Downeast Dog News


By Gail D. Mason, DVM, MA, DACVIM | May 01, 2018

The pancreas is a glandular organ in the abdomen, which is tucked in the angle between the liver, stomach, and small intestine. This organ produces and secretes digestive enzymes into the intestinal tract to break down nutrients, which allows for their absorption by the body. The pancreas also produces insulin and glucagon, which carefully regulate how the body utilizes these nutrients.

The term “pancreatitis” means an inflammation of the pancreas, which is a common malady in dogs. The exact cause may never be determined, but dogs who are obese have diabetes mellitus, low thyroid hormone levels, or Cushing’s syndrome are at higher risk. As well, ingestion of high fat meals (especially a large amount all at once) can trigger this disease. Just say NO to pork chops, steaks, turkey legs, and those weird cheese snacks that your parents keep at their house….When pancreatic inflammation occurs, the digestive enzymes within the gland are released before reaching the small intestine. This results in damage (“acid burn”) to the pancreas itself, as well as to the neighboring liver, gallbladder, and intestines. Pancreatic damage ranges from mild to potentially life-threatening, and prompt medical treatment should be sought.

The symptoms can be sudden in onset and most often include nausea, vomiting, lethargy, hunched or “praying” postures, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. These symptoms can be variable in intensity and can be associated with many other diseases as well. The diagnosis is often based on recent dietary/medication history, results of a thorough physical examination, and certain laboratory tests. Your dog’s “white blood cells” are often elevated due to the body’s response to inflammation. There may be elevations in certain enzymes such as lipase and amylase, though they are not specific to the syndrome. A newer test called a SPEC cPL is now widely available and is a more reliable marker for pancreatitis. If the veterinarian is not convinced of the diagnosis at this point, abdominal radiographs (“x-rays”) may be obtained for supportive evidence. They may show a widening in the angle between the duodenum and stomach, often with a hazy “ground-glass” appearance. If available, abdominal ultrasound is superior to radiographs in diagnosing pancreatitis, and offers a view of all the internal organs. This is key, as other medical issues such as inflammatory bowel disease, gall bladder disease, hepatitis, and intestinal obstructions can mimic or co-exist with pancreatitis. Very rarely, an abdominal exploratory surgery is performed to confirm the diagnosis and eliminate the possibility of subtle intestinal or gall bladder obstructions.

Treatment for pancreatitis is tailored to the degree of illness of the individual dog. Outpatient care may be appropriate for dogs who are still alert and able to drink water and be given oral medications (anti-emetics for nausea, antacids, and pain control). Small, frequent meals of a low fat, bland diet (home cooked or commercial) are usually recommended. Maintaining hydration and normal blood pressures in pancreatitis patients is important in those with moderate to severe disease to reduce risk of systemic shock and organ failure. Electrolyte intravenous solutions, given in a hospital setting, allow the natural healing mechanisms to occur in the body, as well as correct dehydration caused by vomiting and diarrhea. The intestinal tract and pancreas can “rest” while medications are given intravenously. Your dog’s condition would likely be assessed by repeated physical examinations, blood enzyme tests, and response to treatment. Most dogs hospitalized for this condition spend 2-4 days under a veterinarian’s care, and fortunately, most survive the event. However, repeated bouts can lead to chronic, smoldering pancreatic damage and possibly diabetes mellitus.

What can you do to lower your dog’s risk of pancreatitis? Plenty! 1) help your dog maintain a healthy weight with (you guessed it) diet and exercise; 2) avoid high-fat diets (ideally 7% or less); 3) avoid feeding table scraps; 4) don’t allow your dog to be unattended in yards or woods where there may be “unsanctioned” treats; 5) keep trash receptacles securely covered; 6) provide healthy, low fat treats for your dog while he is in the care of others to avoid temptation.