Pancreatitis in Dogs

Pancreatitis in dogs is a serious condition, which may have no warning signs, and could be potentially devastating to your dog’s body. The best way to mitigate the harmful effects of this condition is to recognize the possible causes and early warning signs. If you notice any red flags, take your dog to the vet right away for the best chance of preventing permanent damage.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas is an organ located near the back of a dog’s midsection, on the right side of the stomach. It plays a vital role in converting nutrients into energy. The pancreas is unique in that it’s both an exocrine and endocrine gland and carries out both exocrine and endocrine functions.

Exocrine Function

The pancreatic exocrine gland plays a key role in digesting nutrients. When the food your dog eats travels to the small intestine, the pancreas releases enzymes that break food down into a state where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream. There are pancreatic enzymes that break down fat, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Lipase helps to break down fats into fatty acids.

Amylase helps to break carbohydrates down into glucose (blood sugar).

Protease enzymes (trypsin and chymotrypsin) help to break proteins down into amino acids.

These enzymes are normally produced in the pancreas in an inactive form, so they don’t start the digestion process until they get to the small intestine, which contains food that needs to be broken down. They become active when the protein-digesting enzyme, trypsin, is triggered by digestive fluid within the small intestine. When this happens, trypsin enzymes quickly trigger other trypsin enzymes, as well as the other digestive enzymes, to become active and begin digesting food within the safe space of the small intestine. Remember – these are powerful enzymes which, under normal circumstances, have critically important fail-safe methods to keep them from not digesting the wrong things!

Endocrine Function

The pancreatic endocrine gland releases hormones into the bloodstream to direct digested nutrients to the cells that can use them for repair, regeneration, and storage. The main hormones secreted by the pancreas are insulin and glucagon, which both regulate glucose (sugar) that circulates through the bloodstream.

Insulin helps to lower blood sugar.

Glucagon helps to raise blood sugar.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the pancreas. It may be mild to severe and is categorized as acute, in the case of sudden, damaging effects, or chronic, if the condition is long-term and milder.

Acute Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis in dogs occurs starting with the premature activation of trypsin within the pancreas. There are several ways in which this premature activation can occur, but the result of these digestive enzymes transforming into their active state is self-digestion of the pancreatic cells – not good!

Inflammation can spread throughout the pancreas and continue to spread through the bloodstream to other areas of the body, which may cause severe systemic inflammation. Many cases of acute pancreatitis in dogs are mild, but the outcome could become severe.

Chronic Pancreatitis

If a case of acute pancreatitis damages the pancreatic ducts, chronic pancreatitis may occur. It can also occur without noticeable symptoms. Chronic pancreatitis in dogs is an ongoing battle with inflammation, which can permanently damage your dog’s pancreas and other areas of the body.

If too many pancreatic endocrine cells are damaged, it can cause the pancreas to stop producing insulin and lead to diabetes. If too many exocrine cells are damaged, it can lead to an inability to digest food.

Causes of Pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis may seem to come out of nowhere, but there are several causes and risk factors associated with the condition. A major cause of acute pancreatitis is a high-fat diet, or even a single high-fat meal. For example, cases of pancreatitis among dogs in emergency veterinary clinics spike around the holidays, when many people give their dogs table scraps as a treat.

Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Endocrine disorders, like hypothyroidism
  • Blunt trauma
  • Preexisting diabetes
  • Certain medications
  • Possible genetic component, which affects miniature schnauzers and other toy and terrier breeds

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

It’s common for pancreatitis to progress because the symptoms may be subtle, especially since some dogs try to hide their pain. If there are noticeable symptoms, they may include:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Excessive thirst
  • Abdominal tenderness

There is a particular posture associated with pancreatitis – it is called the “praying position”. If you notice that your dog is hunched over, with his spine in an arched position and his head closer to the floor, and this posture is combined with any other symptoms, take him to the vet right away to get checked for evidence of pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis Diagnosis

Your vet may perform a series of tests to confirm a diagnosis of pancreatitis:

Signalment and history: Inventory of your dog’s breed, age, sex, weight, and reproductive status.

Complete blood count (CBC): A blood test to see if red and white blood cells, as well as platelet count, are within normal parameters.

Chemistry profile: A blood test for enzymes and chemicals that aims to identify if your dog’s organs, blood sugar, and enzymes are healthy.

Pancreas Lipase Immunoreactivity (PLI) test: A test for lipid levels, which is more sophisticated than the standard amylase/lipid test, which can help identify pancreatitis.

Radiograph (x-rays): Can help identify inflammatory damage and investigate other causes of the symptoms

Ultrasound: An imaging technique that uses ultrasonic sound waves to produce a picture of the pancreas.

Surgery: If the previous tests haven’t helped your vet reach a diagnosis, they may choose to perform exploratory surgery to see what the pancreas looks like, and possibly take samples, to identify the cause of your dog’s symptoms.

Treatment for Pancreatitis

The best treatment for pancreatitis depends on how severe the inflammation is. Pancreatitis can in some cases be mild, but in other cases it may be deadly. It is very possible your dog may need to stay one or more nights in hospital for more intensive treatment. Treatment for pancreatitis may include:

  • Antibiotics – even though pancreatitis is generally not caused by bacteria, damage and inflammation of the pancreas and surrounding organs may lead to secondary bacterial issues
  • IV fluids and hospitalization
  • Pain relief – we know from humans that pancreatitis is very painful
  • Surgery, in severe cases

Pancreatitis Prevention

Pancreatitis isn’t always preventable, but you can take steps to reduce the chances of it affecting your dog. Help your dog maintain a healthy weight and don’t feed them a high-fat diet. Avoid feeding them table scraps, even around the holidays. It doesn’t do them any favors.

If your dog is a high-risk breed, talk to your vet about what medications to avoid that could potentially put them at risk of developing pancreatitis. Feed your dog high-quality dog food that provides them with the nutrients he needs. If they have a known issue with digestive enzymes, ask your vet if enzyme supplements are worth consideration. If you notice any signs of pancreatitis, don’t hesitate to take your dog to the vet. They’ll thank you for it later.

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