Pancreatitis in Dogs and Cats

You may think of the pancreas as an organ responsible for producing insulin, the hormone that drives sugar into our cells. This sugar, in turn, gives the cells the energy to carry out their normal functions. The pancreas also has a second responsibility; it creates and secretes digestive enzymes, which help break down food in the intestines. Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed, causing these digestive enzymes to leak out of the pancreas and into the surrounding tissue. In the following article, I will discuss pancreatitis in dogs and cats and the diagnostic and treatment options available.

The pancreas is a unique organ in that it has both endocrine and exocrine function. This means that it both produces hormones and produces substances sent out through ducts in the body rather than through the blood directly. Pancreatitis occurs when an acute insult to the pancreas results in inflammation and disruption to the digestive or glandular activities. This disruption can result in leakage of very caustic digestive enzymes from the pancreas into the surrounding tissues. Pancreatitis is thought to be very painful to affected dogs, although cats may be asymptomatic.

What are the signs my dog may have pancreatitis? Vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and a painful belly or fever are all classic signs associated with this condition. Affected dogs may be very reluctant to eat or sensitive when being picked up. In some cases, this discomfort may cause lethargy, and your pet may not be as active or playful as usual.

While the exact cause of pancreatitis is unknown, several suspected risk factors may predispose a pet to pancreatitis. One such risk factor occurs when dogs on a regulated diet eat a single, high-fat meal—for example, dogs who live strictly on dog food suddenly and unexpectedly get into the trash. In this scenario, the pet’s pancreas is overwhelmed by the meal’s high-fat content, which leads to inflammation and leakage of enzymes.

There may also be a connection between other pancreatic conditions and the onset of pancreatitis.  Diabetes, for example, is a disease of the pancreas that may predispose a pet to an increased risk. Additionally, hypothyroid disease and conditions leading to higher calcium levels in the blood may be linked to pancreatitis. Certain drugs or medications may also increase the risk of developing pancreatitis. Trauma, tumors, and even genetics may also play a role. Miniature Schnauzers have a higher incidence of pancreatitis than other breeds.

To diagnose pancreatitis, certain blood tests or imaging are recommended. Your veterinarian may recommend pancreatic-specific blood tests if they suspect your pet may be affected. X-rays and ultrasounds can also be used to image the pancreas and look for evidence of inflammation or insult. It should be noted that obtaining a diagnosis of pancreatitis by x-ray is more difficult, and studies have shown ultrasound to be a superior method of diagnosis.

Treatment for pancreatitis varies based on the severity of the condition and its underlying cause. Some pancreatitis cases are milder in presentation, and diet modification, pain control, and antibiotics when appropriate may be sufficient to get your pet well again. However, pancreatitis cases can range from mild to life-threatening and severe cases may warrant hospitalization and advanced treatment options to address.

If you think your pet has pancreatitis or is displaying any G.I disease symptoms, please call one of our Veterinary Hospitals to schedule an appointment with one of our doctors. With the right tests and treatment, many patients with pancreatitis do recover very well and lead happy, healthy lives.

Jeffrey Stupine V.M.D.

Medical Director

World of Animals Veterinary Hospitals