Pancreatitis in dogs – everything you need to know

Every vet knows this picture – a hunched dog with a painful belly, that’s been vomiting for a few days and shows signs of dehydration. As a vet, all your medical alarm bells are ringing loud in your head. However, the symptoms match several conditions. And one of those conditions is pancreatitis in dogs.
Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas, a vital abdominal organ.

I’m going to say it right at the beginning. Canine Pancreatitis is an acute and potentially life-threatening disease that needs medical intervention. It’s one of those diseases where waiting doesn’t make it go away, quite the contrary. Not to mention it can be extremely painful for your pup.

It’s a disease that usually has a sudden onset with non-specific, mostly gastrointestinal symptoms, so it’s very easy to confuse it with other gastrointestinal conditions. That’s why it’s important for you as an owner to know when it’s safe to wait and when you should take your dog to a vet as soon as possible.

What is pancreas and why is it important?

Pancreas is a vital organ that lies on the right side of the abdomen. It’s technically a gland with exocrine and endocrine functions. As an endocrine gland, it produces the hormones insulin and glucagon, responsible for regulating the glucose level in the blood. As an exocrine gland, it produces enzymes that aid digestion. These digestive enzymes are produced in an inactive form and transported to the small intestine. Once there, they are activated and begin breaking down ingested food.

Pancreas is a gland that produces hormones regulating blood sugar levels and gastric enzymes responsible for digestion in the small intestine.

Thanks to this duality, we see different diseases, depending on which part of the pancreas is affected. Problems in the endocrine part can result in diabetes mellitus. Problems in the exocrine part result in pancreatitis – the inflammation of the pancreas.

What causes pancreatitis in dogs?

Normally, pancreatic enzymes are produced in an inactive form and transported to the small intestine. Once here, they are activated and begin digestion.

However, sometimes these enzymes get activated prematurely within the pancreas. This results in auto-digestion – the enzymes start to digest the pancreas itself. This leads to inflammation and damage to the pancreas and its surrounding tissue. Imagine how painful it must be…

The exact cause of pancreatitis in dogs (or for any pancreatitis for that matter) is not known. We understand the pathophysiology, but although there are some theories on what might contribute to the development of pancreatitis, we just don’t know why it happens (yet).

pancreatitis in dogs - dog lying down

What can trigger pancreatitis in dogs?

Studies have shown there are some risk factors that may bring on pancreatitis. You can find the list of studies in references at the end of the article if you’re interested in learning more 🙂

Again, these are risk factors, meaning they might cause pancreatitis, but don’t necessarily have to. I know it’s complicated, but it is a complicated disease.

Risk factors for canine pancreatitis:

  • Dietary factors: ingesting unusual food items, ingesting table scraps or getting into the trash, fatty meal
  • Obesity
  • Neutered dogs may have a higher risk than intact dogs
  • Some medications
  • Other medical conditions and diseases (Diabetes mellitus, GIT tract diseases, hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, epilepsy…)
  • Surgery and previous anesthesia
  • Dogs over 7 years old
  • There also might be a genetic predisposition in some cases

What I would like to mention is that human food is just not suitable for your pup. And it can potentially cause pancreatitis in dogs. So please be vigilant, especially around holidays. We see more GIT and pancreatitis-related vet visits especially around and after Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter…
You should be careful even with high-fat dog foods. Talk to your vet about the proper diet for your darling.

free pet care planner

Symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs

So, how can you tell your dog has pancreatitis? Well, the problem is, you can’t.
All the clinical signs are non-specific and depend on the degree and severity of the inflammation.
In very mild cases dogs can display intermittent anorexia and weakness without the GI signs.

In more severe cases the symptoms may include

  • anorexia
  • weakness
  • abdominal pain
  • nausea/vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • lethargy
  • dehydration
  • fever

Diarrhea is a common symptom, but if your dog doesn’t have any other symptoms and is relatively happy, it probably isn’t pancreatitis. I have a whole article on diarrhea in dogs and diarrhea in puppies, how to help your dog if he has a bowel problem and when it’s better to call your vet.

Most dogs with pancreatitis show at least 2 of the above-listed signs.

If your dog is showing signs of acute gastrointestinal distress and abdominal pain, take him to a vet as soon as possible.

Pancreatitis in dogs is potentially a life-threatening condition that can lead to cardiovascular shock, multiorgan failure, and death.
It’s one of those conditions that can go very wrong very fast. Sometimes within hours of developing the first signs.
If your dog is showing signs of acute gastrointestinal distress and abdominal pain, take him to a vet as soon as possible.

Digital pet planner for Goodnotes

How do we diagnose pancreatitis in dogs?

If the signs of canine pancreatitis are so non-specific, how can we state the dog is suffering from pancreas inflammation?

First of all, we have to rule out any other acute diseases requiring surgical intervention. If your Labrador ate a tennis ball (and for whatever reason they really like to do that), he will come to the clinic with abdominal pain, hunched over, with nausea, he may be vomiting, he may be lethargic… A dog with acute bowel inflammation will have very similar symptoms. The list goes on.

So we need to use different diagnostic tools such as X-rays, ultrasound, blood tests, etc. to arrive at the right diagnosis.

So we base the diagnosis on multiple factors, such as:

  • Clinical signs
  • Physical examination
  • Your dog’s medical history
  • X-rays
  • Blood tests
  • Ultrasound examination
  • Sometimes we also need to perform so-called fine-needle aspiration of the pancreas

We have to use all our clinical findings to come to the right diagnosis. Sometimes it’s like a puzzle you need to put together. Or like an episode of Dr. Haus 🙂

How to help a dog with pancreatitis

Treatment of canine pancreatitis depends on the severity of the inflammation, the current condition of the patient, and his symptoms. The therapy is mostly supportive since we can’t really treat the pathological process itself.

Severe cases require hospitalization. The patient may need intravenous fluids infusion, anti-vomiting drugs, pain medication, and possibly antibiotic administration.

In less severe cases, if the patient is hydrated and is not vomiting, a highly digestible low-fat diet is recommended to decrease the workload of the pancreas. There are a few veterinary prescription diets developed especially for dogs with pancreatitis.

If the dog is vomiting, he should fast until the vomiting subsides.
Your dog should be given analgetics for the pain, there is no need to let him suffer.
Many cases will also require anti-inflammatory drugs and some even antibiotics.

However, even if the patient doesn’t need to be hospitalized and can be treated at home, he needs to be closely monitored.

So what you can do is feed him a low-fat diet, give him his prescribed medication, and contact your vet if there is any change. I would say, for sure call your vet if your pup seems to be getting worse, call even if there is no change. If you want, you can also let your vet know when your dog starts to feel better. Every vet likes hearing good news for a change 🙂

How long do dogs live after being diagnosed with pancreatitis?

The prognosis depends on the severity of the inflammation and tissue damage, the severity of clinical signs, and the presence of concurrent disease.

It’s an unpredictable disease where some patients just don’t respond to therapy as they should, so suggesting a prognosis is very difficult.

Mild, uncomplicated cases usually recover without problems.

However, some dogs experience repeated bouts of the acute phase of pancreatitis, which leads to chronic pancreatic changes and persistent disease.

Very severe cases can lead to death despite extensive intensive care and medical treatment. Sometimes we just can’t save the dog, no matter how much we try…

It’s very hard to say if the patient will recover when he will recover and if there will be any further problems.

Signs of pancreatitis in dogs

Pancreatitis in dogs is an unpleasant and dangerous disease. It’s hard to diagnose and hard to treat. Symptoms are the same as we can see in other abdominal problems – pain, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration…

For you, as an owner, it’s important to know when to call a vet, as it may save your pup’s life. If your dog is showing signs of abdominal pain and/or other above-mentioned symptoms, you should contact your vet.

In mild cases, you can help your dog by giving him a very low-fat diet. However, even mild cases require close monitoring. If you observe any change, it’s important your vet knows about it.

If you want to learn more about pet health, you can sign up for my newsletter. Now you can get a free pet care planner as a bonus 🙂

While I am a veterinarian, this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any medical concerns about your pet, consult your vet immediately. Always seek professional assistance if you are unsure of your pet’s health.

References and studies:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *