Pancreatitis in dogs & cats: symptoms & treatment

18 August 2022 - 5 min read
A sick Labrador at the vet
A sick Labrador at the vet

Pancreatitis is the fancy name for inflammation of the pancreas. The symptom most pet parents first recognise is intestinal upset – namely vomiting – which tends to go hand-in-hand with pancreatitis.

This vomiting is often what brings pet owners into the vet in the first place when their pets get diagnosed.

Pancreatitis can come up suddenly, but can also be a chronic condition. Many cases are treated with supportive care, but severe cases can require hospitalisation and can potentially even lead to shock and death.

We know this sounds overwhelming, but having an idea about what to watch for and how to manage these pets in the long term can help you to look after your pet’s pancreas.

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But what exactly is the pancreas?

The pancreas is an organ in your cat or dog’s abdomen that’s responsible for making some important substances.

There are two major groups of cells in the pancreas: the exocrine portion and the endocrine portion:

  • Endocrine pancreatic cells make insulin, which is the molecule that helps the body use glucose (sugar) as an energy source and regulate its level.

  • Exocrine pancreatic cells produce enzymes that help the body digest food along the intestinal tract.

What causes pancreatitis in dogs and cats?

We don’t actually know what truly causes or starts the process of pancreatitis. Whatever the instigator is, it’s the resulting premature kickstart of those digestive enzymes that does damage to the surrounding pancreatic tissue.

There’s a lot of discussion about outside factors that contribute to it. One of the biggest is what your pet is eating, particularly those diets high in fat.

We prepare ourselves for a flooding of pancreatitis cases in our hospitals around the holidays as pets are more likely to be getting table scraps of human food or treats that their bodies just aren’t used to and can’t process (dogs licking the turkey pan after it cooks at Christmas or the extra sneaky pups that get into the bin).

Some other factors thought to cause or contribute to pancreatitis are:

Cases of pancreatitis are not uncommon in conjunction with consumption of toxins like chocolate or rat bait.

Symptoms of pancreatitis

Symptoms of pancreatitis are unfortunately vague and non-specific. This is a challenge us vets face when diagnosing our patients.

Typically symptoms are related to the intestinal tract, and often include the following:

  • Decreased appetite or lack of appetite (by far the most common and most vague)

  • Vomiting

  • Diarrhoea

  • Lethargy

  • Abdominal pain

Acute versus chronic pancreatitis

Acute pancreatitis comes up suddenly due to active but reversible damage of pancreatic cells and often causes more severe clinical signs.

These are, however ,the same signs also seen in chronic cases.

Chronic pancreatitis refers to long-term, irreversible damage to the pancreas that will cause milder on/off clinical signs over time. Pets can become extremely ill in cases of acute or chronic inflammation and may need more significant treatment to recover.

Chronic pancreatitis is often associated with dogs that have diabetes. We also know that there are certain breeds that seem to have a higher likelihood of developing pancreatitis such as Miniature Schnauzers, Dachshunds, Yorkshire Terriers, and Poodles.

How will my vet diagnose and treat pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is usually diagnosed with a combination of:

  • Learning the pet’s history

  • Performing a physical examination

  • Blood tests

  • Imaging of the pancreas

Most vets recommend running blood tests to check:

1. Blood cell counts and look for signs of inflammation

2. The animal’s organ function like kidneys and liver as well as electrolytes and blood sugar,

3. A canine or feline Pancreas-specific lipase (cPL or fPL) test which tests for canine/feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity.

An fPL/cPL is one of our best indicators for pancreatic inflammation. While it’s not perfect, it helps give a good idea if pancreatitis is likely. Abdominal ultrasound is usually the imaging tool used to look for signs suggestive of pancreatitis.

Treatment of pancreatitis depends on several factors. Your vet will consider how severe the clinical signs are, if the pet also has other underlying diseases/conditions, what medications your pet is taking and what your pet looks like on physical examination.

Mild cases often receive outpatient supportive care from the vet, meaning your vet can provide treatments and medications then discharge your pet for home care.

This often includes things like anti-nausea medication, anti-diarrhoea medication, bland low fat veterinary diets, subcutaneous fluids (fluids given under the skin at the vet that slowly absorb over the day), and pain relief.

Online pharmacies are often a more affordable place to order pancreatitis medication, with quick delivery.

More severe cases of pancreatitis may require hospitalisation for intravenous fluids and medications, particularly for pets that are not eating. These pets may also need appetite stimulants and other therapies.

How much will it cost to treat my dog or cat for pancreatitis?

Due to the amount of diagnostic work needed and possibly an inpatient stay, treatment for pancreatitis can run to hundreds of pounds, if not more.

In 2021 ManyPets saw 119 pet insurance claims for pancreatitis in cats, with an average cost of £753.99. For dogs there were 1,241 claims for pancreatitis with an average cost of £625.24.

Bills can be higher if your pet needs ongoing care. All ManyPets pet insurance policies are lifetime, which means you get an annual vet fee limit that refreshes each year, so they’re suitable for ongoing conditions.

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Will my pet survive pancreatitis?

The prognosis for most pets with pancreatitis is favourable, particularly when signs are milder and caught early.

Unfortunately, in severe cases especially where pets have succumbed to shock, these patients may not recover and the prognosis is poor to guarded. In these scenarios your vet may recommend your pet be put to sleep to prevent further suffering.

Owners that have a pet at home that is being managed for pancreatitis should remember the essentials are hydration, nutrition, pain relief, and rest. Doing your best to keep your pet calm, getting their medications into them from the vet, getting them to consume a decent amount of calories each day, and drinking water regularly are essential for successful recovery.

What can I do to help my dog or cat avoid pancreatitis?

One of my favourite tips to hopefully help decrease the chances a pet will suffer from an episode of pancreatitis is having control over what they eat.

I like to have clients avoid high fat diets when possible, and also avoid extremely fatty treats/snacks. In particular, it’s those human food table scraps that often worry us. Another helpful tip is to keep your pet at a healthy body weight.

We know that adipocytes (fat cells) are constantly releasing compounds into the body that promote inflammation. Yes you heard right, excess fat is consistently releasing hormones and compounds into the body that promote inflammation. This is just one of many reasons it’s ideal to keep pets in good body condition.

A note for our kitty friends: the cases I see of pancreatitis in dogs are typically more commonly in scenarios where pets have consumed a high fat diet or treat, have a history of ‘dietary indiscretion’ (that’s eating things they shouldn’t), or even have had episodes before.

In cats, I see pancreatitis in conjunction with those that also have underlying gastrointestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease. We are often managing these kitties as chronic pancreatitis patients (i.e. we are using diets and/or medications daily to hopefully decrease the frequency and severity of disease flares that cause clinical symptoms).

While pancreatitis can be a severe issue, in most cases with therapy from your vet your pet is likely to do well long term. Top tips to remember are avoiding high fat foods and treats, keeping your pet a healthy weight, and knowing how to spot signs something might be wrong.

Veterinary surgeon Dr Kirsten Ronngren joined ManyPets in 2022. Alongside her extensive experience as a vet in small animal and feline-only clinics, Kirsten is passionate about online content creation. Kirsten’s a regular on ManyPets’ social media and video content with her no-nonsense attitude to keeping our customers’ pets happy and well.