Pancreatitis is the fancy name for inflammation of the pancreas. The symptom most pet parents first recognize is intestinal upset, namely vomiting, which tends to go hand-in-hand with pancreatitis.
This vomiting is often what brings pet owners to the vet in the first place when their pets get diagnosed.
Pancreatitis can come on suddenly but can also be a chronic condition. Many cases are treated with supportive care, but severe cases can require hospitalization 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 look after your pet’s pancreas.
What exactly is the pancreas?
The pancreas is an organ in your cat's 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 diets high in fat.
We prepare ourselves for a flood 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 trash can).
Some other factors thought to cause or contribute to pancreatitis are:
Other diseases present
And even the ingestion of toxins
Cases of pancreatitis are not uncommon in conjunction with the consumption of toxins like chocolate or rat bait.
Symptoms of pancreatitis
The symptoms of pancreatitis are unfortunately vague and non-specific. This is a challenge we 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)
Acute versus chronic pancreatitis
Acute pancreatitis comes up suddenly due to active but reversible damage to 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
Imaging of the pancreas
Most vets recommend running blood tests to check:
Blood cell counts and looking for signs of inflammation
The animal’s organs, like kidneys and liver, as well as electrolytes and blood sugar
A canine or feline Pancreas-specific lipase (cPL or fPL) test, which tests for canine or 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 or 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 and then discharge your pet for home care.
This often includes things like anti-nausea medication, anti-diarrhea 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.
More severe cases of pancreatitis may require hospitalization 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 cost hundreds of dollars, if not more. Bills can be higher if your pet needs ongoing care.
Will my pet survive pancreatitis?
The prognosis for most pets with pancreatitis is favorable, 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 too poor to be 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:
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 favorite 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 and 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 consistently releases hormones and compounds into the body that promote inflammation. This is just one of many reasons it’s ideal to keep pets in good physical 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 at a healthy weight, and knowing how to spot signs something might be wrong.