Pancreatitis is a painful and potentially life-threatening inflammation of the pancreas. At Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital, we see an increase in pancreatitis cases during the holiday season, and we want you to know more about the disease, what to watch for, and how to avoid pancreatitis in your pet. 

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a small, unimpressive-looking tubular organ lying between the stomach and the small intestine that does two important jobs for the body. The bulk of pancreatic cells produce and secrete enzymes that aid digestion. Pancreatic enzymes are inactive until they leave the pancreas, and are activated only when they reach the small intestine. The remaining pancreatic cells are grouped in small clusters, and release insulin and glucagon to help control blood sugar levels. A healthy pancreas is performing both of these jobs smoothly and simultaneously.

What is pancreatitis?

The term “itis” is derived from the Greek language and means inflammation. Pancreatitis occurs when digestive enzymes become activated while still in the pancreas, and the enzymes start digesting the pancreas itself. The activated enzymes result in painful pancreatic inflammation and gastrointestinal upset. Severe pancreatic cases can include pancreatic enzymes spilling into the body cavity and affecting surrounding tissues, pancreatic cell death (i.e., necrosis), or infection or abscess development. Pancreatitis can also affect the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, resulting in transient diabetes.

What causes pancreatitis in pets?

The reason we see more pancreatitis in dogs around the holidays is the ready availability of fatty foods, and their effect on a dog’s digestive system. A high-fat meal stimulates the pancreas to go into overdrive to compensate for the unusual food, activating enzymes that are still in the pancreas, and starting the inflammatory cascade.

Although fatty foods may be the culprit, many pancreatitis cases in dogs occur for no obvious reason. Certain dog breeds, such as miniature schnauzers, tend to have higher fat content in their blood and are especially prone to pancreatitis development. Obesity is also a risk factor, and dogs with chronic low-grade pancreatitis are easily triggered to a more severe form with a diet change. 

Most pancreatitis cases in cats have no distinct cause, and we see no increase in this disease around the holidays. Cats tend to have more vague gastrointestinal signs, with risk factors including inflammatory bowel disease, infectious disease, insecticide exposure, or prescription medications.

What are pancreatitis signs in pets?

Clinical signs can be mild to severe, depending on the extent of a pet’s illness, and include: 

  • Lethargy
  • Inappetance
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Fever
  • Shock
  • Collapse

How is pancreatitis diagnosed and treated in pets?

After a complete history and physical exam, we will perform blood tests and imaging to help point toward a pancreatitis diagnosis. Laboratory indicators can include elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes in the blood, high lipid levels, or specific tests for pancreatic immunoreactivity. X-rays can show possible inflammation signs near the pancreas, and ultrasound can provide a more detailed visual assessment to rule out pancreatic tumors or abscesses.

Intravenous fluid therapy and hospitalization are the mainstays of supportive care for pancreatitis. In addition to fluid therapy, we will medicate a pet with pancreatitis to address pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The pancreas will take time to settle down, and we will closely monitor your pet during hospitalization to avoid severe complications. We will also prescribe a bland, low-fat diet, which your pet may need for several weeks during their recovery, before they can resume their normal diet.

What is the prognosis for pets with pancreatitis?

Successful pancreatitis treatment depends on early diagnosis and prompt medical care. Most mild forms have a good prognosis with aggressive treatment, but if left untreated, or if pancreatitis has progressed to a severe form, the prognosis is more guarded. 

How can pancreatitis in pets be avoided?

Regular wellness checks and diagnostic lab work are part of long-term prevention for pets at higher risk for pancreatitis. During the holidays, be vigilant about keeping your dog away from appetizers, the dinner table, leftovers, or trash. Let your guests know that your dog can’t have human food, and provide dog treats or kibble instead. If your dog is a determined scrounger, keep them in a separate room during dinner preparations and cleanup, and offer a fun alternative, such as a food puzzle or special toy, to keep them occupied. Lastly, remember to take out the trash, or seal it tightly, to avoid a surprise late-night snack!

Don’t hesitate to contact the Scripps Ranch Veterinary Hospital team if you suspect your dog accidentally participated in your holiday feast, or if you have concerns about your pet and pancreatitis.