Understanding Pancreatitis in Dogs

Golden Retriever at the veterinarian

The pancreas is located under the stomach at the beginning of the small intestine. It’s responsible for certain regulative and digestive functions in the body. Pancreatitis in dogs is defined as inflammation of the pancreas. In this article, we’ll further define pancreatitis and explain the causes, symptoms, and treatment for it. 

Understanding Pancreatitis in Dogs

Sometimes also called the duodenum, the pancreas stores the digestive enzymes amylase to help digest fats and starches. It also produces insulin and glucagon that help to regulate blood sugar levels. 

Pancreatitis refers to the inflammation of the pancreas. Acute pancreatitis refers to when the condition develops suddenly, while chronic pancreatitis persists over time with acute flare-ups. These digestive enzymes may be released too early and digest the pancreas and other nearby organs rather than their intended targets when inflamed. 

Inflammation can cause pain and potentially lasting damage for dogs. In addition, scar tissue may replace pancreas cells and affect the organ's ability to function properly. When the pancreas can’t perform its usual digestive and regulative tasks, dogs are at risk for other medical conditions, such as diabetes.

What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Current research suggests several causes of pancreatitis in dogs, but much more research is needed. It’s unclear why some breeds, such as miniature schnauzers, cocker spaniels, and miniature poodles, may be more predisposed to developing pancreatitis. The cause of acute and chronic pancreatitis can be difficult to determine, but possible causes include:

• Occurring as a complication following surgery and anesthesia

• A diet with high-fat meals and treats

• Predisposing metabolic conditions such as diabetes or hypothyroidism

• Trauma

• Medications such as steroids

A high-fat diet is a common risk factor for pancreatitis. This includes both treats and meals given in a typical well-balanced diet. We know there are certain foods that you shouldn’t feed to your pet, but you should likewise avoid offering your dog table scraps of fatty foods, such as sausage or bacon, and keep an eye on other foods they may accidentally get into. These foods may trigger pancreatitis and require veterinary attention. 

If your dog has chronic pancreatitis or is at risk for an acute case, consider talking to your vet about a specially formulated diet. Your vet can develop a diet that is formulated to manage pancreatitis risk while still ensuring that your dog receives all of the important nutrients it needs.

Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Pancreatitis symptoms in dogs aren’t always easily identified. Common symptoms include lethargy or loss of appetite, but this is true of many conditions and as such, can’t be used to identify pancreatitis. In mild cases, many symptoms overlap with other gastrointestinal conditions, such as gut obstructions or surgical emergencies. More severe pancreatitis in dogs symptoms include:

If your dog adopts the praying position in which their head is lowered to the ground and their back legs are still standing, this might be a clue that they’re feeling abdominal pain. Some dogs may also shake from abdominal pain, which can be accompanied by a bloated or tense abdomen. Untreated pancreatitis can be life-threatening in some cases, so it’s important to seek veterinary attention if you notice any concerning symptoms.

Diagnosis of Pancreatitis

If you have any concerns about your dog’s health, see your vet to get a proper diagnosis. When you bring your dog in with concerns of pancreatitis, your vet will look for the symptoms mentioned above. They’ll also consider if this is an isolated case of acute pancreatitis or the condition may be chronic. 

To determine a diagnosis, your vet will combine apparent symptoms with the results of blood tests. They’ll perform either the pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) test or the specific canine pancreatic lipase (SPEC cPL) test, which tests levels of amylase and lipase in the blood. A radiograph and ultrasound may also help your vet confirm the diagnosis and rule out other possible conditions.

Treatment of Pancreatitis

Following a diagnosis, the vet will prescribe treatment according to the severity of pancreatitis. In many acute cases, your vet will prescribe medication to help manage pain and vomiting. Your dog should be feeling normal within a few days. In more severe acute cases, your dog may need to spend a few days to a week in supportive care for pain management and intravenous fluids. In addition, your dog may receive other treatments depending on the severity of the inflammation, such as antibiotics or plasma transfusions. 

Once the acute case has been resolved, your vet will consider long-term treatment if the condition is chronic. In addition, they will likely recommend lifestyle changes for your dog, such as increased water intake or a dietary change. For example, your vet can develop a special diet for your dog that introduces lower-fat foods and reduces the strain on the pancreas. 

Sometimes, pancreatitis can be an indicator of underlying conditions. If an adjusted diet or water intake doesn’t alleviate your dog’s chronic symptoms, then your dog might have other gastrointestinal conditions. Your vet may request more appointments to investigate other issues to make sure that your dog is happy and healthy.

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