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What Is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a very important organ that is located on the right side of the abdomen next to the stomach. The pancreas produces enzymes to help break down food and hormones such as insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar. These enzymes are activated when food is ingested.  When pancreatitis occurs, the digestive enzymes are activated before they reach the intestines and cause problems to the surrounding organs. Pancreatitis in our pets can be acute or chronic and can cause mild to severe clinical signs. If your pet has chronic pancreatitis, we see flares of these episodes; where a pet will have symptoms, respond to medications and then recur months later.


Most cases of pancreatitis in pets are idiopathic; meaning we don’t find the reason your pet develops this disease. Pancreatitis can be triggered by fatty meals or foods, certain medications such as steroids, endocrine diseases such as cushings or diabetes and/or trauma. There is a genetic link in specific breeds such as miniature schnauzers, where they have a genetic predisposition to developing the disease.


Vomiting, nausea, decreased appetite, diarrhea, painful abdomen and lethargy are the most common symptoms. Some animals may present in a “prayer” position. In some severe cases some dogs and cats may need to be hospitalized due to the severity of the disease. In some cases pancreatitis can be fatal if not treated right away.


There are a few blood tests that can be run to help diagnose pancreatitis. A complete blood cell count (CBC) can be done and may reveal an increase in the white blood cells. This is not 100% diagnostic though, since we can see this elevation due to other things as well. A chemistry panel that shows elevations in the pancreatic enzymes may be the most helpful test we perform. In some cases though, these enzymes may not be elevated. In this situation if we suspect pancreatitis may be the cause or want to have confirmation, an additional test can be done. This test is called the pancreas-specific lipase test. This test is very specific to pancreatic lipase and can be elevated in cases of pancreatitis. Also, ultrasound can be used to diagnose pancreatic inflammation or peritonitis (inflammation of the tissue in the abdomen). Sometimes though, even with all this testing, it may be difficult to diagnose pancreatitis and the diagnosis may be based on clinical signs and history.


The severity of the disease and symptoms dictates the treatment. For more acute, less severe cases, getting animals on gastrointestinal medications, a bland diet, and some pain medication may be all it takes. This allows the pancreas to “rest” by not overwhelming it with fatty foods and protecting it with specific medications. For more severe cases, more extreme measures may need to be taken. Some animals will need to be hospitalized on intravenous fluids to rehydrate and correct electrolyte imbalances. They will be given intravenous medications to help with the inflammation and analgesics to help with the pain. Certain animals will need to be hospitalized anywhere from 2-4 days or even longer if patients are in systemic shock.


Dogs that have less severity of disease and respond well to the medication prescribed should have a good prognosis. If the disease process is severe and patients don’t respond well to treatment or need to be hospitalized, the prognosis can be more guarded; especially animals who present in shock from the disease process. Overall though, most pancreatitis cases respond and do well. Dogs and cats that have recurrent bouts of pancreatitis are often put on a low fat prescription diet to minimize the risk of future flare ups. It is very important to bring your pet in if there is any change to their normal behavior at home. If you notice vomiting, lethargy, decreased appetite or any of the clinical signs listed above, bring your furry friend in!

How do you prevent pancreatitis?
Make sure you don’t feed your pet high fat meals and stick with your pet’s normal diet. People don’t realize that feeding your pet left over trimmings from Christmas dinner, foods with high butter content or any food that is a different fat content can affect them. Even though we feel we are giving them this as a treat or to show our love to them, it can be harmful. Love your pet with affection via brushing, snuggles, hiking/walks, throwing the ball or giving cat nip, but not by feeding them fatty human foods. This is a great way to keep your furry friends happy and healthy!