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Pancreatitis in dogs

Pancreatitis is a common illness of dogs, and is defined as inflammation of the pancreas. Dogs can develop acute pancreatitis, which is a sudden onset of mild to intense clinical signs, or chronic pancreatitis, which develops when inflammation persists and is characterized by long-term effects.

What are normal pancreatic functions?

The pancreas is an L-shaped organ in your dog’s abdominal cavity located on the right side of the abdomen adjacent to the stomach. The pancreas is unique in that it acts as both an endocrine (i.e., ductless glands that produce hormones) and an exocrine (i.e., glands that contain ducts) organ, and performs the following functions:

  • Endocrine function — The endocrine tissue of the pancreas produces insulin and glucagon, two hormones that regulate blood glucose levels.
  • Exocrine function — Pancreatic exocrine tissue produces digestive enzymes, including amylase and lipase, which are secreted into the small intestine to break food down into basic nutrients that can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Why does pancreatitis occur?

Pancreatitis can occur for a number of reasons, although most cases are idiopathic, meaning that a specific cause is not identified. Many risk factors are associated with pancreatitis development in dogs, including:

  • Ingestion of a high-fat meal — Release of a surge of enzymes after a high-fat meal can cause pancreatic inflammation. A rise in pancreatitis cases is often observed after holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, when pets are treated to fatty leftovers.
  • Genetics — Breeds such as miniature schnauzers, cocker spaniels, poodles, dachshunds, Yorskire terriers, and sledding breeds have a higher incidence of pancreatitis.
  • High blood-triglyceride levels — High circulating cholesterol levels can stimulate the pancreas to release more digestive enzymes, which can trigger inflammation.
  • Trauma — Blunt trauma to the abdomen, such as injuries received when a pet is hit by a car, can incite pancreatic inflammation.
  • Additional Causes — Other endocrine diseases or ingestion of drugs or toxins can also attribute to this.

What are the signs of pancreatitis in dogs?

Pancreatitis can cause clinical signs, ranging from mild to severe, that may include:

  • Anorexia
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea

Mild pancreatitis cases may cause subtle clinical signs that are not obvious, whereas severe cases can be life-threatening.

How does pancreatitis cause more severe disease?

Pancreatitis causes premature activation of digestive enzymes that directly damage pancreatic tissue, causing swelling, inflammation, bleeding, and tissue death. This damage causes the production of inflammatory chemicals which, along with activated enzymes, circulate through the bloodstream to cause body-wide effects, such as:

  • Generalized inflammation
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which is characterized by blood clotting in the vessels, and is associated with a poor prognosis
  • Neurologic damage
  • Hypotension
  • Multi-organ failure

Pancreatitis’ potentially severe systemic effects, particularly organ failure and DIC, can cause death in some advanced cases.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed in dogs?

If a dog presents to a veterinarian with clinical signs consistent with pancreatitis, diagnostic tests may include:

  • Pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) — Serum PLI measurement is the most sensitive diagnostic test available for a pancreatitis diagnosis.
  • Complete blood count — A measurement of the various blood cell types can indicate inflammation.
  • Blood chemistry — A blood chemistry’s different components help your veterinarian evaluate general organ function, and can measure pancreatic enzyme levels.
  • X-rays — Although the pancreas is not visible on X-rays, general characteristics of the images can support a pancreatitis diagnosis and rule out other potential diagnoses.
  • Ultrasound — Visualization of the pancreas can help a veterinarian see organ enlargement and fluid accumulation that can indicate pancreatitis.

How is pancreatitis treated in dogs?

Most pancreatitis cases require hospitalization with aggressive monitoring. The significant inflammation and systemic effects caused by pancreatitis require a number of treatments and medications to manage clinical signs and potentially devastating effects, and may include:

  • Intravenous fluids to correct dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea
  • Medications to control nausea and vomiting
  • Medications to control abdominal pain
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce pancreatic and system inflammation
  • Antibiotics
  • Nutritional support
  • Plasma transfusions
  • Stringent monitoring for systemic complications
  • Treatment of any systemic complications

What are the possible outcomes of pancreatitis treatment?

Most dogs with pancreatitis make a full recovery. After several days of hospitalization, if the pet is improving and able to hold food down, they can typically finish treatments at home. Dogs are fed a bland diet during recovery, with a gradual return to normal food, with possible long-term fat restriction.

Severe cases that cause significant pancreatic necrosis can result in scar tissue formation and loss of pancreatic endocrine and exocrine function. Two conditions that are possible consequences of a severe bout of pancreatitis include:

  • Diabetes mellitus — Loss of pancreatic endocrine function can result in insufficient insulin production. Without adequate insulin, glucose from digested food cannot be taken into cells to produce energy for the body’s functions.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) — Loss of exocrine pancreatic function causes inadequate digestive enzyme production. In particular, affected dogs have difficulty breaking down fats, and enzyme supplements are required for proper digestion.

Although most cases do not advance to this point, death is a possibility, and a critical reason for early, aggressive treatment.

A pet’s sudden illness cannot be predicted, and few people are financially prepared for a large hospital bill. Diagnostic testing, hospitalization, intensive monitoring, and treatment for pancreatitis can quickly become costly. If your dog is covered by a Trupanion pet health insurance policy, you can focus on their recovery instead of the expense of their treatment.

We love informed decisions. See our policy for full coverage details.