Pancreatitis in Dogs: What You Need to Know

|| January 30, 2018

dog-yorkshire-terrier-lazy-dog-65594.jpegWhat is the function of the pancreas?
The pancreas is responsible for the secretion of important digestive enzymes and factors necessary for vitamin absorption.  It also secretes hormones to regulate blood glucose levels.

What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is really just a fancy word meaning “inflammation of the pancreas.”

What causes pancreatitis in dogs?
We know that pancreatitis occurs when the digestive enzymes secreted by the pancreas get activated too early. This leads to digestion of the cells within the pancreas and, ultimately, inflammation in the pancreas and surrounding organs (small intestine, stomach, colon).

Unfortunately, we do NOT know what causes those digestive enzymes to become activated too early.  In dogs, we know that risk factors for pancreatitis include:  obesity, high fat diet or table scraps, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushings’ disease), high levels of triglycerides or calcium in the bloodstream, certain drugs, and obstruction of the pancreatic duct.  Certain dog breeds, such as English Cocker Spaniels, Schnauzers, and Shetland Sheepdogs, are predisposed to developing pancreatitis.

What clinical signs (symptoms) are associated with pancreatitis?
Clinical signs can vary but can include vomiting, no interest in food, diarrhea, an uncomfortable abdomen, and lethargy.  Sometimes, dogs with an uncomfortable abdomen will have a hunched position or will lie in a “prayer” position.

Because these clinical signs are vague and nonspecific, it is important that your pet be seen by a veterinarian to achieve a diagnosis and proper treatment.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Pancreatitis can be tricky to diagnose!

We typically start with baseline labwork, including a complete blood profile (CBC) and chemistry panel.  Although we can see certain changes on this bloodwork that hint towards pancreatitis, we cannot achieve a true diagnosis with baseline bloodwork alone.

Abdominal imaging can be very helpful.  We cannot see the pancreas specifically on abdominal x-rays, but we can sometimes see a lack of detail in the area of the pancreas in an animal with pancreatitis.  X-rays also help us rule out other causes for vomiting (such as a foreign body!).  An abdominal ultrasound is VERY helpful as it actually allows us to see the pancreas and determine if it looks abnormal. 

Specialized bloodwork, such as pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI), is also helpful in diagnosing pancreatitis.

How do we treat pancreatitis?
Unfortunately, there is no magical injection that we can give to treat pancreatitis.  Rather, treatment involves intensive supportive care.

Mild pancreatitis may be treated on an outpatient basis with fluids under the skin and anti-nausea medications.  Moderate to severe pancreatitis often needs to be treated with hospitalization for IV fluids, GI protectant medications, nutritional support, and monitoring of vital signs.

Are there any complications secondary to pancreatitis?
If pancreatitis is very severe, we can see complications such as transient or even permanent diabetes mellitus, bile duct obstruction, infection of the pancreas, and even multi-organ dysfunction and death.  

Can we prevent pancreatitis?
Since we do not know for sure what causes the onset of pancreatitis in many patients, it’s difficult to know if we can avoid it.  It’s always a good idea to avoid feeding high fat foods and table scraps to your dog.  Dogs who have experienced bouts of pancreatitis should remain on a low fat diet long term to try to prevent the recurrence of pancreatitis.  Additionally, addressing obesity with a safe weight loss plan is also important.

I’m worried my dog has pancreatitis.  What should I do?
Anytime your dog develops vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and/or refuses food, you should contact a veterinarian to discuss recommendations moving forward. 

Whitney Miesbauer, DVM
  WVRC, Emergency Service