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Do dogs with pancreatitis need low-fat diets?

Boxer dog eating in food bowl advice

If your dog has pancreatitis, avoid feeding them anything high fat.

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A low-fat diet may be just one of the ways you can help your dog with pancreatitis.

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS

Updated on the 12/08/2020, 09:29

Since the pancreas has a role in a dog's digestion, a change of diet is needed when our four-legged friends have pancreatitis, as this condition will usually bring pain to that organ. A new diet for your pet will undoubtedly be specially formuated – and it'll probably be low fat. Read on for a full explanation on how best to look after your dog if it has pancreatitis.

What is pancreatitis in dogs?

Any term followed by ‘itis’ technically refers to inflammation of that organ or structure. So pancreatitis means that the pancreas is inflamed. The pancreas is an organ in the body that plays an important role in the digestion of food. It produces enzymes that help to break down protein, carbohydrate and fat within the gastrointestinal tract. It is also involved in lowering blood sugar levels through producing the hormone insulin.  

Pancreatitis is often categorised as acute or chronic. An acute case means that the incident has occurred suddenly and may be referred to as an ‘attack’ of pancreatitis. Usually the digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas will not become activated until they reach the intestines. But in dogs with pancreatitis the enzymes are activated too early and start to act on the pancreas itself causing the inflammation.

This inflammation can in turn lead to leakage of the digestive enzymes from the pancreas into your pet’s abdomen and cause inflammation of other organs including the liver, gall bladder and intestines.

Chronic pancreatitis refers to a lower-level of longer-term inflammation that is likely to have been rumbling along in the background and developed over time, sometimes with minimal or no symptoms. Dogs with the chronic disease can develop acute flare-ups.

More research is needed into the exact causes of pancreatitis, and why some dogs get it and others don’t. Often the underlying trigger of an acute episode is unknown, but sometimes it can be caused by a high-fat meal or treatment with steroid medication.

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What are the symptoms of pancreatitis in a dog?

Symptoms of acute pancreatitis can include vomiting, diarrhoea, nausea, lethargy, inappetence and abdominal pain. Your dog may show signs of pain by adopting the ‘praying position’ in which they stretch out their abdomen by pushing their back end up and lowering their head and chest. At a vet appointment, a fever may also be picked up.

With chronic pancreatitis your pet may not even display symptoms, but if they do these are often a low-grade continuous problem such as regular gastrointestinal symptoms and lethargy.

What treatment and prevention of pancreatitis is there for dogs?

If you suspect that your pet may have pancreatitis, a vet appointment is needed for a full health-check and to perform the necessary diagnostic tests. This will often involve a blood test and may include imaging, such as an ultrasound. The necessary treatment will depend on the severity of the pancreatitis. Almost all cases require some kind of pain medication. Your dog may also need hospitalisation for intravenous fluids, anti-sickness medication and repeat blood tests.

Longer-term your dog will need to be on a special diet to help manage their condition. This will generally involve low-fat food, initially fed in smaller and more frequent meals. The vet will advise what treatment plan is necessary for each individual pet.

What can dogs with pancreatitis eat?

You should avoid feeding your dog anything high fat, including treats or chews. It is best to speak to a vet about what diets the can recommend, but generally these will be diets where less than 18-20 per cent of the metabolisable energy (ME) comes from fat.

You can look at the ingredients list on a food packet for fat content, but this is usually listed as the percentage composition of fat rather than the percentage ME that your pet will gain from the food. This also makes it very difficult to compare directly between diets without using a conversion, as factors such as moisture content will have a big impact on ME.

You can use the composition information to input into an online ME calculator, to check whether the diet would be appropriate for a dog with pancreatitis. Calculating ME from fat can become extremely confusing, so if in doubt check with a vet. You can also ask them to explain the difference between the fat content listed on the pack and ME, so that it is clearer.

What can I feed my dog on a low-fat diet?

You should have a conversation with a vet about appropriate foods for a dog on a low-fat diet. Calculating metabolisable energy should also help you decide what food you should give your dog.

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What vegetables can a dog with pancreatitis eat?

Vegetables are generally very low in fat. Thus as long as they are safe for dogs to eat, they shouldn’t cause a problem in small quantities. Make sure that you check whether a vegetable is toxic to your dog first, as plenty of foods that are safe in humans can make your dog very unwell.

Is a low-fat diet good for dogs?

A low-fat diet is generally not necessary in a healthy pet, unless they have a history of pancreatitis or are on a weight-loss programme. A good-quality complete dog food should provide the right balance of nutrients for your pet. If they have an underlying health problem, it is best to speak with a vet about whether a special therapeutic diet would be appropriate for them.

What are the best low-fat dog treats?

You can feed your pet small quantities of cooked vegetables or small pieces of chicken-breast or white fish (as long as neither are cooked in oil). There are also specially designed dog treats available that are low in ME from fat. It is best to avoid table scraps or any processed ‘human’ foods. If in doubt, seek advice from a vet.

Is tuna a low-fat food for dogs?

It is best to feed your dog a nutritionally complete low-fat diet, as advised by a vet. A home-made diet is unlikely to have the right balance of nutrients to keep your dog healthy. If you want to give your pet something as a treat, a white fish would be a more appropriate option as these are lower in fat than tuna.

Should I try wet dog food for my pet's pancreatitis?

Many of the low-fat diets available are dried food, as it is easier to keep the fat content down. But some pooches turn their noses up at kibble, and there are some options available when it comes to wet food. Speak to a vet for advice on what products they recommend.

When should I see a vet?

If your dog is showing acute signs of pancreatitis, you should contact a vet as soon as possible, as it is incredibly painful and can have long-term harmful effects if left untreated. You should also see a vet if your pet is showing chronic gastro-intestinal symptoms or lethargy – as it is possible they have chronic pancreatitis. Having said that, these symptoms are relatively non-specific and may indicate a different underlying disease.

How should I speak to a vet about the best diet for a dog with pancreatitis?

If your dog has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, you can ask a vet for advice about what diet is suitable. If they have seen your pet recently, they may be able to provide telephone advice. Alternatively, they may suggest an appointment for a check-up and they can then answer any questions you might have in person.

Talk to a vet online. Visit myfamilyvets.co.uk