The holidays are a wonderful time to spend with our furry friends. It can be tempting to not only share the love but to share the wonderful holiday food, too. But be warned! Veterinarians know this time of a year as a bad one for pancreatitis.
Acute pancreatitis is a common condition in all dogs, although some dog breeds, like the Miniature Schnauzer and Cocker Spaniel, are particularly prone. It occurs when the pancreas, the digestive organ that lies alongside the stomach and small intestine, becomes inflamed. This is a problem because the pancreas is filled with digestive enzymes that are inactive. When inflammation occurs, those enzymes become active and can start to digest the pancreas itself.
Acute pancreatitis can often, although not always, be traced back to an inciting cause such as eating rich, fatty foods like red meat or an incident of dietary indiscretion — for example when you turn your back on your turkey-loving dog, and he helps himself to a turkey carcass. In other cases, a cause may never be found.
Symptoms & Diagnosis
If these symptoms happen, it is best to seek a veterinary visit. The initial symptoms are usually lethargy and lack of appetite. That can progress to abdominal pain, bloating, vomiting and diarrhea. Fever may or may not occur.
After a physical examination, your veterinarian may recommend some diagnostics. Initial testing for suspected pancreatitis usually includes:
✤ a complete blood count
✤ a chemistry panel
✤ a “snap” pancreatitis test.
Also, X-rays may be done to rule out other causes, such as a foreign body ingestion.
Findings that can be consistent with pancreatitis include elevated lipase and/or amylase, an elevated white blood cell count and electrolyte abnormalities. These are not definitive for pancreatitis, however. Ultrasound has also been used to evaluate the pancreas, but it can be very difficult to accurately diagnose, even when done by a specialist.
Pancreatitis can be a tricky diagnosis, so it’s important to look at the diagnostics, as well as the clinical signs, breed, age and history of the patient. In most cases, pancreatitis is heavily suspected but not completely confirmed. Treatment is generally similar to that for severe gastroenteric disease, so it can be started without a confirmed diagnosis.
If your dog is not severely ill, the veterinarian may start with outpatient treatment. This could include subcutaneous fluids, a bland diet — usually chicken and rice based — anti-emetics like Cerenia, antidiarrheals such as a probiotic, pain medications and close monitoring.
Antibiotics were once a mainstay of therapy, but it was discovered that, in dogs, pancreatitis is usually an inflammatory but NOT infectious condition. As a result, to preserve antibiotics, they aren’t used frequently anymore. If symptoms do not rapidly improve, your veterinarian should be more aggressive.
If your pup is already very ill, hospitalization is required. During hospitalization for pancreatitis, you can expect that your dog will receive IV fluids and IV medications to control nausea, vomiting and pain, as well as possibly antibiotics. Your dog could be in the ICU for 1 to 5 days (or even longer), depending on severity. Your veterinarian may recommend transfer to a specialty or emergency hospital for more advanced care.
Take Your Dog to the Veterinarian Stat
In some cases, this illness can turn fatal quickly. This is called necrotizing pancreatitis, in which the pancreas is rapidly destroyed by its own digestive enzymes. This can progress in a matter of hours, so it is critical to have your dog checked out ASAP if you suspect pancreatitis. In cases of necrotizing disease, hospitalization can be prolonged. Your dog may develop blood clotting abnormalities, abdominal effusion (fluid collecting internally), heart arrhythmias and/or sepsis.
Recovery from pancreatitis depends on the severity and inciting cause. Some dogs develop long-term changes in the pancreas (chronic pancreatitis), while others fully recover. In some cases, a dietary change to a low-fat food is recommended, as well as daily probiotics to maintain gut health.
Breeds Prone to Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis occurs in all dogs, especially in dogs who are older or overweight. Breeds with increased risk to either acute or chronic pancreatitis:
- Cavalier King
- Charles Spaniel
- Cocker Spaniel
- German Shepherd
- Miniature Poodle
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Silky Terrier
- Yorkshire Terrier