior to beginning any diet changes, supplements, medications, or other treatments.
While pancreatitis can be a scary condition, it’s possible for most dogs who develop the condition to live normal lives — and enjoy a great quality of life, with all their favorite activities — so long as appropriate treatment and management are implemented.
If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s health, don’t hesitate to reach out to Bond Vet for guidance and support. We’re here to provide tailored advice and care, whether you’re near one of our convenient clinic locations or through a telehealth visit!