By Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM & Dr. Heidi Kos-Barber, DVM
The pancreas is not an organ that many pet parents have reason to think about—that is, until something goes wrong with it. Pancreatitis is the most common disease of the pancreas in dogs. Let’s investigate the causes and symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs and what can be done to prevent and treat this serious condition, including the role that a low-fat dog food can play.
Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs
Dogs can develop pancreatitis for a number of reasons, including:
Eating something with a high fat content, particularly if it is not part of their regular diet
Having other medical conditions like Cushing’s disease, diabetes mellitus or abnormally high levels of fat in the blood
Exposure to some types of medications or toxins, including organophosphates, L-asparaginase, azathioprine, corticosteroids, sulphonamides, potassium bromide, phenobarbital and zinc
Abdominal trauma that affects the pancreas
A genetic or breed predisposition (Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, Silky Terriers, Miniature Poodles)
A history of pancreatitis
In many cases, no specific underlying cause can be identified.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs
The pancreas has several functions in the body, one of which is making digestive enzymes. In good health, these enzymes remain inactive until they are secreted into the intestinal tract in response to a recent meal.
While the exact mechanisms are unclear, pancreatitis develops when these digestive enzymes start working prematurely, while they are still within the pancreas, leading to pancreatic inflammation and sometimes infection and/or tissue death.
Pancreatitis may be mild or severe. It can develop suddenly or over a long period of time. It may happen once or become a recurrent or chronic problem. All of this explains why the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can vary tremendously. Dogs with pancreatitis typically have some combination of the following symptoms:
None of these symptoms are specific for pancreatitis in dogs. To make a definitive diagnosis, a veterinarian will have to run some tests, starting with a blood chemistry panel, complete blood cell count, fecal examination, urinalysis and possibly some abdominal X-rays to rule out other diseases that cause similar symptoms.
This initial workup may point to pancreatitis, but additional testing (e.g., cPLI or SPEC-CPL blood tests) is usually also necessary. Sometimes abdominal ultrasounds, exploratory surgery or other diagnostic procedures are needed to reach a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis in dogs.
Treatment for Pancreatitis in Dogs
Treatment for pancreatitis will depend on a dog’s symptoms and any abnormalities that were detected on his blood work and urinalysis. The goal is to keep the patient comfortable and support his physiological needs while giving the pancreas time to heal.
Fluid therapy and dog medications to control nausea and pain are often necessary. Your veterinarian may prescribe dog antibiotics to treat or prevent infection. Severely affected dogs may need to be hospitalized for an extended period of time and require more aggressive treatment with feeding tubes, plasma transfusion or surgery.
Research has found that dogs with pancreatitis who quickly start eating dog food again have an improved prognosis. Therefore, veterinarians aggressively use anti-nausea drugs to treat vomiting in attempt to get food into dogs with pancreatitis as soon as possible.
Dog Food for Pancreatitis
Most veterinarians recommend that dogs eat a highly digestible, low-fat dog food as they are recovering from pancreatitis. Dietary fat is thought to be a major stimulus for the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes, which may worsen pancreatic inflammation.
A low-fat dog food can promote pancreatic healing while still providing all the nutrition dogs need to heal. If your dog has a history of repeated bouts of pancreatitis, your veterinarian may recommend that you continue to feed a low-fat dog food to prevent flare-ups.
Lean fresh room temperature raw meat and bone broths are a great way to get your dog back on track.
Are Some Dogs Predisposed to Pancreatitis?
Some breeds are more prone to the development of pancreatitis, as well as dogs taking certain medications.
Miniature Schnauzers are considered to be a predisposed breed due their tendency to have problems with high blood triglyceride levels.
Another example is the English Cocker Spaniel. Immune-mediated diseases, which result from abnormal activity of the immune system, are seen at a higher frequency in this breed in general, and the immune system attacking the pancreas is no exception.
Medications that are known to cause inflammation of the pancreas include, but are not limited to, some chemotherapy medications and some antibiotics.