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Pancreatitis in Dogs

Pancreatitis means inflammation of the exocrine pancreas. This happens when the digestive enzymes secreted by the pancreas begin to act before they reach their intended site of action in the small intestine and start to digest the pancreas itself.

Pancreatitis means inflammation of the exocrine pancreas.

There are two main types of pancreatitis and we class these as acute and chronic. While both acute and chronic pancreatitis can cause a spectrum of disease, from virtually undetectable to life-threatening, chronic pancreatitis tends uncommonly to be associated with severe symptoms.

A dog with acute pancreatitis normally shows clear and, occasionally, severe signs of abdominal discomfort or gastrointestinal upset, such as vomiting and diarrhoea. Sometimes, additional body systems are affected and, in some cases, there may be life-threatening or even fatal complications.

Chronic pancreatitis is a long-term condition and grumbles along. In dogs with chronic pancreatitis, there may be periods of more obvious unwellness and acute flare-ups. Owners often feel their dog is ‘just not quite right’, but they may not even realise anything is wrong at all.

It is possible for dogs with acute pancreatitis to make a complete recovery. In chronic pancreatitis, however, changes within the pancreas progress and may eventually lead to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) or even diabetes mellitus (DM) as more of the functional pancreatic tissue is affected by permanent changes or destruction.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Your vet will examine your dog, your dog's history and ask you questions about their recent management and activities. 

Chronic pancreatitis will be on your vet’s list of possible diagnoses if your dog has a history of gastrointestinal symptoms, such as vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss and lack of appetite. 

To get a definitive diagnosis, many clinics can run a blood test that shows quickly whether a dog has pancreatitis or not, or whether they are on the borderline and need a further, laboratory-based test on the sample. No test can be 100% accurate and, while this test is likely to identify most dogs with acute pancreatitis, it may not pick up every mild or chronic case and it could show a positive result with certain problems affecting the small intestine.

Sometimes, further blood tests and imaging, for instance, ultrasound scanning, are used to gather more information about dogs who could have, or who have already been diagnosed with pancreatitis.

If you’re concerned that your dog may have pancreatitis, it’s important that their vet examines them as soon as possible. In many cases, a dog who is off-colour or who has vomiting or diarrhoea, has picked up a tummy bug or eaten something unpleasant and will be back to normal very soon with symptomatic or dietary management. However, it’s better to get them checked than to miss something more serious.

Treatment of pancreatitis in dogs

There is no specific treatment for canine pancreatitis, so the aims are to support the dog while the inflammation subsides. Therapy is targeted at controlling pain (which may be extreme), reducing nausea and vomiting, replacing lost fluids and correcting electrolyte imbalances, maintaining blood pressure and providing nutrition.

In milder cases, dogs with pancreatitis can be managed at home. Others may need to be hospitalised so they can be monitored closely and be given intravenous fluids and medication. In severe cases, dogs may require a high level of care, comparable with that provided in human intensive therapy wards.

Dogs with chronic pancreatitis are usually managed at home, using diet, supplements and oral medication, where appropriate. When they have acute flare-ups, they will need to be treated in the same way as dogs with acute pancreatitis.

Feeding a dog with pancreatitis

Often, dogs with acute pancreatitis will recover fully and there will be no lasting damage to the pancreas. In this case, many dogs can transition gradually back to an appropriate diet for their age and lifestyle over time. Your vet team can support you with this.

It’s important to remember that you’ll need to manage your dog’s diet carefully going forward. Many of the risk factors for pancreatitis can be avoided, so you’ll need to ensure that your dog maintains a healthy body condition score, keeps to a regular diet without any sudden changes and doesn’t have access to human food scraps or other scavenging opportunities.

Dogs with chronic pancreatitis have permanent and progressive changes within their pancreas, so they normally need to be fed and managed differently. Food for a dog with chronic pancreatitis must be highly digestible, which means that a high proportion of the food can be absorbed rather than passing out as faeces. Dogs with chronic pancreatitis often have other conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and these also require appropriate dietary support. These dogs will require adequate but not excessive dietary protein. The recommended dietary protein level is 15-30%.

Many vets recommend that fat levels in the diet should be controlled. For most dogs with chronic pancreatitis, a diet with lower than 15% fat by dry matter is often recommended.  Being overweight and having high levels of fat in the blood are recognised risk factors for canine pancreatitis so, for dogs in these categories, a diet with less than 10% fat may be recommended until body condition and fat levels in the blood return to normal. It’s important not to feed a fat-free diet to dogs as some nutrients can only be absorbed in the presence of fats and oils.

Moist foods, especially if they have been warmed slightly to somewhere between room temperature and body temperature, are ideal for dogs with pancreatitis, as they clear from the stomach relatively quickly. Getting food through the stomach and into the intestines as soon as possible is helpful.

The best food for a dog with pancreatitis provides essential nutrients, is highly digestible, fat-restricted and relatively low in protein. It must also be palatable. Your vet can recommend foods designed to provide pancreatitis patients with balanced nutrition and to help prevent recurrence.

Remember that treats, dietary changes and scraps can trigger or exacerbate pancreatitis. If your dog has been diagnosed with the condition, you’ll need to think about treats in the same way as any other food from now on and only give low fat, relatively low protein ones in moderation. Check with your vet whether it’s okay to begin giving treats again and, if so, what types can be fed.

FAQs

The wide spectrum of severity and the different types of canine pancreatitis mean that the condition could shorten a dog’s life but may not affect it at all.

Many dogs who get acute pancreatitis recover completely and go on to live a normal life, while some of those who suffer a severe episode may not survive it, either because their pain and symptoms are poorly responsive to therapy or because they develop complications.

Dogs who have chronic pancreatitis can reach an average age for their breed if they are managed carefully and either don’t develop secondary conditions or, if they do, respond well to treatment and remain stable. 

The cost of treating and managing a dog with pancreatitis varies. If a dog has mild, acute pancreatitis and can be managed at home with check-up visits to their vet until they are well, the costs will be limited to those incurred by the initial visit, diagnostics and treatment, then follow-up monitoring, medications and temporary diet.

More severe acute pancreatitis may involve all the above, but it is very likely that a dog with severe pancreatitis will need hospitalisation for intravenous fluids, pain management and medication. If they respond well, they may only require this level of treatment for a day or two. If, however, they develop complications or require intensive therapy in a critical care facility, the costs can escalate quickly and, ultimately, even the highest level of treatment can sometimes be unsuccessful.

Vets will offer all possible care options and decisions taken will be influenced by clinical factors, such as the severity of illness, other conditions the dog may already have, the likelihood of a given outcome and the cost. 

Chronic pancreatitis is a lifelong condition and, much of the time, it may lead to no additional expenditure over that which a healthy dog would incur. From time to time, there can be acute flare-ups which require management as above. 

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