Pancreatitis in Dogs and Cats

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Think of the pancreas as a puffer fish. It’s a notoriously sensitive organ that goes around swimmingly until threatened, and then it swells up, which causes a painful condition called pancreatitis. The disease affects many breeds of dogs and cats. Symptoms can be vague (especially in cats), making it somewhat difficult to diagnose, and include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and abdominal pain. Even with a positive diagnosis, however, treatment is limited to intravenous fluids, antibiotics, anti-vomiting drugs, pain medication, and electrolyte supplements to support the body as it heals itself.

Overview

The pancreas is an organ that produces hormones (like insulin) and secretes enzymes into the intestines to aid digestion. Nestled between the stomach and small intestine, it tends to swell (usually painfully and potentially fatally) when it’s egregiously insulted through a variety of different causes. This inflammation and its effects on the body are referred to as pancreatitis.

Common causes of pancreatitis include the following:

  • simple gastritis, enteritis, or gastroenteritis (such as occurs after dietary indiscretion)
  • cancer of the pancreas or nearby organ(s)
  • gastrointestinal foreign body

Pancreatitis can occur after a dog eats a fatty food such as pork, beef, and some other human foods. Dogs that get into garbage can develop pancreatitis. Pancreatitis can also have other causes, including certain medications and some viral or bacterial infections.

When pancreatitis occurs, the pancreas releases enzymes and other substances into the surrounding area of the abdomen. These substances cause localized inflammation that damages the pancreas and nearby organs and can lead to life-threatening complications. Diabetes can sometimes result from pancreatitis. That’s because the pancreas also secretes insulin, which regulates blood sugar.

Pancreatitis may be considered acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly and can be reversible. Chronic pancreatitis, however, is a slow-burn process in which the organ becomes damaged over time. Chronic pancreatitis can result from repeated episodes of acute pancreatitis, but in most cases it is not clear what causes chronic pancreatitis. Both versions can range from mild to severe in its manifestation.

Signs and Identification

Diagnosing pancreatitis is difficult because the symptoms can be nonspecific. To make identification even more complex — and contribute to the disease’s ranking among the more commonly underdiagnosed diseases in small animal medicine — dogs and cats often suffer different symptoms. Clinical signs in dogs can include:

  • Anorexia/no appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea

Whereas in cats with pancreatitis, clinical signs are more likely to include:

  • Anorexia
  • Lethargy
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting and hypothermia
  • Fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal mass

No single test can diagnose pancreatitis in all cases. X-rays, ultrasound examinations, and blood work provide supportive information. More specific blood tests include a test called the PLI (pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test), SPEC cPL (specific canine pancreatic lipase), and fPL (feline pancreas-specific lipase).

Affected Breeds

Though the heredity of the disease is not well understood, it’s clear that some breeds of dogs are predisposed. Schnauzers, for example, are more likely to suffer episodes of pancreatitis.

Treatment

The mainstay of pancreatitis treatment is aggressive, supportive care including intravenous fluids, antibiotics, anti-nausea and anti-vomiting drugs, and pain medication. Another aspect of treatment may involve “resting” the stomach and intestines to give them time to heal and rebound. Your veterinarian may recommend withholding food and water until the pet is no longer vomiting. During that time, the patient can receive fluids by injection; some veterinarians provide additional nutrition through intravenous feeding (directly into a vein) or placement of a feeding tube. If the pet does not respond to medical treatment, there are also surgical procedures to treat pancreatitis.

Severe pancreatitis can be fatal, regardless of veterinary intervention.

Prevention

Sometimes, a permanent diet change to a reduced-fat diet may be recommended. Pet owners may also be advised to discontinue any table food or other items that may contribute to future episodes of pancreatitis.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.

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