The pancreas is a sneaky and sensitive organ that can make dogs and cats dangerously ill. While the healthy pancreas carries out essential processes for digestion and metabolism, an inflamed pancreas can trigger widespread inflammation and toxic self-destruction. Learn all you need to know about this little-known disease in Lebanon Animal Hospital’s guide to pancreatitis. 

What is pancreatitis in pets?

Pancreatitis simply means the pancreas is inflamed. When this occurs, the pancreas becomes irritated and swollen, prematurely activating the digestive enzymes this organ produces and—typically—sends to the small intestine. The enzymes released in the pancreas attack the proteins and fats in the pancreatic tissue, breaking down the organ from inside. Inflammatory cells and toxins released by the damaged pancreatic tissue then enter the abdominal cavity and bloodstream, damaging many distant body areas.

Are some pets more susceptible to pancreatitis?

Although pancreatitis has a simple definition, its explanation is much more complicated—and sometimes downright frustrating. In 90 percent of pets, pancreatitis is idiopathic (i.e., its cause is never known), making prevention and early detection challenging—if not impossible—for pet owners and veterinarians. Fortunately, several risk factors are known to predispose pets to pancreatitis:

  • High-fat meals — Dogs who indulge in dumpster diving, counter surfing, and table scraps are commonly plagued with pancreatitis.  
  • Obesity — Overweight pets’ altered metabolism increases their pancreatitis risk.
  • Age — Senior pets are more sensitive.
  • Breed — Miniature schnauzers may have a genetic predisposition, and poodles, Yorkshire terriers, and cocker spaniels are also considered above-average risk.
  • Concurrent medical conditions — Inflammatory or endocrine conditions (e.g., diabetes, hypothyroidism, and inflammatory bowel disease) put pets more at risk.
  • Chronic medication use — Prolonged chemotherapy, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics are linked to pancreatitis in humans.

How will I know if my pet has pancreatitis?

Despite the dramatic, somewhat gruesome processes taking place internally, from the outside pancreatitis looks quite generic. Sudden attacks—known as acute pancreatitis—present with more obvious signs, while subclinical or chronic cases may be subtle. Common signs include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Inappetence
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Yellowed gums
  • Weight loss, which is seen in chronic pancreatitis
  • Painful abdomen, where your pet may stand with a hunched back, or repeatedly stretch into a bow

If our veterinarians suspect pancreatitis, they will evaluate your pet’s recent history, exam findings, blood work, and ultrasound imaging, to rule out any conditions with similar signs. They will assess your pet’s blood work for multiple organ damage, which can occur when free-roaming pancreatic enzymes reach the nearby liver and kidney. Specific blood tests are performed to measure lipase, a digestive enzyme that is elevated during pancreatitis. Ultrasound imaging can identify pancreatic inflammation, and detect tumors, or other tissue abnormalities.

How is pancreatitis treated in pets?

Acute pancreatitis typically requires hospitalization for all but the mildest cases. Treatment focuses on rehydrating the pet with intravenous fluids, controlling vomiting with anti-nausea medication, and managing pain. Once pets are stabilized, they are offered low-fat food, to re-establish gastrointestinal motility, and help them regain their strength. For pets who do not readily eat, food may be delivered directly to the stomach through a temporary nasogastric or esophageal feeding tube. Pets are discharged when they can hold down food and water, and show no clinical signs or changes in blood work.

What is the prognosis for pets with pancreatitis?

Pets may be hospitalized for several days to one week. While the prognosis is favorable for pets who receive rapid treatment, those who have gone undiagnosed for a prolonged period, or have early organ damage on initial presentation, have a poor to grave outcome.

Unlike the liver, damaged pancreatic tissue cannot regenerate,and is permanently scarred. Pets with chronic pancreatitis are at high risk for developing diabetes, as scarred tissue no longer produces the insulin and glucagon needed to control blood sugar. If other organs are damaged by inflammatory reactions, pets may be unresponsive to treatment and need humane euthanasia.

Can pancreatitis be prevented in pets?

Pets who survive a bout of pancreatitis are more likely to develop the condition again. While the condition is not entirely preventable, a few lifestyle measures can potentially reduce your pet’s risk, including:

  • Dietary management — Dogs should not be given rich or unusual foods, such as those high in grease, fat, sugar or salt. Dogs with known pancreatitis are placed on a lifelong ultra low-fat diet, to prevent recurrence. Cats can continue their regular diet, as feline pancreatitis has no known nutritional link.
  • Weight control — Ask your veterinarian to evaluate your pet’s body condition, and provide an ideal weight range. Seek recommendations for weight loss food, and increase your pet’s daily exercise to reach and maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Environmental management — During holiday festivities, keep your pet out of the kitchen, dining area, or trash cans, where they can steal food.
  • Preventive care — Maintain your pet’s annual veterinary care. Your pet’s best defense against illness will always be a healthy immune system and good physical condition.

Once you meet pancreatitis, you’ll wish you hadn’t. But only by learning its behavior, warning signs, and prevention can you effectively protect your pet against the worst this sneaky disease has to offer. If your pet is experiencing pancreatitis signs, or another unexplained illness, contact Lebanon Animal Hospital.