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Home » News & Blog » Veterinary Q&A: Pancreatitis

Veterinary Q&A: Pancreatitis

Dana BrooksQuestion: What is pancreatitis?

Answer: Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas ‒ the organ that secretes enzymes into the intestine to digest food and that makes insulin to control blood sugar (glucose) as well as a few other hormones.

Pancreatic enzymes are not normally activated until they reach the intestine because they start to digest whatever they come in contact with. If they are activated inside the pancreas, they digest the tissue around them causing inflammation and swelling (pancreatitis).

Question: What causes pancreatitis?

Answer: In dogs, this often occurs suddenly after ingestion of something outside of their regular diet ‒ especially foods high in fat (acute pancreatitis).
In many cases, the exact cause is not known.

Question: Aside from diet, generally what other medical conditions or environmental factors can contribute to pancreatitis?

Answer: In certain cases, underlying diseases (Cushing's disease, diabetes mellitus, high blood triglyceride levels, obesity), medications (steroid hormones, some chemotherapy drugs and diuretics), infectious organisms or toxins may make a patient more likely to develop the disease.

Question: Why is pancreatitis so dangerous?

Answer: If left untreated, dogs may develop severe dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities and shock, and in severe cases it can be fatal.

Question: What is the difference between chronic and acute pancreatitis?

Answer: Chronic refers to a long-term problem. In cats pancreatitis tends to be mild and chronic and secondary to an attack by the immune system.

Acute describes something that occurs suddenly. Dogs tend to develop this form, often from eating something outside their normal diet.

Question: Are some breeds more susceptible?
Answer: Some breeds of dogs are predisposed, such as miniature schnauzers, right, and miniature poodles.

Question: What are the symptoms? Are there any early symptoms owners can be aware of?

Answer: Dogs with acute pancreatitis typically present for not eating, vomiting, abdominal pain and fever. They also may have diarrhea or peritonitis (inflammation within the abdominal cavity).

Because of the vomiting, dehydration may occur. Dehydration may appear as sunken eyes, dry mouth or decreased skin elasticity. Prompt treatment is necessary for these patients.

Question: How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Answer: Diagnostic tests often include blood tests to look for other possible causes for the clinical signs, and to evaluate the blood levels of the pancreatic enzymes that may be increased in pancreatitis.

Abdominal ultrasound or X-rays can also be very helpful to identify abnormal changes in the pancreas as well as to look for other problems that can cause similar signs or blood-test abnormalities, such as an intestinal obstruction, kidney failure or liver failure.

pancreasscan1.jpgThis is an ultrasound image of the abdomen of a dog with pancreatitis. Photo courtesy of SVS

Question: How is pancreatitis treated?

Answer: Treatment mainly consists of supportive therapy until the inflammation resolves.

In mild cases, withholding food and administering anti-nausea medication may be all that is required.

In more severe cases, dogs may need to be hospitalized to receive intravenous fluids to correct dehydration, electrolyte supplementation and medications to control vomiting and pain.

In cases where the dog is unable to eat for an extended period of time, intravenous nutrition may be needed.

On rare occasions, surgery may be required to remove severely damaged portions of the pancreas or to place a special feeding tube (jejunostomy tube).

Question: What kind of complications can arise?

Answer: Most dogs' clinical signs resolve in one to three days with supportive therapy and have no long lasting effects.

Rarely, if enough damage occurs within the pancreas, the dog will no longer be able to produce digestive enzymes (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or acinar cell atrophy) or insulin (diabetes mellitus) and will require lifelong medication.

Question: Does an episode make a dog more likely to have recurring attacks?

Answer: Some dogs seem prone to recurrent bouts of pancreatitis, especially those with Cushing's disease or those that are obese.

Question: Are cats also vulnerable to pancreatitis?

Answer: Cats are more likely to develop low-grade, long-term (chronic) pancreatitis, which is thought to be secondary to food allergies. This is harder to diagnose because the signs are much less obvious than acute pancreatitis.

Question: What other health issues do you see at the clinic around the holidays?

Answer: The more common problems include chocolate toxicity (although your guest may not be able to smell the chocolate wrapped up under their tree, your dog can!), ingestion of ribbons or new toys causing intestinal obstruction, and electrocution from chewing on electrical cords from Christmas trees or other new electrical appliances.

Vomiting and diarrhea can occur without pancreatitis in any animal with a dramatic diet change.

Dr. Dana Brooks

Brooks is an internal-medicine specialist at Seattle Veterinary Specialists in Kirkland. She graduated from Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1991 and completed her residency at Michigan State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in 1995. She worked in the Northeast until 2007, when she joined SVS. Her special interests include hormonal and immune-mediated diseases as well as endoscopy. She lives with two black cats named Jasper and Logan.

Original article at

Published on November 24, 2011.

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