The pancreas is an organ in the tummy that has 2 important functions: it produces digestive juices that break down fats, and it also makes insulin (a specific cancer that affects the cells making insulin, called an insulinoma, is dealt with in a separate article).
Cancers of the pancreas tend to occur in older animals and are more common in the cat than in the dog. Sometimes the pancreatic cancer can be primary, which means it originates from pancreatic cells, and sometimes secondary, meaning it is a result of another tumor spreading elsewhere in the body.
This distinction is important because it has implications for treatment and what the future holds for the patient.
The signs that a dog or cat has pancreatic cancer tend to be vague and non-specific:
- Losing interest in food
- Weight loss
- Lack of energy
- Gastric upsets such as sickness or diarrhea
Sometimes the pet remains well until the cancer presses on a vital structure such as the bile duct, and then he falls ill suddenly. This was the case for a patient of mine, a much loved and adored Bichon Frise, Freddie.
Freddie had been born with a serious heart complaint, doing well to make it to his teens. His family was scrupulous about bringing him in for checkups, but one weekend Freddie went off his food, and they rushed him in for an emergency appointment. A physical exam showed the membranes in Freddie’s mouth were jaundiced.
An investigation showed the problem was pancreatic cancer, which had spread to his liver and was stopping bile from emptying out of his gall bladder. Despite aggressive intravenous fluid therapy and supportive care, Freddie continued to do very poorly; the heartbreaking decision was made to let him go.
Pancreatic cancer remains one of the types of neoplasia where no trigger factor has been identified. The risk of it occurring seems to go up with age, and cats are more commonly affected than dogs, but the reason why remains unclear.
On a blood profile, there are no specific markers of pancreatic neoplasia, although sometimes suspicion will be raised by changes in the blood panel. Often what shows on blood work is the knock-on effect on the liver, such as in Freddie’s case when his liver enzymes were elevated and he had high bilirubin levels because of the bile duct obstruction.
An ultrasound scan of the abdomen allows the clinician to examine the pancreas and surrounding tissues to look for abnormal areas of tissue density indicating a mass. Again, this gives clues as to there being a problem, but a definitive diagnosis is made by taking a biopsy from the suspicious areas.
I would love to say there is treatment for pancreatic cancer, but this is not the case. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are ineffective; the best chance for the pet’s survival is if the lump is located in one part of the pancreas and is suitable for surgical removal.
However, the pancreas is a delicate and sensitive organ — surgery is by no means straightforward and is linked to a high complication rate. Thus, it bears careful thought as to what is in the best interest of your pet if a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is made.
There are no known means of preventing pancreatic cancer.
- BSAVA Manual of Small Animal Endocrinology. Torrance et al. Publisher: BSAVA Publications.
- Small Animal Oncology. Morris & Dobson. Publisher: Blackwell Science.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.