Pancreatitis in Dogs

JULY 2021

Tags - Dogs, Food, Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a scary word to hear from your vet because it can be life-threatening.  To help you understand what’s going on and how best to support your sick puppy, here’s some background. 

What Causes Pancreatitis?

To start with, the pancreas is a tiny but crucial organ that sits at the top of the stomach, nestled in between the liver and the bile ducts. One of its functions is to produce enzymes that assist in digestion. Normally, those enzymes are released in an inactive state until they reach the small intestine, where they spring to life to begin working. But with pancreatitis, they are activated prematurely in the pancreas. It’s as if they’re in a   time-release capsule that suddenly bursts open before it should and starts to digest the pancreas itself—as well as surrounding tissue and organs. The exact cause is not known, although it may be triggered in some cases by a fatty meal or corticosteroid administration. Often it appears to occur spontaneously.

Sudden or acute pancreatitis may be mild (edematous) or severe (hemorrhagic). A few dogs that recover from an acute episode may go on to have recurrent bouts of the disease, which is then called chronic or relapsing pancreatitis.

 What Are the Symptoms?

The clinical signs include nausea, vomiting, fever, lethargy, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and decreased appetite. During an attack, dogs may take a “praying position,” with their rear end up in the air while their front legs and head are lowered onto the floor. 

What Is the Treatment?

Early diagnosis and prompt medical treatment are key to the successful management of this disease. Most dogs are hospitalized for two to four days while intravenous fluids and medications are given to prevent dehydration and nausea. Then food is gradually reintroduced. With mild, edematous pancreatitis, the treatment is supportive, by “resting” the pancreas and allowing the body to heal itself. Dogs who are vomiting should be fasted until it subsides—food can be withheld for a few days if needed. Those who are not vomiting may be fed a low-fat, highly digestible diet during recovery. 

Will there Be any Long-Term Problems?

Most dogs recover without any consequences. However, if a significant number of cells that produce the digestive enzymes are destroyed by severe or repeated episodes, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) may follow. This means food doesn’t get properly digested or absorbed. Fortunately, EPI can be treated with a daily enzyme replacement powder.

The pancreas’s second major function is secreting insulin to regulate the body’s blood sugar levels. If a significant number of cells that produce the insulin are destroyed, it can lead to diabetes—but that, too, is manageable.    

What Can I Do to Prevent further Episodes?

Keep your dog’s diet simple, clean, and healthy and avoid high fat foods like marrow, tripe, lamb, and sometimes duck and salmon; many grain-free dry dog diets are also high in fat. Avoid rawhide chews and abrupt food changes as well.  

Our lowest fat recipes include the rockfish, venison, and chicken (all under 5%). Consult your veterinarian to pick the best mix for your dog. It is imperative that you introduce the food very slowly (over 7 days) and warm it up to at least room temperature before feeding. In the case of chronic pancreatitis, it may be helpful to supplement meals with high-quality digestive enzymes. In general, pre and probiotics are helpful to improve your pet's digestion, and if given over time, they can reduce digestive issues. However, if your dog has chronic or especially active pancreatitis, it is not a good time to take probiotics as they may cause more problems.  Again, consult with your veterinarian about what might work best for your specific dog.

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Written by Dr. Kim Freeman

Dr. Freeman earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Florida in 1997. She has practiced small and large animal medicine as well as emergency/critical care in New Mexico and Arizona for 25 years. She engages in a stimulating combination of Eastern and Western practice as well as Chiropractic therapy at Gruda Veterinary Hospital. She is very interested in preventative medicine, seasonal health, and especially food therapy using Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Herbalism techniques.