Pancreatitis is an unfamiliar condition to most pet owners, perhaps because the inflammatory condition often has no obvious cause, classic signs, a clear diagnosis, or a well-defined prevention plan. Instead, pancreatitis is a vague, sometimes confusing, aggressive condition that is only discussed when the sick pet is on the examination table.

Highlands Veterinary Hospital wants to change this by providing preemptive education about pancreatitis, and its behavior, so you can recognize this dangerous condition in your pet before it becomes an emergency.

The healthy pancreas in pets

The pancreas is an unremarkable-looking organ nestled under the stomach and alongside the small intestine. The pancreas produces and secretes digestive enzymes and blood sugar-regulating hormones (i.e., insulin, glucagon), as needed by the body. The digestive enzymes are the primary focus for pancreatitis, and are stored in an inactive state until released to the small intestine to help with food breakdown and fat digestion. The pancreas goes relatively unnoticed, unless inflammation (i.e., pancreatitis) occurs.

When good pancreases go bad—pancreatitis in pets

When the pancreas is inflamed, digestive enzymes are prematurely activated, and begin consuming the organ from inside (i.e., autodigestion). Dying pancreatic tissue releases toxic byproducts into circulation, triggering widespread inflammation. The enzymes escape to the abdominal cavity and bind to the nearby liver and kidney, where they continue to digest proteins and fats. At this stage, pancreatitis requires aggressive veterinary care, and may still result in kidney or liver failure, brain damage (i.e., pancreatic encephalopathy), and death.

Causes for pancreatitis in pets

At least 90 percent of pancreatitis cases in dogs and cats are idiopathic, meaning they have no determinable cause, and making predicting future flare-ups almost impossible. Veterinarians and pet owners can rely on only a few known contributing factors, including:

  • Dietary indiscretion — High-fat foods can trigger pancreatitis in dogs. 
  • Breed — Miniature schnauzers are disproportionately affected by pancreatitis, which may be hereditary, or because they have naturally elevated triglyceride levels. Cocker spaniels, Yorkshire terriers, poodles, and dachshunds are also high-risk breeds.
  • Age — Older pets are more commonly affected.
  • Body weight — Obese pets have an altered fat metabolism that makes them more likely to suffer pancreatitis.
  • Trauma — Blunt trauma to the pancreas can cause inflammation.
  • Other conditions — Concurrent diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, liver dysfunction, hypothyroidism, or diabetes can contribute.
  • Chronic medication use — Some long-term medications are linked to human pancreatitis, including certain chemotherapy, anti-seizure, and antibiotic drugs.

Pancreatitis signs in pets

Although pets with acute (i.e., sudden onset) pancreatitis are often visibly sick, their signs are somewhat generic, and can be dismissed by owners or misdiagnosed by veterinarians. Each pet varies in their presentation, but the most common pancreatitis signs are listed below. Sick pets may present with only one symptom, or several.

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Weakness
  • Appetite loss
  • Fever
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Abdominal pain (e.g., standing with a hunched back)
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Respiratory difficulty

Pets with chronic or subclinical pancreatitis may show less obvious, but gradually progressive, signs. Over time, pet owners notice changes in appetite, weight loss, poor condition, lethargy, and diarrhea.  

Pancreatitis treatment in pets

After a pancreatitis diagnosis—a process that usually involves a physical exam, blood work, and ultrasound imaging—most pets are hospitalized for treatment. Resolving pancreatitis relies on correcting the dehydration and electrolyte imbalance caused by vomiting and diarrhea. Intravenous fluids are given to restore proper blood flow to the pancreas, and expedite the toxin removal from damaged tissue, thereby decreasing pain, and allowing the body to repair and restore itself. 

Symptomatic and supportive care is provided to address nausea and pain, break the vomiting-dehydration cycle, and restore the pet’s appetite. Once the pet’s fever is reduced and their status improved, bland low-fat food is reintroduced to resume gastrointestinal motility, and normal digestion patterns. Dogs may need to remain on a strict, lifelong, low-fat diet, to prevent recurrence. Because no nutritional link is known in cats, they can return to their regular food after recovery. 

Pancreatitis prognosis in pets

Pets who are hospitalized soon after signs appear and respond well to treatment typically have good outcomes, while pets with a prolonged vomiting history, or indications of kidney or liver damage, have a poorer prognosis. In severe cases, pancreatitis may be unresolvable, despite aggressive therapy and close monitoring. 

Pets who survive acute pancreatitis are more likely to experience recurring or chronic pancreatitis. With every inflammatory event, pancreatic tissue is replaced by scar tissue until the organ can no longer effectively produce insulin and glucagon, resulting in diabetes mellitus. Enzymatic production is also affected, causing exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).

Pancreatitis prevention in pets

Because of its mostly idiopathic nature, pancreatitis is not a preventable condition. However, considering the risk factors described above, some ways to minimize your pet’s chances include:

  • Avoiding high-fat diets, or feeding your pet table scraps
  • Keeping your pet at a healthy body weight
  • Feeding your pet multiple small meals per day 
  • Providing regular exercise, to encourage healthy digestion and weight management
  • Maintaining your pet’s preventive care, to keep them in good health
  • Bringing your pet to Highlands Veterinary Hospital if you see any change in behavior, appetite, or health

For an ordinarily unobtrusive organ, the pancreas sure knows how to call attention to itself. But, knowing about its dark side can lower your pet’s risk for this all-consuming condition. For additional information about pancreatitis in pets, or to schedule an appointment for your pet, contact Highlands Veterinary Hospital.