The pancreas is an abdominal organ that rests near the stomach and small intestines, and plays vital roles in digestion and control of blood sugar levels by producing various digestive enzymes and the hormone, insulin. When the pancreas functions normally, inactive enzymes are released into the digestive tract to aid in food break-down. When these enzymes are released prematurely, however, they begin digesting prematurely, damaging the pancreas itself. This inflammatory process leads to pancreatitis. 

Pancreatitis can occur in dogs and cats acutely (i.e., quickly and intensely), or chronically (i.e., persistently or recurrently). Typically, pets with acute pancreatitis will appear sicker than those with chronic disease, but pets with chronic pancreatitis can experience serious, acute episodes. 

What causes pancreatitis in pets?

No one knows the exact cause of pancreatitis, but certain variables may predispose a pet to the disease, including:

  • Recent history of a high-fat meal 
  • Hereditary disorders
  • Primary biliary conditions
  • Breed (schnauzers may be predisposed)
  • Obesity
  • Older age 
  • Corticosteroid administration
  • Recent surgery

What are pancreatitis signs in pets?

When the pancreas is inflamed, pets often experience nausea, vomiting, and lethargy. Pancreatitis can cause significant abdominal pain, so pets may be restless, or assume various body positions, such as the “prayer” pose. Other pancreatitis signs often include fever, diarrhea, and inappetence. In severe cases, pets can experience shock-like symptoms, including depression, collapse, or death. 

How is pancreatitis diagnosed in pets?

If your pet is ill, and shows signs of pancreatitis, contact Animal Internal Medicine and Specialty Services immediately. Since this disease often mimics other gastrointestinal conditions, various diagnostic tests can help rule out other causes for your pet’s signs. An accurate diagnosis can lead to appropriate treatment, so our veterinary team may recommend one or all of the following tests:  

  • Complete blood count — A CBC may reveal an elevated white blood cell count.
  • Abdominal radiographs — These may show changes in the pancreas, but are more valuable for ruling out other disease processes. 
  • Pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity — This test assesses the level of a particular enzyme produced solely by the pancreas, which can be a great indicator of pancreatic inflammation, although an elevated level is not diagnostic. 
  • Abdominal ultrasound — An ultrasound allows effective assessment of the pancreas surface for evidence of inflammation or other abnormalities. 

A biopsy of the pancreas is the only way to definitively diagnose pancreatitis, but this is not always practical, especially when pets present with an acute pancreatic attack. Your AIMSS veterinarian will discuss the best diagnostic steps for your individual pet. 

How is pancreatitis treated in pets?

The primary goal in pancreatitis treatment is keeping your pet stable and comfortable, while we work to diagnose and treat a possible underlying cause for the inflammation. Severe pancreatitis often requires hospitalization and monitoring for several days, allowing the pancreas to rest. In these cases, pets typically receive supportive care such as intravenous fluid therapy, pain medications, and other ancillary therapies, to address nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Your veterinarian may also recommend temporarily withholding food, or at least switching your pet to an ultra low-fat diet. The prognosis for pancreatitis depends heavily on the underlying cause, and the frequency of attacks. Unfortunately, pets with chronic or severe disease may suffer permanent damage to the pancreas, which could result in enzyme insufficiency, or diabetes mellitus. 

Preventing pancreatitis in pets

You can minimize your pet’s chances of developing pancreatitis by feeding a well-balanced commercial diet, and refraining from giving table scraps and other high-fat foods. Exercise your pet daily to keep their weight in check. Consider your dog’s breed and any hereditary disorders that may put them at risk for pancreatitis. Monitor your older pets closely for discomfort or gastrointestinal upset signs that may suggest chronic pancreatitis. Lastly, stay up to date on your pet’s preventive care by scheduling their annual or semi-annual exam, to ensure subtle signs and bloodwork changes don’t go unnoticed. Contact our AIMSS team today, and schedule an appointment.

For more information regarding pancreatitis in cats, visit the Cornell Feline Health Center website here.