Pancreatitis in Dogs

Miniature Schnauzer resting head on pillow and looking at the camera

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The pancreas is an organ within your dog's abdomen that has a vital exocrine function: creating and excreting enzymes used for the digestion of food. It also has important endocrine functions: creating and excreting insulin and other hormones into the bloodstream to help regulate blood sugar. The digestive enzymes are usually stored in an inactive form, but certain triggers can activate them within the pancreas and cause leakage into the surrounding tissues. This results in a painful condition called pancreatitis, which can leave your dog feeling lethargic with a lack of appetite.

What is Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. It can occur in any dog, regardless of age, sex, or breed, although some breeds, including miniature schnauzers and terriers, are at a higher risk for it. It can occur acutely, but some dogs may suffer from relapsing, or chronic pancreatitis. Acute versus chronic cannot be definitively differentiated based on clinical signs, but generally acute pancreatitis has more severe symptoms. Chronic flare-ups can result in scarring of the pancreas.

Scarring of the pancreas can result in loss of both the endocrine and exocrine function of the organ. The loss of endocrine hormone production can be a cause of diabetes in dogs, while the loss of digestive enzyme production can result in exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) if over 90% of exocrine function is lost.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Since the pancreas is vital in food digestion, a lot of the symptoms can be GI symptoms.

Symptoms

Vomiting

Diarrhea

Dehydration

Hunched Back/Painful Abdomen

Loss of Appetite

Lethargy

Fever

Vomiting & Diarrhea

Given the role the pancreas has in aiding food digestion and its location against the stomach and first part of the intestines, any disruption can cause the hallmark GI symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea.

Dehydration

This stems from any vomiting or diarrhea that may be present. Even if a dog with pancreatitis is still drinking water, it's losing fluids in its vomit and stool faster than it's replenishing them.

Abdominal Pain

Again, pancreatitis is painful and a lot of the symptoms of pancreatitis stem from this problem. A dog with pancreatitis may tense its abdomen, hunch its back, or stretch out its belly in a bowing posture in order to try to relieve its discomfort.

Loss of Appetite/Lethargy

A dog with pancreatitis may stop eating and may lay around more because they feel uncomfortable.

Causes of Pancreatitis

The majority of pancreatitis cases are caused by dietary indiscretion, which is a nice way of saying that a dog got into foods they shouldn't have. Chronic pancreatitis is usually the result of comorbidities, that is the presence of certain other diseases.

  • High Fat Diets/Foods
  • Dietary Indiscretion
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Major Trauma
  • Pancreatic Tumors
  • Certain Medications

While some dogs may be sensitive to higher fat commercial dog foods, food intended for humans tends to be more of the issue here. The term "high fat" may conjure up images of cookies, pastry, and other desserts, but that's not the only fatty food to worry about. Savory foods, such as casseroles, gravies, sauces, and even some proteins like ham and other pork products can bring on a bout of pancreatitis.

Since the pancreas has a vital role in insulin production and regulation, any issue with that function can make a dog more susceptible to pancreatitis.

Some anti-convulsants, including Potassium Bromide and Phenobarbital, can predispose a dog to pancreatitis. Certain diuretics, including hydrochlorothiazide and chlorothiazide can also predispose a dog to pancreatitis.

Miniature schnauzers have a predisposition for an elevation in the triglycerides in their blood. While how this biochemically predisposes a dog to pancreatitis isn't well understood, it's well documented that high blood triglycerides is common in miniature schnauzers with pancreatitis.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Dogs

Since dietary indiscretion is the most common cause of acute pancreatitis in dogs, a suspect diagnosis can be made based on the history of the dog. Did a dog get into the kitchen trash a day or two before their symptoms? Pancreatitis would be the likely culprit. A definitive diagnosis can only be made with surgery, but other diagnostics, including abdominal x-rays, ultrasound, and blood work can rule out other illnesses that can cause similar symptoms and strengthen the suspicion of pancreatitis.

Treatment of Pancreatitis in Dogs

There's no one medication or treatment that can heal pancreatitis. Rather, treatment involves a variety of supportive therapies. Fluid therapy, ideally intravenous, anti-vomiting and anti-nausea medications, appropriate dietary support, and other GI protectants can help soothe symptoms and resolve inflammation. A diabetic dog with pancreatitis may require more aggressive treatment.

Prognosis for Dogs with Pancreatitis

A dog's prognosis depends on a few things. How severe is it when it's first diagnosed? How do they respond to the initial treatments? Is the dog diabetic? All of these can effect the prognosis. Most of the mild forms of pancreatitis that are treated aggressively have a good prognosis.

How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs

Because most cases of acute pancreatitis are induced by dietary indiscretion and high fat foods, prevention can be as simple as limiting the amount of table scraps your dog has access to. Some dogs might be able to open a cupboard or pantry doors or be crafty enough to figure out how to counter surf and require more vigilance.

You can set your you and your dog up for success by installing child locks on cabinet doors or putting food and snacks where you dog simply won't be able to get to them.

Pancreatitis can be a painful, sometimes even life-threatening illness for you dog. If you have concerns about your dog's risk of pancreatitis and its complications, speak to your veterinarian.

Article Sources
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  1. Hot Literature: What’s the relationship between hypertriglyceridemia and pancreatitis in miniature schnauzers? DVM 360.