Pancreatitis is a Commonly Diagnosed Ailment in Dogs

Do we really know what this disease pancreatitis is and what it means to our pet’s health? It has been my experience that most owners don’t have a true understanding of the disease process and how it can effect their dog long term. The best place to start is to review the pancreas and it’s role in the body. This little organ hides behind the stomach and is responsible for both digestion and producing insulin.


So what is Pancreatitis?Canine obesity and pancreatitis

In a nutshell, the digestive enzymes that are supposed to be released into the small intestine are turned on early, while they are still in the pancreas. This means that these activated enzymes start digesting and breaking down the pancreas itself. As a result there is severe inflammation (where we get the “itis”) and pain. This disease does effect both dogs and cats but with different triggers and treatment protocols. For the sake of this article, I will continue discussing the canine necrotizing pancreatitis and leave pancreatitisthe feline pancreatitis for another day. Cats really are special- same disease name but completely different medical management.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis Include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anorexia (not eating)
  • Fever
  • Painful belly- arched back, tense abdomen, can’t get comfortable
  • Lethargy- just laying around, not interested in usual activities

One of the Big Triggers of Pancreatitis in the Dog is Diet !!!!

Fatty foods (both table food and high fat dog food) play a large role in causing this disease. High fat diets and dietary indiscretion (getting into the trash, yummy decaying treats in the field, or other food that they shouldn’t eat) is the leading culprit of pancreatitis in our hospital patients.
Holiday gatherings where there is rich food and lots of people willing to slip the dog a festive treat usually equals a recipe for a perfect post-celebration pancreatitis flair. The next few days after a holiday are usually the busiest in our hospital with vomiting dogs and hospitalized cases. 

Common Holiday Culprits to Pancreatitis:

  • New Years: Fatty meat, candy, creamy dips/snacks
  • Valentines Day: Candy (chocolate)
  • Easter: Ham, bones, candy
  • Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day: Hot dogs, fatty steaks, sausages
  • Thanksgiving Day: Turkey skin/bones, high fat side dishes
  • Christmas: Turkey skin/bones, ham, high fat side dishes, candy, rawhide/pigs ears or other holiday treat

What Foods Should You Absolutely Avoid?

  • All pork products (bacon, ham, hot dogs, scrapple, etc.)
  • Fatty beef , rotisserie chicken , fried chicken, chicken or turkey skin
  • High fat deli meat such as liverwurst and bologna

Other Causes of Pancreatitis Include:

  • Obesity
  • Genetic predisposition (miniature schnauzers, Cocker Spaniel)
  • Medication such as potassium bromide, phenobarbitol, select antibiotics, and chemotherapy agents
  • Other medical conditions such as diabetes, hyperlipidemia. and Cushing’s disease

How is it Diagnosed?

In most cases, this disease is diagnosed through patient history, presenting symptoms, blood work, and x rays (usually to rule out other causes of symptoms such as a foreign body or a tumor ). An ultrasound my be needed in some cases to eliminate other concerns such as a pancreatic abscess or mass.

What are the Treatment Options?

Some dogs present with mild symptoms and can be treated on an outpatient basis with subcutaneous fluids (fluids under the skin), anti-nausea drugs, and antibiotics. The majority of patients need to be hospitalized for intravenous fluids, injectable antibiotics and anti-nausea medication, as well as pain medication. Unfortunately, there are cases where the pancreatitis is severe and medical treatment is not enough to prevent death of the patient. These cases are not common but do make us take this disease very seriously. In all cases, the dog will have a diet change to a low fat diet, ideally forever.

What are the Long Term Effects of Pancreatitis?

Many dogs will respond to treatment and go on to live long and happy lives. The long term issue is that the pancreas has been damaged. It will most likely be sensitive to future flairs if the initial disease triggers such as high fat diet and obesity are not managed. With every pancreatitis flair, there is more damage done to the organ, damage that may be permanent and effect other organs. Chronic pancreatitis can become a disease of long term management instead of healing and resolving. Let’s not forget that our insulin producing cells are located in the pancreas. If the pancreas becomes too damaged, these cells may become effected as well and then we worry about developing another chronic condition-diabetes.

So the next time that your neighbor offers the 4th of July hot dog to your dog say, “NO!!!”. Say no to all of the fatty table food and extra treats that are putting pounds on your canine companion. Try to keep the curious or hungry dog out of the trash or away from the delicious roadkill carcass. If you happen to have one of the more predisposed breeds such as miniature schnauzers or Cocker Spaniels, then be aware of what to look for and intervene with a vet visit sooner than later. Early intervention can shorten treatment time and increase the chances of a speedy recovery. Pancreatitis can’t always be avoided in our pets, but we can be pro-active about recognizing symptoms and avoiding known triggers.