Pancreatitis is a painful abdominal condition that can be life-threatening. Typically, pancreatitis is referred to either as acute or chronic in dogs, depending on how long the symptoms of discomfort and vomiting have been present. Although the causes of pancreatitis are not well understood, miniature schnauzers and a few other breeds are more prone to developing this inflammatory problem. Without treatment, it can be fatal.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, an abdominal organ that sits next to the stomach. Normally, it assists in the digestive process by producing various enzymes and it also secretes hormones that help regulate insulin. If the pancreas becomes inflamed, then secondary problems may occur due to its malfunctioning, including gallbladder, liver, and intestinal disorders.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs
The signs of pancreatitis involve the abdomen but are generally non-specific and resemble other problems with the gastrointestinal system. These include:
If your dog has abdominal or belly pain, it may whine, howl, attempt to run away, or exhibit aggressive behavior if you try to pick it up. Or, it may seem to have difficulty getting comfortable when lying down. It also may appear to have a hunched back, and your veterinarian will also be able to feel your dog tense up during a physical examination if there is a sensitive or painful spot when feeling your dog's belly.
Since pancreatitis affects the pancreas and the pancreas plays an important part in digestion, dogs with acute pancreatitis often develop diarrhea or have intermittent bouts if they have chronic pancreatitis, and diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration.
If an acute pancreatitis attack is severe enough, or symptoms of pancreatitis are ignored long enough, it can be fatal to a dog.
Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis occurs when its digestive enzymes are "activated" before reaching the small intestine, where they are supposed to begin digesting food. If these enzymes begin their digestive action too early, then they can break down the tissue of the pancreas, creating inflammation—in effect the pancreas begins digesting itself.
The exact cause of pancreatitis is not always known, but veterinarians suggest that certain factors may be involved, including:
- A new diet (especially one that is introduced too quickly)
- A high-fat food
- Overeating or eating too much at one time
- Toxic food or chemical ingestion
Miniature schnauzers are particularly susceptible to pancreatitis, as well as other terriers, poodles, and cocker spaniels.
Diagnosing Pancreatitis in Dogs
Pancreatitis in dogs is diagnosed by a veterinarian who will observe physical symptoms and perform a physical examination in addition to running some laboratory tests.
Tests may include checking your dog's white blood cell and red blood cell counts as well as organ function tests and a specific test called a canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test (cPLI). X-rays and an ultrasound may also be recommended.
Veterinary treatment is needed if a dog has acute pancreatitis. To allow the pancreas to rest and heal, IV fluid therapy will be necessary. Most dogs will be hospitalized for several days while these treatments are being administered. Overall, your vet will focus on correcting dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, addressing nausea and pain, and encouraging nutrient absorption.
If your dog has chronic pancreatitis (common in miniature schnauzers), it may occasionally experience flare-ups of pancreatitis symptoms. Some of these flare-ups may be bad enough that veterinary intervention is needed.
At-home supportive care includes managing vomiting, syringing fluids, and administering oral medications. Chronic pancreatitis is thought to be much more common than is diagnosed.
Prognosis for Dogs with Pancreatitis
With attentive management, most dogs with chronic pancreatitis can live happy, healthy lives except for occasional flare-ups. Acute cases of pancreatitis are more dangerous and require prompt veterinary intervention. Untreated, a dog with an acute attack can die.
How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs
To decrease the likelihood of acute pancreatitis or chronic flares, some common preventative measures include:
- Low-fat diet
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplements
- Feeding several small meals throughout the day
- Healthy weight management
Pancreatitis in Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Watson, P J et al. Prevalence and breed distribution of chronic pancreatitis at post-mortem examination in first-opinion dogs. The Journal of small animal practice vol. 48,11 (2007): 609-18. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5827.2007.00448.x