Frequently Asked Questions: Pancreatitis in Pets

Our Harbor Pines Veterinary Center veterinarians diagnose several pets with pancreatitis each month. Dietary indiscretions (i.e., consuming rich and unfamiliar foods) are one common pancreatitis cause. 

If your pet develops pancreatitis, you may feel scared and confused, questioning how this illness could have come about. To learn about this condition, its causes, signs, and treatments, read our answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) about pancreatitis in pets. 

Question: What is pancreatitis in pets?

Answer: Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas, a small digestive organ located at the start of a pet’s small intestine (i.e., the duodenum), becomes inflamed. Many pet owners do not even realize their dog or cat has a pancreas. However, this is a highly sensitive organ that, when irritated, can cause your pet to experience a severe and potentially fatal illness.

Q: What is the function of a healthy pancreas in pets?

A: The pancreas serves two critical roles in your dog’s or cat’s body, and is divided into two separate parts (i.e., endocrine and exocrine). Each part is made of unique cells designed specifically for its purpose. Consider each part’s job:

  • Endocrine pancreas — Produces the blood-sugar controlling hormones—insulin and glucagon.
  • Exocrine pancreas — Produces, stores, and releases powerful digestive enzymes into the small intestine to break down fat and nutrients.

Q: Is pancreatitis a serious condition in pets?

A: Pancreatitis occurs in two forms, acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis has a sudden and often dramatic onset, which veterinarians typically describe as an attack and can be fatal in severe cases. Chronic (i.e., persistent) pancreatitis can occur as an acute pancreatitis complication, causing intermittent and low-intensity discomfort and illness. Unmanaged chronic pancreatitis can flare and become acute-on-chronic pancreatitis. Both forms require veterinary attention and treatment and are significant health issues.

Q: What happens when a pet develops pancreatitis?

A: During an acute pancreatitis attack, inflammatory changes in the organ’s tissue allow the digestive enzymes within to escape into the pet’s abdominal cavity. These powerful enzymes begin to digest surrounding tissues and organs, including the pancreas itself. This autodigestion, along with the inflammation, causes an affected pet to suffer severe pain.

Pets with chronic pancreatitis or repeated acute pancreatitis bouts experience destructive changes to the pancreatic tissue. These changes result in decreased function and long-term complications such as diabetes mellitus or digestive disorders (e.g., exocrine pancreatic insufficiency [EPI]).

Q: What causes pancreatitis in pets?

A: Unfortunately for most pets, pancreatitis is considered idiopathic (i.e., cause unknown). However, dietary indiscretion, specifically consuming rich or high-fat foods, is known to often be the cause of dogs’ acute pancreatitis. Other risk factors that may contribute to pancreatitis include:

  • Age — Acute pancreatitis can occur at any age, but chronic pancreatitis is more prevalent in adult pets, including cats older than 7 years of age. 
  • Genetic predisposition — Dog breeds that are genetically predisposed to developing pancreatitis include miniature schnauzers, Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels, poodles, and dachshunds.
  • Trauma — Blunt abdominal trauma (e.g., a fall from a height) may contribute to cats’ pancreatitis. 
  • Pre-existing conditions — Cats with pancreatitis often suffer from other health conditions, including diabetes, chronic intestinal conditions, and liver and gallbladder diseases.
  • Medications — Prolonged corticosteroid administration can affect the pancreas. 

Q: What are pancreatitis signs in pets?

A: Pets with acute pancreatitis are visibly ill and painful. However, because these signs are nonspecific, our Harbor Pines Veterinary Center team must rule out conditions that present with similar signs before confirming your pet’s diagnosis. Acute pancreatitis signs may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • In dogs, praying or bowing position (i.e., standing with their forelimbs on the floor and their hind end elevated)

Pets with chronic pancreatitis may exhibit no signs. If an affected pet does exhibit signs, they may include low-grade intermittent changes such as decreased appetite, lethargy, or diarrhea. 

Q: How is acute pancreatitis treated in pets?

A: Pancreatitis treatment will depend on your pet’s condition such as whether they have acute or chronic pancreatitis, and the signs and their severity. Our team can manage a pet’s mild acute pancreatitis by prescribing medication and a low-fat bland diet. However, if your pet is severely affected, we will hospitalize them and provide corrective therapies that may include medication and fluids to address pain, nausea, and dehydration. Your pet may need intravenous (IV) nutrition or a bland low-fat diet. With prompt veterinary attention and treatment, the prognosis for acute pancreatitis is generally good.

Q: Will my pet need to be on long-term medication or a special diet for their chronic pancreatitis?

A: Our team generally recommends dietary modification for pets with chronic pancreatitis. A low-fat therapeutic diet is a simple and effective way to ease the damaged pancreas’s workload and ideally reduce the risk for future inflammation and acute pancreatitis attacks. Depending on your pet’s species and their signs’ severity, we may prescribe medications, such as steroids or antibiotics, as needed to decrease inflammation or harmful bacteria. If your pet suffers from other health conditions or pancreatitis-related complications (e.g., diabetes, EPI), additional therapies and treatments will be necessary.

Q: Can pancreatitis in pets be prevented or minimized?

A: Because most pancreatitis cases are classified as idiopathic, our veterinary team often has no way of knowing why your pet developed this condition or how you can completely prevent them from developing pancreatitis again. However, as a general rule of thumb, you should avoid feeding your dog high-fat meals or table scraps.

Do you have additional questions about pancreatitis in pets? For answers and to schedule an appointment for your pet, contact our Harbor Pines Veterinary Center team.

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