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canine health problems

Pancreatitis in dogs

Essential information on pancreatitis in dogs: diagnosis, treatment, and management

Updated January 22, 2021

Created By

Victoria Lancaster,
Professional veterinarian doctor talking to client in medical office

The essentials

  • Digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea can be a sign of pancreatitis.
  • Serious cases require hospitalization.
  • When caught early, your dog should have a positive prognosis and swift recovery.
  • Feeding your dog the right kind of food keeps the pancreas healthy.

What is pancreatitis?

Is your dog having constant tummy troubles? In most cases, it is normal for bowel troubles to occur every so often. In some cases, it could be one of the first signs of pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is the medical term for inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is at the top of the abdomen and functions as part of the digestive system, crucial to the functioning of a healthy pup. It secretes enzymes called lipase and amylase which are responsible for fat digestion. When a dog’s pancreas is inflamed, it releases enzymes into itself instead of into the small intestine.

There are two main types of pancreatitis: acute and chronic.

Acute pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis occurs abruptly and typically resolves without long term effects. It’s important to address acute pancreatitis early. That way, the inflammation in the pancreas doesn’t spread to other organs.

Chronic pancreatitis

Dogs with chronic pancreatitis will experience inflammation of the pancreas over extended durations. Due to the long-term nature of chronic pancreatitis, it can be especially hard to spot clinical signs in your pup.

Symptoms of pancreatitis

Abdominal pain is the most common sign of acute pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis may have no symptoms at all. This makes pancreatitis hard to identify. There are several other symptoms to look out for if you’re worried about pancreatitis:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of energy
  • Hunching the back in response to abdominal pain

👉 It can be hard to tell when your dog has abdominal pain. With acute pancreatitis, your pup might curve their back as if to protect their stomach

  • Vomiting (usually a yellow liquid called bile)
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Weakness

🚨Severe cases of pancreatitis can be lethal if not immediately treated. More severe symptoms include blood in stools and breathing difficulties. If you notice these symptoms you should call your local or emergency vet for a visit. Pancreatitis can be life-threatening.

Toy poodle dog vomits yellow substance suspected to be bile, onto floor

Vomiting a yellow substance called bile is usually a tell-tale sign of pancreatitis

The causes of pancreatitis

The causes of pancreatitis are hard to pinpoint. The illness can appear abruptly or seemingly out of the blue.

Seven common causes of pancreatitis

  1. A high fat diet and obesity. This is the most common cause of pancreatitis. When dogs eat large portions of fatty foods it causes their fat metabolism to fail and gives them a predisposition to pancreas issues. Dietary fat makes the pancreas excrete a surplus of hormones. This can make pancreatic inflammation worse.
  1. Hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is an endocrine disease. Endocrine diseases occur when a dog’s body does not respond to or produce hormones as it should. These hormones control the body’s metabolism. Any thyroid dysfunction can cause pancreatic problems.
  1. Inflammation in other parts of the body. General inflammation in other parts of the body, like the stomach and liver, can cause inflammation in the pancreas.
  1. Medications and toxins. Certain meds can disrupt the pancreas.

🚨The following medications should be avoided for pancreatic health: Cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, estrogen, salicylates, azathioprine, thiazide diuretics, and vinca alkaloid.

  1. Diabetes mellitus. Diabetes is linked to chronic pancreatitis. According to a vet, damage to the pancreas from diabetes affects 28% of diabetic dogs.
  1. Cancer. Pancreatic cancer causes tumors to form in the pancreas, resulting in inflammation.
  1. Surgery or trauma. Some invasive surgeries can cause pancreatitis due to prescribed medications.

Certain breeds or ages are more prone to pancreatitis

Any dog can develop pancreatitis but some are at higher risk for genetic reasons.

Dogs more prone to acute pancreatitis:

  • Miniature schnauzers
  • Yorkshire terriers

Dogs more prone to chronic pancreatitis: 

  • Cocker spaniels
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniels
  • Collies
  • Boxers

In general, older dogs tend to get pancreatitis more often because they suffer from illnesses like diabetes.

Diagnosing pancreatitis

Diagnosis of pancreatitis can be tough. Pancreatitis is diagnosed using a combination of medical tests and reports. The first thing the vet will do is look at your dog’s medical history.

👉The vet will probably have questions for you as the dog owner. Be prepared to answer questions about recent lifestyle/ diet changes and mention any apparent symptoms. 

The vet may perform one or many of a selection of tests:

  • Physical examinations and x-rays. This includes taking your dog’s vitals. The vet will check your dog’s stomach, heart, and temperature. The vet may also feel for any inflammation in the abdominal area.
  • Bloodwork. By doing blood tests the vet can take a closer look at your pup’s pancreatic enzymes and hormone levels.
  • Ultrasound and radiographs. Ultrasounds are especially helpful when diagnosing acute pancreatitis. It can also help to rule out other potential issues like tumors and blocked ducts.
  • Fine needle aspiration. The vet will perform this test in order to draw fluids from the pancreas. This type of biopsy is good at detecting bacteria and viruses in small samples.

Treatment for pancreatitis

Only the vet should treat pancreatitis. There are different treatments for varying levels of severity of the illness. Most mild cases of pancreatitis recover in two or three days after seeking vet treatments. Chronic pancreatitis can last for months and even the duration of a dog’s life.

The vet may use the following treatments:

  • IV fluid therapy. Intravenous fluids help reduce the swelling in a dog’s pancreas and other organs. Intravenous fluid therapy also flushes the dog’s system of any toxins and provides electrolytes.
  • Antibiotics. In the case that infection develops as a result of pancreatitis, your vet may advise your dog to take a prescription.
  • Surgery in some cases. Partial pancreatectomy might be undertaken if the pancreatitis becomes severe and abscesses are present. This will likely require general anesthesia so the vet can make an incision in the abdomen to inspect the pancreas.

🚨While most dogs will have a good prognosis, others might need to stay in the hospital for 24/7 monitoring.

Treating your dog’s pancreatitis at home

The vet must treat pancreatitis. Avoid at-home remedies once your dog is diagnosed with pancreatitis.

There are, however, some things the vet might tell you to do at home to help the healing process. This might include limiting your dog’s food intake while they recover. Vets will often recommend a ‘no solid food’ diet over a 24 hour period.

Giving a dog a supplement

Supplements can help certain dogs prevent pancreatitis

Prevention and management

There are a few things you can do to prevent and manage the pancreas function.

  • Vet visits. Frequent vet visits are important since pancreatitis can be especially hard to detect.
  • Supplements. High quality and anti-inflammatory multivitamins are worth considering. Digestive enzyme supplements like fish oil can lower lipid levels. Red yeast is also recommended and helps to bind fat.
  • Holistic remedies. In the instance that your dog’s pancreatitis is chronic, holistic remedies like acupuncture might help.

🚨Use supplements and holistic remedies with vet recommendation only. 

How a healthy diet can help

It’s no surprise but diet is one of the best ways to prevent pancreatitis and other illnesses. Healthy eating helps your dog maintain a healthy weight and avoid obesity. If your dog has acute pancreatitis, follow the vet’s instructions in regards to food. Low-fat diets are always recommended to decrease risk factors.

You should always avoid the following when feeding your dog: 

  • High fat treats
  • Table scraps (pay special care around holidays when lots of food is around!)
  • Simple carbohydrates like rice and white potato (when avoided, pancreatic inflammation should decrease)

With chronic pancreatitis, balanced homemade diets can be one of the healthiest options.

Do incorporate the following into your dog’s homemade diet: 

  • Boiled chicken (no fat)
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Low fat, high fiber foods with relatively low caloric content
  • Barley and millet as a grain source

👉Not all dog owners have time to cook at home for their dogs. We recommend a variety of store-bought food options. Some are especially effective for dogs with digestive sensitivity and chronic stomach issues.

Promoting a healthy lifestyle for your pup to combat pancreatitis

Unfortunately, once your dog has had pancreatitis, it will likely recur. Get to know your pup the best you can. This will help you understand the kind of lifestyle they need to maintain their pancreas and digestive health.