Pancreatitis is common in both dogs and cats. In an average working week, I anticipate seeing at the very least a couple of patients with this condition.
The symptoms in dogs tend to be more obvious, such as vomiting and stomachache, but the signs are subtler in cats. A lot of “ADR” (ain’t doing right) cats go on to be diagnosed with pancreatitis.
The condition varies a little between the 2 species because whereas there is a strong link between a high-fat meal and pancreatitis in dogs, this doesn’t seem to be the case in cats. Indeed, with reference to the high-fat meal, I see more canine cases in the barbecue season. This is because dogs beg, and well-meaning guests feed them sausages.
I usually explain to clients that pancreatitis is not a “black-and-white” condition but instead embraces all shades of gray in between. Some pets are only a little off-color and respond well to pain relief and 24 hours without food. Unfortunately, at the other end of the spectrum are those who arrive in a state of sudden collapse and need intensive care.
There is an overlap in symptoms between those of a regular tummy upset and those of pancreatitis. Both sets of animals may:
- Stop eating
- Be listless
- Run a fever
The sign that raises suspicion of pancreatitis is if the veterinarian feels the pet’s tummy and pain is localized at the front of the abdomen, where the pancreas lies.
From mild discomfort to serious collapse, pancreatitis sits on a sliding scale of seriousness. If you suspect your cat or dog has pancreatitis, seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
Swift action in the early stages, such as starving the pet and giving pain relief, can help nip a serious episode in the bud. Unfortunately, an animal that has 1 episode is quite likely to have future upsets, but diet can help reduce the risk.
One of the jobs of the pancreas is to break down fatty foods in the digestive system by squirting digestive juices into the small intestine.
If the pancreas becomes overstimulated, it can soak itself in digestive juice and digest itself. The damaged cells then give off a powerful chemical distress signal, which in turn makes blood vessels leakier, and micro-clots are more likely to form, ultimately causing organ damage.
Obesity and a high-fat diet are risk factors for pancreatitis. Certain breeds are more at risk because they are genetically prone to high levels of cholesterol. The breeds most affected are small dogs such as miniature schnauzers, Shetland sheepdogs, West Highland white terriers and Dachshunds.
When a thorough clinical examination points to pancreatitis, your veterinarian will run a combination of bloods tests and imaging depending on the pet’s symptoms and level of illness.
If the pet is very sick, then a general blood profile will show if the patient is dehydrated and if his kidneys are coping (dehydration places a strain on the organs, especially the kidneys). Certain changes in protein levels, amylase, lipase and cholesterol can point toward pancreatitis but do not give a definitive diagnosis. Most helpful is a specific test, a specCPL or specFPL, which measures leakage of pancreatic enzymes into the blood.
An ultrasound scan is superior to X-rays in backing up the diagnosis. The scan may show a swollen pancreas, and this is yet another puzzle piece to help confirm suspicions.
If the pet is only a little unwell, he may be given a painkilling shot and advice to rest his stomach for 24 hours — nothing ingested by mouth except for fluids.
There is no “cure” for pancreatitis — however, there are several ways to help the patient recover. The key is resting the pancreas, and this means no food by mouth for 24 to 48 hours.
The pet may need to go on an intravenous drip to reverse dehydration and maintain a healthy blood supply to the organs. Pain relief for the tummy ache and drugs to stop the vomiting are also important.
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The use of antibiotics is controversial because this isn’t — strictly speaking — an infection. However, I tend to use broad-spectrum antibiotics because I have seen patients develop pancreatic abscesses as a consequence of pancreatitis.
This dog developed pancreatitis after being fed chicken soup. Watch his recovery through ultrasound images:
Obesity is a risk factor, so try to keep your pets lean.
Any dog (or cat) who has had an episode of pancreatitis should have a low-fat diet. Again, the link between fat and pancreatitis isn’t proven in the cat, but it seems a sensible precaution, as it will do no harm.
Some veterinarians suggest adding a supplement of pancreatic enzyme powder to the feed for a month after a flare-up. The idea is for your pet to start digesting the food in the bowel so the pancreas does less work and can better repair itself. Again, this is not proven to be of benefit, but it does no harm.
- “Association between dietary factors and pancreatitis in dogs.” Lem, Fosgate, Norby & Steiner. JAVMA, 233: 1425–1431.
- “Diagnosis and management of acute pancreatitis.” Williams. JSAP, 35: 445–454.
- “Canine pancreatitis.” Williams & Steiner. Current Veterinary Therapy XIII. Bonagura. Publisher: Saunders.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.