You may be tempted to share your favorite food with your pleading pet, but this habit puts your pet at greater risk for developing pancreatitis. This condition is extremely painful, and can have life-threatening consequences for your four-legged friend. Our team at Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital wants to inform you about this dangerous disease, so you can protect your pet.

What is pancreatitis in pets?

The pancreas is a small organ located between the stomach and the intestinal tract. This organ has two parts, which function to maintain your pet’s health.

  • Endocrine pancreas — This part produces numerous hormones, including insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood sugar levels. When the endocrine pancreas does not function properly, the most common problem is diabetes mellitus. This is caused by decreased insulin production, resulting in elevated blood sugar levels.
  • Exocrine pancreas — This part produces enzymes that are delivered to the intestinal tract to help digest fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. When functioning normally, these enzymes become active only when they reach the small intestine. If these enzymes are activated prematurely, they can cause damage and inflammation to the pancreas, and the surrounding tissue, which is called pancreatitis.

What causes pancreatitis in pets?

Many situations and issues can lead to pancreatitis. These include:

  • High-fat diet — High-fat diets contribute to pancreatitis, and offering high-fat foods to your pet can increase their risk. Pancreatitis cases increase during holidays, because people tend to share the decadent food with their pet. 
  • Garbage — Some pets are notorious for raiding the garbage can, and this practice can lead to pancreatitis, if they ingest a triggering food.
  • Infection — Certain infectious diseases, such as toxoplasmosis in cats, has been linked to pancreatitis.
  • Obesity — Overweight pets are at higher risk for developing pancreatitis.
  • Predisposed breeds — Certain breeds, including miniature schnauzers and cocker spaniels, are at increased pancreatitis risk.

What signs indicate pancreatitis in pets?

Pets can be affected by pancreatitis acutely, or chronically. Pets who experience acute pancreatitis typically have more serious signs, including severe lethargy, abdominal pain, persistent vomiting, severe dehydration, and collapse. Pets who have chronic pancreatitis usually exhibit signs including lethargy, decreased appetite, abdominal pain, and vomiting. A hunched posture can indicate that your pet’s abdomen is painful.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed in pets?

Diagnosing pancreatitis can be difficult, because the signs are generalized. Our veterinary professionals will consider several factors:

  • History — We will take a thorough medical history, and you should let our veterinarians know if your dog recently ate a high-fat meal, or ate garbage. We will not judge you, and this information will help us diagnose your pet more quickly.
  • Physical examination — We will evaluate your pet’s temperature, heart, lungs, gums, and abdomen, and note their weight and breed.
  • Blood tests — We will measure your pet’s pancreatic enzymes, such as amylase and lipase, and may need more specific blood tests if these enzymes are elevated. Blood tests can also be helpful, to assess your pet’s dehydration status.
  • Radiographs — Abdominal radiographs can help rule out other issues that may cause similar signs, such as gastrointestinal obstruction.
  • Ultrasound — Ultrasonography can be used to visualize the pancreas, but unless the condition is severe enough to cause abnormal tissue, this imaging technique may not be definitive.

How is pancreatitis treated in pets?

Treatment is primarily supportive, since no cure exists for pancreatitis. Treatment will depend on your pet’s disease severity.

  • Severe pancreatitis — Patients affected by severe pancreatitis are often critical, and may require 24-hour care. They typically need treatment for several days or weeks that includes intensive intravenous fluids and electrolyte support, pain medications, anti-nausea medications, stomach protectants, nutritional support, and, in some cases, antibiotics.
  • Mild to moderate pancreatitis — Patients affected by mild to moderate pancreatitis typically recover in one to two weeks. They may require hospitalization for one to three days, or they may be managed at home. Treatments include anti-nausea medications, pain medications, stomach protectants, and a bland, low-fat diet.

What is the prognosis for pancreatitis in pets?

Pets affected by severe pancreatitis have an overall poor prognosis, and conditions such as pancreatic abscess formation and peritonitis can contribute to their risk. If your pet survives a pancreatitis episode, they are at higher risk for a recurrent episode. They are also at risk for developing diabetes mellitus and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which occur when the pancreas cannot produce sufficient digestive enzymes. Management steps to help prevent pancreatitis from recurring include:

  • People food — Table scraps are strictly forbidden, if your pet has recovered from pancreatitis.
  • Prescription diet — Prescription diets that support the gastrointestinal tract, and are low- or ultra-low fat, may be recommended.
  • Portions — Smaller, more frequent meals are preferable.
  • Monitoring — Your pet’s pancreatic enzymes should be monitored frequently.

Pancreatitis is a concerning condition, and while not all cases can be prevented, refraining from giving your pet table scraps, maintaining an ideal weight, and keeping them out of the garbage can help decrease their risk. If you are concerned your pet may be affected by pancreatitis, contact Kennedy Heights Animal and Bird Hospital, so we can relieve their suffering.