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Pancreatitis in dogs: symptoms and treatments

By Nick Whittle Author

Updated on the

Symptoms of chronic pancreatitis may appear over a period of weeks or months but can easily be mistaken for those of less critical conditions.

Pancreatitis in dogs is a condition that owners and breeders should learn about. Internal pain associated with acute pancreatitis can be exceptionally distressing for both owner and animal, and will significantly reduce the dog’s quality of life. Knowing what to look out for will give you a head start in the treatment and management of the condition.

What is canine pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a relatively common illness defined by an inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ sitting next to a dog’s stomach (located just beyond the last rib). It releases enzymes into the small intestine to aid digestion of food.

In a healthy dog the enzymes become active only when they reach the small intestine but in a dog with pancreatitis the enzymes are already active when they are excreted from the pancreas. Enzyme contamination of the surrounding tissue causes extreme pain.

Penny Watson a veterinary radiologist wrote in a recent paper on clinical practice:

[Pancreatitis] is associated with a systemic inflammatory response which, in severe cases, can result in the development of multiorgan failure, diffuse intravascular coagulation and death.’

How does it manifest in dogs?

Although acute pancreatitis is relatively easy to identify, the condition can sometimes cause symptoms that make a positive diagnosis difficult to come by. Systemic manifestations such as shaking, vomiting, anorexia, pain, diarrhoea and high temperatures are all associated with other gastrointestinal diseases and conditions, and do not necessarily confirm a bout of pancreatitis.

Acute pancreatitis will lead to an influx of fluid to the dog’s abdomen and chest. The result of this build-up can include renal failure and injury of veins and arteries. Should your dog exhibit over a period of days some or all of the symptoms associated with pancreatitis you should contact your local vet for advice on how best to proceed.

By what methods will the vet check for pancreatitis?

Because there is no single diagnostic test for pancreatitis in dogs it will be necessary for your vet to perform a series of checks. The following are just some of the tests carried out:

  • Examination of the dog’s abdomen for swelling or presence of gallstones 
  • Blood screening to determine mineral deficiencies
  • Blood screening to identify pancreatic and liver enzymes in the blood stream
  • X-ray to see whether the pancreas is damaged
  • Ultrasound scan to check for abnormal tissue growths and cysts
  • Needle biopsy to determine the state of the pancreas

Your vet may be tempted to reach a diagnosis based on your dog’s symptoms alone. However, the above tests will yield a more accurate result.

Which breeds of dog are more prone to pancreatitis?

The causes of pancreatitis are numerous but some scientists suppose that a dog’s diet plays a big part in her suffering with the disease.

Pancreatitis can also be idiopathic: in other words it can occur without reason, and certain breeds of dogs are considered predisposed to developing the condition. In other words, how prone a dog is to pancreatitis can be determined by her family history.

Panagiotis Xemoulis et al. in their study, ‘Investigation of Hypertriglyceridemia in Healthy Miniature Schnauzers’ found breeds susceptible to gaining weight more likely to develop pancreatitis. In addition, dogs that have pre-existing conditions such as hypothyroidism and diabetes are more prone to the disease due to their being overweight.

How is a dog’s pancreatitis treated?

There is no single treatment of canine pancreatitis. Generally speaking, treatment involves pastoral care and careful management of a dog’s systemic balance. This may include a nil-by-mouth dietary restriction for several days; fluids being administered through an I.V. feed. Pain management will play a large part in a dog’s treatment but on the whole the bias is towards allowing the pancreas to heal by itself.

Penny Watson advises that: ‘Treatment recommendations depend on the severity of the disease and range from conservative management at home to referral for intensive care. The causes of pancreatitis in dogs are usually unknown. Therefore, therapy tends to be symptomatic and non-specific.’

Can canine pancreatitis be prevented?

Once your dog has recovered from her bout of pancreatitis it is necessary for you to consider how best to prevent a recurrence.

It should be assumed that your dog will still be in a considerable amount of pain even for some time after her initial bout of pancreatitis. It is therefore recommended that a suitable analgesic is administered until she shows signs of being more comfortable.

As well as considering some medical treatments your vet will recommend a low fat diet. Food that is high in nutrients and minerals is an essential part of your dog’s road to recovery (anti-emetic drugs will help animals that won't eat due to nausea).

Dogs that are overweight should be encouraged to exercise; their health relies on your managing their strict diet; one that excludes human food. For advice about keeping your dog’s weight down contact your local vet.

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