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What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?
Pancreatitis in dogs is usually painful, and symptoms range from mild to life-threatening. Pancreatitis usually happens quickly, but sometimes it happens over weeks to months. Recognizing the signs of pancreatitis in dogs is essential for all dog owners because it can be severe and often requires veterinary care.
What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?
There are many causes of pancreatitis in dogs. Additionally, several risk factors, such as breed, weight, or other underlying diseases, can contribute to a dog’s risk of developing pancreatitis.
Possible causes and risk factors include:
- Dietary indiscretion. This term refers to anything your dog eats that differs from its regular diet. Common examples include people food, garbage, or an animal carcass.
- Eating a high-fat diet
- Prescription medications include anti-seizure medications (potassium bromide, phenobarbitol), chemotherapy drugs (azathioprine L-asparaginase), and an antibiotic called trimethoprim sulfa.
- Toxin exposure to insecticides, zinc, or chocolate
- Infection from bacteria, viruses, or parasites
- Cancer that originates from or has spread to the pancreas
- Trauma to the abdomen from an event such as a car accident or falling from a high place
An inherited disease called Hypertriglyceridemia causes an issue in fat metabolism
Any breed can develop pancreatitis, but certain breeds have a higher risk, including miniature schnauzers, Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, poodles, Bichon Frise, and Shetland sheepdogs
Dogs with hypothyroidism, diabetes mellitus, or Cushing’s disease (hyperadrenocorticism) are thought to have a greater chance of having pancreatitis
Since dogs have so many causes and risk factors for pancreatitis, it can be challenging to know what causes a specific case of pancreatitis. Often, pancreatitis is “idiopathic,” meaning we do not know precisely what causes it.
What are The Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs?
Pancreatitis can happen suddenly (acute pancreatitis) or over weeks to months (chronic pancreatitis). The symptoms of acute pancreatitis start quickly and are usually more severe than chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs include:
- Repeated episodes of vomiting
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal pain – when dogs have pain in their abdomen near their stomach, they can shake/tremble, repeatedly do a full body stretch similar to the “downward dog” yoga pose, vocalize, or act like they cannot lay down for long periods.
- Weakness and lethargy
Dogs with pancreatitis do not usually experience all these symptoms. They may just have one or two.
How is Pancreatitis Diagnosed in Dogs?
One specific test to diagnose pancreatitis does not exist. Your veterinarian will use a combination of diagnostic tests and other factors to make a diagnosis of pancreatitis, such as:
- Current and past medical history
- Physical examination
- Abdominal x-rays to ensure there are no other reasons for vomiting, such as intestinal blockage
- Blood work to investigate for elevated pancreatic enzymes (amylase and lipase), elevated white blood cells, and other abnormalities
- A specific blood test called cPL, which many veterinarians can perform in the hospital during an appointment.
- Fine needle aspirate of the pancreas (less commonly performed)
- Abdominal ultrasound, currently one of the most accurate ways to diagnose pancreatitis
How is Pancreatitis Treated in Dogs?
The treatment for pancreatitis is supportive, meaning there is not one medication that cures it. Mild cases of pancreatitis are usually treated on an outpatient basis, but severe cases require hospitalization. The goal of treatment is to correct life-threatening dehydration and to treat pain and nausea while the pancreas recovers.
Treatment options include:
- Fluid administration via IV or under the skin (subcutaneous)
- Anti-nausea medication, including maropitant and ondansetron
- Pain medication such as gabapentin or opioids
- Gastric acid suppression medications such as famotidine or omeprazole
- Feeding a low-fat diet (i.e., Hills I/d Low Fat)
- Feedings tubes for dogs that will not eat
The FDA conditionally approved a medication called Panoquell in 2022 to treat pancreatitis in dogs. At the time of writing, this new medication is not yet widely used. However, it could revolutionize the way pancreatitis is treated in dogs in the future.
How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis is not always preventable because often, we do now know what caused it. However, being diligent about not letting your dog eat things they shouldn’t, such as high-fat people food, and keeping them from getting into the garbage will lessen the chance of your dog developing pancreatitis.
Cushing’s Disease and Pancreatitis
Hyperadrenocorticism, otherwise known as Cushing’s disease, is a common illness in older animals. Cushing’s disease, along with hypothyroidism and diabetes mellitus, are believed to be risk factors for developing pancreatitis in dogs.
Recent research and the availability of new diagnostic tests show that dogs with Cushing’s disease have blood work values consistent with pancreatitis, although they do not show symptoms of pancreatitis.
Even though these dogs do not have symptoms of pancreatitis, their pancreases still show significant damage on a microscopic level.
While more research is needed, this could have substantial health implications for dogs with Cushing’s disease and change the way Cushing’s disease is treated in the future.
Yes, most dogs recover from pancreatitis with veterinary care. However, once a dog has pancreatitis one time, they are more prone to getting it again in the future.
Acute pancreatitis is more painful, and the symptoms are more severe than chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis happens very suddenly, leading to life-threatening dehydration and whole-body inflammation.
Almost all dogs with mild symptoms of pancreatitis will recover. Acute pancreatitis, patients with severe symptoms, or patients who receive care too long after their symptoms have started have a mortality rate of about 40%.