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Pancreatitis in dogs is the inflammation of the dog's pancreas, an organ known for carrying out several important functions in the dog's body. 

Affected dogs may develop acute and chronic forms of pancreatitis with the clinical signs ranging from mild to even very severe. 

Prompt veterinary treatment is important so to provide supportive care and allow the dog's pancreas to properly heal.

 Following is some information on pancreatitis in dogs presented by veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec.

 Pancreas of a dog. Alveolus in the illustration refers to the acinar cells which form circular clusters and produce pancreatic enzymes needed for digestion of food. Source: 1918 Anatomy of the Human Body

Pancreas of a dog. Alveolus in the illustration refers to the acinar cells which form circular clusters and produce pancreatic enzymes needed for digestion of food. Source: 1918 Anatomy of the Human Body

Pancreatitis in Dogs

When your dog eats, food is mechanically digested in the stomach, then it passes into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestines), where chemical digestion takes place.

This process depends on a supply of enzymes, which break down the food into substances that the body cells can use.

Most of these enzymes are manufactured in the pancreas. They are powerful and capable of breaking down protein, fat and carbohydrates.

A lack of these enzymes leads to poor digestion and malabsorption conditions. The enzymes are supposed to seep through the pancreatic duct directly into the small intestine. If they escape into any other areas, they cause intense, painful inflammation.

In addition to its digestive function, the pancreas secretes various hormones, including insulin, into the bloodstream.

Unfortunately, a variety of problems may affect the pancreas. The most common problem is inflammation of the pancreas, medically referred to as pancreatitis.

Once the pancreas becomes inflamed, its digestive enzymes, which should normally be inactive until they reach the small intestine, become active while still in the pancreas.

 As a result of their activity within the pancreatic tissue, pain and swelling develops. This is because, simply put, the pancreas actually begins to digest itself. This definition is more suitable for describing the acute form of the disease.

On the other hand, chronic pancreatitis is characterized by an impaired or completely lost ability of secreting digestive enzymes. However, the symptoms do not become apparent until 85 to 90 percent of the pancreas is shut down.

Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Dog with stomach cancer not eating

Eating a high-fat, low-protein diet can trigger a bout of pancreatitis in dogs.

The exact causes of pancreatitis remain a mystery. However, it has been shown that there is a direct relationship between the severity of the pancreatic attacks and a high-fat, low-protein diet. 

Even if a dog does not normally eat a high-fat diet, introducing a larger amount of fatty food all at once is likely to initiate a pancreatitis episode.

There is also evidence that certain drugs, including corticosteroids, diuretics and some ulcer-healing drugs (such as cimetidine), are associated with it.

It is an interesting fact that pancreatitis is particularly common among overweight, middle-aged, female dogs. 

This is because obesity, which affects females more than males, is thought to be the major risk factor for the disorder. 

Another predisposing factor is the sugar diabetes which is also more likely to develop in overweight females.

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It should also be noted that although pancreatitis can develop in any dog breed, the condition is particularly common in certain breeds like Miniature Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels and West Highland White Terriers.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs

The symptoms of pancreatitis vary depending on whether the condition is acute or chronic. While the acute manifestation is particularly painful, in chronic cases, most of the clinical signs involve the intestines.

Once the pancreatitis develops, the damage to the pancreatic duct may cause enzyme seepage and painful inflammation in of the surrounding tissues.

Generally speaking, an acute pancreatitis episode manifests with several digestive signs such as loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain, swollen or tucked up abdomen, abnormal posture – arching of the back or a so-called "play-bow’’ position (the dog drops its front half but it is reluctant to drop its hind quarters), diarrhea, vomiting, lethargy or restlessness, fever, gagging.

Patients with chronic pancreatitis show the following symptoms: yellowy-grey and oily diarrhea, weight loss, increased appetite, poor hair quality, flatulence, coprophagia (eating poop).

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At the Vet's Office 

After taking a thorough history and performing a systemic physical examination, the vet is likely to suggest some more sensitive and specific diagnostic procedures.

 X-rays and abdominal ultrasounds may show anatomical changes to the pancreas and duodenum. 

Due to the inflammation, the blood analysis typically shows higher levels of white blood cells and increased activity of liver and pancreas enzymes.

Unlike in people, when managing pancreatitis in dogs, antibiotics are rarely used in the treatment of pancreatitis. 

Pancreatitis treatment is based on three important cornerstones: 

1) alleviating and controlling the pain –usually through the administration of strong analgesics and anti-inflammatory via intravenous route

 2) overcoming the effects of shock – usually through use of corticosteroids and aggressive doses of intravenous fluids, as well as symptomatic, supportive and intensive care

3) reducing the pancreatic activity – this is achieved by resting the pancreas which means no food, no water and no pain medications by mouth.

This latter fasting period should last for at least 24 hours but the recommended duration is 3 days. The aim is to decrease the burden on the pancreas. 

Dogs that are fed sooner are more likely to have relapses. Recent studies show that introducing enteral nutrition in the early phase can be beneficial – it eases the recovery and does not result in postprandial pain and discomfort. 

This is because when introducing food directly into the intestines, the pancreas is bypassed and thus not burdened.

It is highly recommended to have all canine patients with pancreatitis hospitalized until fully stable and pain-free. Additionally having the patient fast is much easier in a hospital environment. Once the fasting period is over and the dog is stable it can be sent home.

After the fasting period, future meals should be small but offered often, usually up to 5 times a day. The meals should be highly digestible and particularly rich in fresh protein (ideally up to 25 percent), extremely low in fat (less than 5 percent) and low in carbohydrates (less than 5 percent). Regular dry and canned foods, as well as pet store treats are definitely forbidden.

Prognosis of Pancreatitis in Dogs

The prognosis depends on how quickly the diagnosis was set and how promptly adequate medical treatment was initiated. It also depends on the disease’s course – whether it is an acute or chronic episode.

Although more serious in its onset and demanding when it comes to the aggressiveness of the treatment, the acute pancreatitis has a better prognosis. On the other hand, chronic pancreatitis requires lifelong medication, a special diet and exercise regimens.

However, it should be well noted, that, without appropriate veterinary attention, pancreatitis cannot resolve on its own. The best way to prevent pancreatitis is by giving your dog a low-fat diet and avoiding fatty foods, treats and table scraps.

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