Pancreatitis in Dogs: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery

Pancreatitis is a relatively common condition in dogs. It can occur in any age, breed, or gender, although it is more common in certain breeds. Symptoms of illness can vary in intensity from mild to severe, and dogs may have acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term) pancreatitis. 

Since pancreatitis can be life-threatening, it’s important to seek veterinary care if a dog is showing symptoms, and to create a plan for long-term management in dogs who have chronic pancreatitis. 

What Is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an internal organ that sits next to the stomach. It serves two very important functions. The first is producing digestive enzymes that are needed to break down fat, proteins, and carbohydrates. The second is producing hormones like insulin and glucagon, which are crucial for blood sugar regulation.

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreas. This happens when digestive enzymes are activated too early, when they’re still inside the pancreas. Normally, these enzymes would pass through the pancreatic duct and into the small intestines, where they safely help with food digestion. But with pancreatitis, the enzymes start to “digest” and damage the pancreas and surrounding tissues like the liver, gallbladder, and intestines. 

What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?

In many cases, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown, and it seems to occur out of nowhere.

However, there are some well-established causes of canine pancreatitis, which include:

  • Ingestion of high-fat food. This could mean high-fat dog food, although more commonly it means fatty table scraps or people food given as a treat.
  • Dietary indiscretion, such as getting into the trash can, eating stuff off the ground during their walks, etc.
  • Genetics/breed predisposition, especially for Miniature Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, and certain terriers and toy breeds.
  • Obesity.
  • Severe blunt trauma.
  • Certain medications and toxins.
  • A complication of abdominal surgery (less common).
  • Some underlying medical conditions, especially hormonal imbalances or high levels of triglycerides and/or cholesterol in the blood.

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Symptoms and Signs

Common signs of pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Abdominal pain, which may be severe. Dogs can express abdominal pain in different ways, but three common presentations are yelping when the abdomen is touched, hunching their back, or assuming a ‘praying position’ with their head and forelimbs on the floor and hind end elevated.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Fever.
  • Lethargy or weakness.
  • Dehydration.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • In extremely severe cases, shock and death may occur.

On average, acute pancreatitis tends to carry more severe symptoms, while chronic pancreatitis may cause milder illness. 

It’s always important to seek veterinary care, since pancreatitis can be life-threatening. Pups with significant symptoms should receive veterinary care right away — it warrants an emergency visit. 

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 see if they recommend bringing your furkid in sooner.

Diagnosis of Pancreatitis in Dogs

The symptoms listed above can indicate pancreatitis — but they are also associated with many other health conditions. Therefore, a veterinarian will do a thorough physical exam and recommend diagnostic testing, in order to reach a diagnosis and determine the best course of treatment.

Diagnosing pancreatitis can be tricky. Therefore, veterinarians will often begin treatment based on clinical signs alone. However, diagnostic testing is still important to rule out other health conditions with similar symptoms that could require a different treatment.

Here are some of the most common tests that may be performed:

  • 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). But 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 treatment.

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Treatment and Home Care

Treatment of pancreatitis in dogs often requires hospitalization for several days, along with supportive care such as:

  • Intravenous fluids to maintain hydration and electrolyte balance.
  • Fasting, to give the pancreas a chance to rest and stop producing digestive enzymes. The right amount of time to fast will vary from dog to dog depending on their symptoms, nutritional needs, and response to therapy. Your veterinarian will let you know what’s best for your individual pup. 
  • Pain medications, with or without anti-inflammatories.
  • Medications to help with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
  • 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.
  • Treatment of concurrent conditions (antibiotics if an infection is present, treatment to regulate diabetes mellitus in dogs who have that condition, etc.).
  • 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. 

Note: Never give human medications without talking to your vet. Many medications are toxic to pets.

The costs of treatment 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.

Can Pancreatitis in Dogs Be Treated at Home?

This is not a situation where you should wait it out, starting with home treatment and seeing whether or not your dog gets better before scheduling a vet visit. Instead, check with a veterinarian right away, because prompt veterinary treatment means a better prognosis for this potentially life-threatening condition.

Severely ill dogs should be treated at a veterinary hospital. For mild or chronic cases, home or outpatient treatment might be possible. Your vet can advise you as to whether or not this is recommended.

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). 

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Prognosis and Recovery

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.

On average, dogs with milder pancreatitis tend to recover well with prompt veterinary care. 

Potential Complications of Pancreatitis

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 future functioning of the organ. This could include development of diabetes mellitus due to imparied 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.

Don’t worry, having an episode of pancreatitis doesn’t mean a dog will develop 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.

Preventing Pancreatitis in Dogs

To lower the risk of pancreatitis, and to help prevent flare-ups or recurrences, try these tips:

  • 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.
  • Avoid feeding table scraps! This is very important. Make sure all members of the home know to keep food 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 precautions such as having a trash can that locks or is inaccessible to your dog.
  • Keep up with any recommended veterinary care, especially for management of chronic pancreatitis. This may include monitoring via bloodwork rechecks from time to time, as well as certain supplements or medications.

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.

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