Imagine Scooter, a lovable nine-year-old Cocker Spaniel with a few extra pounds. He loves longs walks on the leash, following scents on a whim, and all the table scraps he can get. And because of several risk factors, he is also a potential target for pancreatitis in dogs.
WHAT IS PANCREATITIS in dogs?
The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that produces enzymes to help digest food and control blood sugar. Pancreatitis is the inflammation of this organ. In the early stages of pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas slow down. Later, enzymes are released within the pancreas instead of in the digestive tract, causing inflammation and pain.
What causes pancreatitis IN DOGS?
Often, the cause of a pancreatitis in dogs is unknown, but some potential causes of pancreatitis are:
- Eating human foods – this includes high-fat foods like butter and oil, but also toxins such as grapes and raisins, and sweeteners such as xylitol
- Medications – certain antibiotics and chemotherapy are suspected of triggering pancreatitis
- Trauma – such as being hit by a car
- Surgery – potentially from the direct trauma caused by abdominal surgery, or also due to reduced blood flow to the pancreas during anesthesia
- Parasitic infections – such as Babesia canis, transmitted by the brown dog tick
- Tumors and pancreatic cancer – these are less common a cause
What are the risk factors for pancreatitis IN DOGS?
Some dogs are at greater risk for developing pancreatitis. Some of these risk factors are:
- Genetic predisposition – some breeds such as Cocker Spaniels, Miniature Poodles, and Miniature Schnauzers have a higher likelihood of experiencing pancreatitis
- High triglyceride count – fat in the blood that can be measured by routine bloodwork
- Hyperadrenocorticism – also known as Cushing’s disease, or overactive adrenal glands
- Age – middle-aged and older dogs are more likely to fall victim to this disease
- History of pancreatitis – a dog that has experienced it before is at higher risk for experiencing it again
If your dog has a high triglyceride count or Cushing’s disease, then managing it will be important because these are the things that can be improved. You won’t be able to change the breed or age of your dog, but being aware that they put your pet in a higher risk category will give you an advantage if you do notice signs of pancreatitis.
Signs of PANCREATITIS IN DOGS
Even if your dog isn’t in a high-risk category, pancreatitis can affect any dog. If your dog is experiencing symptoms of illness, but you aren’t sure if it’s pancreatitis, these are some specific symptoms to look for:
- Abdominal pain
- Distended abdomen
Unfortunately, these dog pancreatitis symptoms are vague and could indicate issues other than pancreatitis. If you notice your dog vomiting, you might think that they ate too fast or ate something that just didn’t agree with them.
You might be right. If you notice multiple symptoms, like your dog also seems unwilling to get up for their favorite activities and appears painful, you should consult a veterinarian.
Mild pain in dogs can be difficult to recognize because animals will instinctively hide pain. Some signs that a dog is feeling painful are:
- Hunched posture
If your dog appears hunched and is panting, they could be feeling pain. If only our pets could tell us when they aren’t feeling well, getting them treatment quickly would be easier. Instead, it’s up to us as dog owners to recognize unusual dog pancreatitis symptoms and consult with a veterinarian for the best chance at a positive outcome.
CAUTION: If you do suspect that your dog is in pain, or is having unusual symptoms, do not give medication without first consulting with a veterinarian as many human medications are toxic to dogs.
Acute vs Chronic Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis falls into one of two categories:
In chronic pancreatitis, symptoms slowly increase over time. Often it is not recognized early as a serious issue because symptoms may be mild and intermittent. As symptoms build, it can lead to an episode of acute pancreatitis.
Acute pancreatitis in dogs is more easily recognized as an urgent situation. Symptoms appear abruptly and violently. Your dog will have obvious symptoms of pain, lethargy, and vomiting. Even one episode of acute pancreatitis can lead to permanent damage and chronic pancreatitis.
Diagnosis of Pancreatitis IN DOGS
Pancreatitis in dogs must be treated early for the best outcome. During the visit with your veterinarian, be prepared to answer questions about your dog, such as:
- What kind of symptoms is he having?
- How long have they been happening?
- What does your dog usually eat?
- Could he have eaten a toy or a piece of clothing?
- What has he eaten most recently?
- Is his activity level normal or decreased?
- Could he have eaten rat poison?
You are your dog’s best advocate so answering questions completely and honestly will help the doctor provide the best care. If your 10-year old Poodle ate an entire jar of peanut butter that your child left on the counter, or if your overweight Cocker Spaniel slurped up a scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream he found melting on the sidewalk, the doctor needs to know.
Some dog owners fear that they will look like poor dog parents if they admit that Fido ate their stash of marijuana brownies. But your veterinarian is concerned about treating your dog’s symptoms appropriately, not about judging your lifestyle. The information that you provide could save your pet’s life.
Because the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs are so generic, it will be up to the veterinarian to rule out many other possibilities of illness, such as foreign body obstruction, bloat, or toxicity, all of which have similar symptoms. There is no single test that will give a diagnosis when it comes to gastrointestinal symptoms. The doctor will start with the best guess based on examining your dog, the information you provide, and what illnesses are common in your area, like the brown dog tick.
During the veterinary consult, you can expect the doctor to perform a physical exam. The doctor will touch your dog to feel for swelling or look for reactions, check for fever, and listen to the heart and lungs. Some diagnostic tests that your veterinarian will likely need are:
- X-rays – will not directly indicate pancreatitis, but can help rule out other illnesses
- Ultrasound – may show enlargement of the pancreas if the case is severe, but will mainly help rule out other illnesses
- Bloodwork – can be helpful to indicate pancreatic issues.
- Fine needle aspirate – collecting a sample of pancreatic cells to examine under a microscope may show inflammation, but this does require anesthesia, and dogs with acute symptoms are at poor risk
Pancreatitis will require multiple tests to accurately diagnose. Your veterinarian will probably begin treating your dog’s symptoms, like pain and dehydration, while diagnostic tests are still being performed. It is safe to treat these symptoms no matter which illness is suspected of causing them.
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Always consult your veterinarian about your dog’s specific case. In general, for dogs with severe acute pancreatitis, the chance of a full recovery is poor due to multiple organ failure and other diseases that can develop, such as peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the abdomen) or pancreatic abscesses.
Treatment will be intensive and your dog will need to be monitored closely. For dogs with mild cases, the chances for recovery are very good. Even in mild cases, however, scar tissue may develop that reduces pancreatic function.
This could lead to diabetes mellitus (not producing enough insulin) or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (not producing enough digestive enzymes), both of which are treatable and manageable.
How to Treat Pancreatitis in Dogs
If you’re wondering is there a cure for pancreatitis in dogs, there, unfortunately, isn’t one medication that will cure pancreatitis. Acute or chronic pancreatitis is treated with supportive and symptomatic care and by addressing underlying causes if they are known.
Acute or severe cases are critical situations and will require multiple days in the hospital or at a specialty practice for treatment. More moderate cases may only need a day or two of hospitalization. The most common pancreatitis treatment in dogs that you can expect are:
- Pain medication – pancreatitis is very painful and can prevent your dog from wanting to eat, drink, or move
- Fluid therapy – dogs can become severely dehydrated from vomiting, diarrhea, and not drinking water; this can lead to the damage of other organs, if not treated properly
- Antiemetic medications – to prevent vomiting and reduce nausea
- Nutritional support – your dog needs calories and nutrition to recover; ideally, she will be willing to eat, but if not, she may be force-fed small amounts of a bland diet until her appetite returns.
- Antibiotics – your veterinarian may or may not prescribe antibiotics depending on your pet’s specific case
If your dog’s case of pancreatitis is mild, he may not require hospitalization at all, but will likely still need fluid therapy. This can be done on an outpatient basis or, in some cases, the owners can provide fluid therapy at home.
For owners who are comfortable with a needle and a bag of fluids, providing your pet some subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids at home will save your dog a trip to the clinic. However, many owners are uncomfortable doing this and find it more convenient to make a trip to the clinic.
However, you and your veterinarian agree to do this, just remember that fluid therapy is an important part of treating pancreatitis.
Treatment is similar for both acute and chronic cases, focusing on fluid therapy, nutritional therapy, and pain management.
How Long Does Pancreatitis in dogs Last?
Recovery time depends on multiple factors such as the severity of the illness and how quickly the treatment can start. If your dog is diagnosed with severe acute pancreatitis, it can take days or even weeks of treatment before he’s back to normal.
The treatments will help him feel better, but he may also require long-term changes to his diet and lifestyle, like a prescription bland diet and a “no-table-scraps” rule. If your dog is diagnosed with a mild case of acute pancreatitis, recovery time can be just a few days.
Can You Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs?
The primary recommendation for preventing pancreatitis in dogs is to avoid inappropriate human foods like chocolate, raisins, and fatty foods. Eating a bland diet and managing obesity are also helpful. If your dog has had pancreatitis before, he is more likely to experience it again. Be aware of the symptoms and take action if you notice unusual postures or behaviors. The time it takes to start treatment is critical to reducing recovery time. Regular visits with your veterinarian for monitoring are the best way to maintain your dog’s good health.
Pancreatitis in dogs is a painful and potentially lethal disease and recognizing symptoms early is critical to getting a diagnosis and starting treatment. While some dogs, like the lovable Scooter we mentioned at the start, are at a higher risk, there are actions that owners can take to reduce their dog’s chance of developing pancreatitis.
These will focus on managing diet and health in general. Talk to your veterinarian for the best advice specific to your dog’s health. With appropriate prevention and management, your dog will greet you at the door with a wagging tail for years to come.
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All information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to replace your veterinarian’s advice
Kos-Barber, Heidi, DVM; November 03, 2020; “What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs and How to Treat It”; PetMD; https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/endocrine/c_multi_pancreatitis
Steiner, Jӧrg M, DMV, PhD, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, AGAF; modified October 2020; “Pancreatitis in Dogs and Cats”; Merck Manual; https://www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/the-exocrine-pancreas/pancreatitis-in-dogs-and-cats
Turner, Beth, DVM; March 1, 2021; “Pancreatitis in Dogs: What It Is, What Causes It, and What You Can Do”; Preventive Vet; https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/pancreatitis-in-dogs-causes-and-what-you-can-do