Pancreatitis in Dogs - Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

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Introduction to Pancreatitis in Dogs – Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Pancreatitis is a serious digestive disorder that affects dogs.

This disorder is a secondary condition, which means that it is caused by another underlying condition.

The most common of these causes is an infection, but pancreatitis can also develop as a result of trauma, high dietary fat content, or the presence of certain diseases affecting the body.

It is an inflammation and swelling of the pancreas, a painful and seldom-understood affliction that affects dogs worldwide.

While spontaneous canine pancreatitis is not particularly well understood, veterinarians do have an idea of the causes that contribute to this condition, its related conditions and symptoms, and treatment methods to lessen symptoms.

Because it is dangerous, a suspected case of pancreatitis needs to be addressed by a veterinarian as quickly as possible.

As with all medical issues, even the best online resource is not a replacement for the medical guidance from your vet.

Before looking at the details of pancreatitis, let’s take away the “ititis” and explain the small but vital organ itself:

The pancreas is responsible for releasing enzymes that aid in digestion.

When the organ is working normally, the enzymes become active only when they reach the small intestine.

In a dog with pancreatitis, however, the enzymes activate when they’re released, inflaming and causing damage to the pancreas and its surrounding tissue and other organs.

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What Is Pancreatitis In Dogs?

The pancreas is responsible for producing specific enzymes that promote digestion and enable the body to absorb fats in food.

Without the pancreas, dogs would have no way to absorb nutrients from food.

The term pancreatitis refers to the general condition of inflammation and swelling of the pancreas.

There are two variations of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.

Acute Pancreatitis

An acute attack of pancreatitis means it comes on suddenly, with no previous appearance of the condition before. It can become life-threatening to other organs if the inflammation spreads.

Chronic Pancreatitis

A chronic condition is one that has developed over time, slowly, and often without symptoms. This condition can result from repeated bouts of acute pancreatitis.

Both acute and chronic forms can be either severe or mild, and both result in pain.

When the condition occurs suddenly in a dog, it takes many owners by surprise, and the acute form can also cause a considerable amount of pain for the affected dog.

What Is Fatal Pancreatitis?

The term “fatal pancreatitis” is used to refer to when the condition causes fatal complications to develop that eventually take the life of the dog.

If pancreatitis becomes extremely severe or if a dog suffers repeated occurrences it can develop many other conditions that can lead to death including maldigestion syndrome and diabetes mellitus.

Both of these conditions are treatable; however, when left untreated they will almost certainly lead to a fatal outcome.

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Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs

  • Hunched back
  • Repeated vomiting 
  • Pain or distention of the abdomen
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness/lethargy
  • Fever

If your dog exhibits one of these signs, and only infrequently, monitor her. But if she exhibits multiple signs at once, and repeatedly, a call to the veterinarian quickly is vital.

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There are two degrees of pancreatitis in dogs recognized by the veterinary community: mild and severe.

Mild Pancreatitis

  • Distention or pain in the abdomen
  • General discomfort or inability to find a comfortable place to lie down
  • Flinching or whining when you touch their abdomen (also a symptom of Canine Bloat, a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention)
  • Dehydration
  • Lack of appetite
  • Appearing hunched over when standing or walking
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea that’s greasy and yellow in color

Severe Pancreatitis

Dogs that are experiencing more severe cases of pancreatitis may display the symptoms listed above; however, it’s more likely that they’ll exhibit more serious symptoms that, if left undiagnosed and untreated, can be life-threatening. Some of these more serious symptoms include:

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (a condition in which multiple hemorrhages can take place resulting in possible death)
  • Heart arrhythmia (or irregular heartbeat)
  • Sepsis (a body-wide infection that occurs when toxins are released into the blood)
  • Difficulty breathing

In the most extreme cases, pancreatic enzymes can digest the pancreas and surrounding organs. Once organs become partially digested, the damage is irreversible.

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Dehydration And Pancreatitis in Dogs

Dehydration is due to a greater fluid loss than fluid intake.

Diarrhea or vomiting can cause dehydration, but those signs together will cause a greater fluid deficit and dehydration because the dog’s fluid input (drinking) cannot keep up with the fluid losses.

If diarrhea becomes bloody, the condition worsens and the dehydration can become an emergency.

Other factors such as fever require to increase fluid intake and can lead to dehydration along with other metabolic issues such as kidney disease, etc.

Blood in a dog’s stool indicates a loos and significant inflammatory response requiring a veterinarian’s attention but it can be caused by a multitude of factors, from ulceration to parasites.

Dehydration is a serious condition that can lead to death. It is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary care.

Any lethargic dog who is not drinking water or cannot hold water down should be suspect of dehydration and examined by a veterinarian.

Dry mucous membranes (such as gums) may be a quick way of assessing dehydration but as always, when in doubt, consult with your veterinarian.

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Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs

There are a number of causes and risk factors that can bring on pancreatitis.

Though often the attack appears seemingly out of the blue.

Among them are:

  • A high-fat diet
    This is a major cause of pancreatitis, especially for a dog that gets one large helping of fatty food in one sitting
  • A history of dietary indiscretion (a medical term for saying your dog will eat anything)
  • Hypothyroidism (or other endocrine diseases)
  • Severe blunt trauma
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Certain medications or other toxins
    These include cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, estrogen, salicylates, azathioprine, thiazide diuretics, and vinca alkaloids.
  • There may, in some cases, be a genetic predisposition. Certain breeds or types of dogs have been associated with higher risks of pancreatitis such as Miniature Schnauzers and some of the smaller toy and terrier breeds.

More about those fats: Human food is especially dangerous, though even high-fat dog food may cause pancreatitis.

So owner vigilance is particularly required around holidays and other festive occasions they can bring well-meaning guests who slip your buddy a fatty piece of lamb, or a tray of buttery cookies left within reach of an eager muzzle.

In fact, the day after Thanksgiving is known for more than just Black Friday bargains.

It’s one of the busiest days of the year for pancreatitis-related emergency vet visits.

Basically, if your dog is showing any signs of abdominal pain, the worst thing to do is feed him a fatty diet.

This is one of many reasons that giving your dog table scraps, as tempting as it may be, is not advisable.

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How Does A Vet Diagnose Pancreatitis in Dogs?

  • Your dog’s medical history
  • Blood tests to measure pancreatic enzymes
  • Physical examination including stomach, gums, heart, temperature
  • Radiographs or ultrasound, to rule out other causes
  • Fine needle aspiration of the pancreas

As with any disease, no test should be used in isolation for diagnosis, and all clinical findings should be used in conjunction to arrive at the most appropriate diagnosis.

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Treatment and Management

There’s no fancy treatment for acute pancreatitis.

First and foremost, your dog’s pain must be managed, and early intervention to prevent further complications is key.

The most common treatment and management options are:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluid therapy in severe pancreatitis
  • Vigorous monitoring of a worsening condition
  • Antiemetic medication for vomiting (to prevent dehydration)
  • Resting the pancreas (withholding food and water for 24 hours)

Long-term management includes:

  • Vigilant monitoring of fat intake No table scraps allowed!
  • Use of a prescription diet of gastrointestinal-supportive low-fat, or ultra-low fat, food.
  • Feed smaller, more frequent meals instead of one larger meal
  • Have amylase and lipase levels checked by a veterinarian regularly
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Can Supplements Be Used to Prevent or Manage Pancreatitis in Dogs?

It is important to reiterate that pancreatitis is a serious condition, so home remedies shouldn’t be used in place of veterinary intervention.

That said, some vets believe digestive enzyme supplements with pancreatic can help some dogs by reducing the work of the pancreas and inhibiting pancreatic secretion.

These come in over-the-counter strength as well as prescription strength.

Fish oil may seem counterintuitive at first, because of its high-fat content, but it can actually help lower blood lipid levels.

Studies suggest a high level of fish oil (about 1,000 mg. per 10 pounds of body weight for dogs with high lipid levels; about half that amount for dogs with normal levels) is helpful to dogs with acute pancreatitis.

When supplementing with fish oil, also supplement with 5 to 10 IU of vitamin E.

There have been human studies suggesting that vitamin E (with selenium), vitamin C, beta-carotene, and methionine may help prevent pancreatitis.

Conversely, another human study reveals that probiotics can make acute pancreatitis worse.

Always speak with your veterinarian before offering any supplements to your pet.

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How To Prevent The Recurrence Of Pancreatitis?

If your dog has ever suffered from a bout of it, there’s an extreme likelihood that they will experience a recurrence.

Recurring episodes can be mild or severe regardless of the severity of the original occurrence.

Below are some tips that vets offer to help reduce the chance of recurrence.

  • Reduce food intake and increase the exercise level of an overweight dog. Make sure not to underfeed or over-exert your dog during this type of approach, though. Weight loss should be slow and steady.
  • If your dog experienced a severe episode that left his pancreas damaged, provide any necessary medications to supplement pancreatic function.
  • Avoid feeding any human foods to dogs. Many human foods, particularly table scraps, are high in fat content which can prompt an episode.
  • Feed multiple, small meals during the day rather than feeding one large meal. This not only reduces the strain put on the pancreas during digestion but also lessens the likelihood for certain breeds to develop canine bloat.
  • If your veterinarian suggests keeping your dog on a low-fat diet, ensure that you comply to maintain healthy lipid levels in your dog’s body. High lipid levels can result in aggravation of the pancreas.

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