Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas performs the vital functions of secreting digestive enzymes that break down nutrients in the intestines and regulating blood sugar levels.
Pancreatitis is the most common exocrine condition in dogs. Pancreatitis can be either acute (sudden) or chronic (ongoing). Chronic pancreatitis is often subtle and difficult to diagnose, while symptoms of acute pancreatitis tend to be more severe.
The most common clinical signs of pancreatitis are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, appetite loss, abdominal pain, and lethargy.
In the majority of cases there is no specific identifiable cause of pancreatitis in dogs, but large, high-fat meals and ingestion of inappropriate food (trash) are considered the most common risk factors.
Pancreatitis is difficult to diagnose, as many of its symptoms are common to other conditions. Pancreatitis usually requires hospitalization. There is no single treatment for pancreatitis and supportive medical care is crucial. Pancreatitis is life-threatening and warrants emergency veterinary care
Pancreatitis is very common and is often life-threatening, so it poses a significant concern to pet parents. People with predisposed dog breeds need to be especially vigilant about preventing access to rich and fatty foods as these are believed to trigger pancreatitis. Urgent veterinary care is indicated for any dog with vomiting accompanied by other symptoms like appetite loss, abdominal pain, and lethargy.
Dogs with repeated bouts of mild vomiting and/or diarrhea also require veterinary evaluation as this may indicate chronic pancreatitis.
In most cases of pancreatitis, the exact cause is are unknown, but the most common risk factors associated with the condition include:
• High fat meals • Obesity • Concurrent illnesses like diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and hyperlipidemia
The root cause of pancreatitis is usually unknown. Some dog breeds have a predisposition to it and it is associated with a diet of rich foods. If situational and/or genetic factors are present, the episode of pancreatitis is usually attributed to them, but in many cases the exact cause is unknown
The main symptoms of pancreatitis are:
• Nausea • Vomiting • Fever • Lethargy • Abdominal pain • Diarrhea • Appetite loss
Acute pancreatitis is more severe. In addition to the general symptoms, acute cases may also show:
• Severe lethargy • Persistent vomiting • Dehydration • Diarrhea • Collapse
The symptoms of chronic pancreatitis are less severe than acute. A dog with chronic pancreatitis is expected to have occasional flare-ups of acute pancreatitis, so the two forms of pancreatitis are not totally distinct. Acute pancreatitis is more common in dogs than chronic pancreatitis.
If over 80% of the pancreas is damaged due to the inflammation, it stops producing insulin, causing diabetes mellitus. The pancreas is also responsible for manufacturing digestive enzymes, so significant damage can lead to inadequate digestion. This condition is called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).
One of the goals of ongoing treatment and management of chronic pancreatitis is to mitigate the risk of developing diabetes and/or EPI, but treatment of pancreatitis does not guarantee this.
Pancreatitis is difficult to diagnose, as many of its symptoms are common to other conditions. The first steps in diagnosis are providing the veterinarian with the dog’s dietary history and an initial physical examination.
If the veterinarian suspects pancreatitis the following diagnostics are typically performed:
• Complete blood tests: to rule out infection, anemia and other conditions
• Pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) test: a specific blood test that indicates pancreas health
• Diagnostic imaging: X-rays and/or ultrasound may show swelling or irregularities in the pancreas
There is no single cure for pancreatitis and supportive medical care is crucial. Pancreatitis is best managed in hospital where the dog receives:
• Fluid therapy
• Injectable medications to suppress vomiting and pain
• Antibiotics to prevent infection or abscess of the pancreas
• Surgery: in severe cases of acute pancreatitis, surgery may be necessary
A specific nutritional plan based on the dog’s individual characteristics (age, weight, and state of health) is helpful for managing pancreatitis moving forward. A modified nutritional plan tailored to the dog’s unique needs is the most important step in the long-term management of the disease.
Prognosis differs between mild and severe pancreatitis. In most cases a dog with mild pancreatitis has a good chance of recovery. In severe cases of pancreatitis prognosis is uncertain as it can cause organ failure.
Pancreatitis is not contagious. Some breeds are more predisposed to pancreatitis than others and may develop symptoms even when preventative lifestyle choices are made. Strategies to prevent pancreatitis include:
• Feeding only high-quality healthy food formulated for dogs
• Avoiding fried or overly fatty food, not sharing table scraps
• Preventing access to garbage or other unintended food sources
• Maintaining a healthy weight
Pancreatitis is the most common exocrine pancreatic condition in dogs. It is far less common in dogs who have no access to rich or fatty foods. Chronic pancreatitis is more common in predisposed breeds like boxers, while miniature schnauzers are predisposed to acute pancreatitis.
Episodes of acute pancreatitis are usually treated with some or all of the following interventions:
• IV fluids • Antinausea medication • Appetite stimulants • Pain medication
Dogs presenting with severe symptoms and signs of shock may require stabilization with oxygen, plasma transfusions, or colloid therapy.
Ongoing treatment of chronic pancreatitis includes regular monitoring and nutritional therapy. In some cases medication may be recommended to support management of chronic pancreatitis.
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