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Pancreatitis in Dogs

07/11/2017 by Colleen Williams
July 11th, 2017 by Colleen Williams

A common medical condition, pancreatitis in dogs is becoming more prevalent as the pet obesity epidemic progresses. Learn to recognize the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs; if you notice any sudden changes in your pet’s appearance or behavior, consult your vet immediately.

What is pancreatitis?

pancreatitis in dogs

This diagram illustrates the inflammation characteristic of pancreatitis; digestive enzymes can leak into the body cavity, damaging organs. (

Inflammation of the pancreas is referred to as pancreatitis. The condition can be mild, with only swelling of the pancreas, or severe; in this case, digestive enzymes spill into the body cavity, damaging internal organs. An acute incident of pancreatitis in dogs may become chronic or “relapsing,” with recurring inflammation.

Pancreatitis in dogs can be caused by multiple, often unknown, factors. A common cause is premature activation of digestive enzymes; Veterinary Centers of America describes this process as “a time-release capsule that suddenly bursts before it reaches its intended target.” Instead of targeting stomach contents, the pancreatic enzymes wreak havoc on internal organs, essentially digesting them.

Often chronic conditions are to blame for pancreatitis in dogs, such as diabetes, obesity, and metabolic conditions like hyperthyroidism. The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation asserts certain medications can lead to the disease, such as immunosuppressant azathioprine, anticonvulsant potassium bromide, and chemotherapy drug I-asparaginase.

Why is the pancreas important?

pancreatitis in dogs

The pancreas is located in the lower right quadrant of the abdomen, nestled among the gastrointestinal system. (

A vital organ, the pancreas produces enzymes that aid in food digestion, along with regulatory hormones like insulin. Without a fully-functioning pancreas, a pet struggles to eat and retain weight. Secondary conditions may develop with severe weight loss and malnutrition, including vitamin deficiencies and organ failure. Insulin, produced by the pancreas, allows the production of glucose, which powers cells; without this essential fuel, low blood sugar and fatigue or even coma can occur.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs

In mild cases, some pets may be asymptomatic. According to the Texas A&M University’s Gastrointestinal Laboratory, the following are the most common symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs:

  • Anorexia (91 percent)
  • Vomiting (90 percent)
  • Weakness or fatigue (79 percent)
  • Abdominal pain (58 percent)
  • Dehydration (46 percent)
Like in many medical conditions, indicators of pancreatitis in dogs differ from the disease in humans, where abdominal pain is the most frequent symptom.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

Pancreatic biopsy in dogs showing pancreatitis

A pancreatic biopsy is the most effective method of diagnosing pancreatitis in dogs, although high risk pets face risks with anesthesia. (

Often, pancreatitis in dogs is difficult to diagnose, due to the generality of its symptoms and lack of diagnostic tests. Abdominal x-rays are frequently taken to rule out other conditions; ultrasound may be performed to examine the pancreas. Depending on the severity and symptoms, blood plasma serum tests may be conducted, although their usefulness has been debated.

A biopsy of the pancreas is considered the most effective method of diagnosing pancreatitis in dogs, but it is also the most invasive. In mild cases, the procedure may not be successful, as inflammation can be limited to specific areas of the pancreas not reached with a biopsy. Often pets with pancreatitis are obese or have secondary medical conditions that make them high risk patients; in these cases, anesthesia for the biopsy can place these dogs in even greater danger.

Treating Pancreatitis

The earlier the pancreatitis is detected, the more likely treatment will be successful. Mild pancreatitis in dogs requires two to four days of hospitalization while intravenous fluids and pain medications are given. Treatment requires shutting down the pancreas and its excretion of enzymes to halt internal damage – no food or fluid is given orally to avoid activating enzyme production.

While a pup recovers from pancreatitis, solid food is gradually reintroduced throughout the course of care, although meals are bland and low in fat so as to not overstimulate the pancreas. An article by Cuteness, The Best Dog Foods for Dogs with Pancreatitis, gives a rundown of which foods to look for; everything from a prescription diet to what you can purchase over-the-counter (called “commercial foods”), as well as homemade food, which includes boiled chicken and white rice. Often, vets will first prescribe a specific diet for at least a short time until full recovery has been made, however some pups will be on Rx food for the rest of their life.

While your dog rests and follows a fairly strict diet, other medications may be administered to cease symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs; these drugs include antiemetics, antidiarrheals and anti-inflammatories.

causes of pancreatitis in dogs

Feeding pets high-fat table scraps and treats is one of the most common causes of pancreatitis in dogs. (

Severe cases involve extended hospitalization or even surgery to repair internal damage caused by digestive enzymes or inflammation.

How to Prevent Pancreatitis in Dogs

Keep your pet at a healthy weight to avoid pancreatitis, as well as numerous other obesity-related medical conditions. A high-fat diet has been linked to pancreatitis in dogs; table scraps and meaty treats are cited as a common contributor. Make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise and has a well-balanced diet.


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