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Veterinary Q & A: Pancreatitis in Dogs and Cats

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Half in the bag - image credit: klynslis on Flickr

Half in the bag

© klynslis on Flickr
Please see the vet question archive for more Q & A topics.

What is the pancreas, and why is it needed?
The pancreas is a glandular organ that is tucked under the stomach and duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine - see diagram.

The pancreas has two functions: 1) exocrine - to produce the enzymes needed to digest food, and 2) endocrine - to produce hormones, including the hormone insulin, which facilitates the uptake and storage of glucose (sugar) and amino acids (proteins).

What happens during a bout of pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, causing leakage of the digestive enzymes whereby the pancreas literally starts to "digest itself". Pancreatitis can be acute (sudden) or chronic (happening over a course of time).

Both acute and chronic forms are serious and can be life-threatening, especially the acute form.

What causes pancreatitis?
For the majority of cases, the cause is unknown. Pancreatitis can occur in both dogs and cats, but is more common in dogs, especially the acute form. Cats more commonly have the chronic form, and it can be difficult to diagnose.

In dogs, obese middle age to older animals have a higher incidence, as do females. Even though exact causes are not known, there are identifiable risk factors. Here are some potential risk factors:

  • High fat meal (trigger for hyperlipidemia)
  • Hyperlipidemia (high fat content in blood)
  • Obesity (especially dogs)
  • Concurrent disease - i.e. Cushing's, Diabetes Mellitus
  • Contaminated food or water
  • Certain drugs and toxins - i.e. some types of diuretics, antibiotics, and organophosphate insecticide
  • Bacterial or viral infection

What are the signs of pancreatitis?
The signs can vary from mild gastrointestinal upset to collapse and death. Most animals present with common gastrointestinal signs of upset, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Not eating
  • Painful abdomen, hunched appearance (more common in dogs
  • Fever or below-normal body temperature
  • Diarrhea
  • Depression
  • Dehydration, evaluated by noting sunken eyes, dry mouth, and increased skin turgor (skin tents when pinched)

These signs are not specific for pancreatitis, and can be seen with many gastrointestinal diseases and conditions. All or some of the signs may be noted in an individual patient with pancreatitis.

Cats can be especially difficult to diagnose due to the vague signs they exhibit with chronic pancreatitis - depression/lethargy and poor appetite are seen with regularity, and gastrointestinal signs of vomiting, diarrhea, and / or pain are seen intermittently.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will evaluate your pet's history (i.e. getting into the garbage, eating a lot of food they normally don't - especially fatty foods, etc.), do a thorough physical examination, and likely do blood tests to rule out other diseases and to check pancreatic enzymes. Radiographs may also be done to rule out a gastric or intestinal foreign body or other GI diseases or conditions.

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?
Treatment for this disease is supportive, meaning that there isn't usually a direct cause and cure, but supporting the animal while allowing healing. The veterinary team will take care of the animal's fluid needs via IV, pain management, and will address any other disease processes (infection, diabetes, etc.) while letting the pancreas heal on its own.

Resting the pancreas and gastrointestinal system is key, and this means no food or water by mouth for 1 to 5 or more days while on IV fluids. This is dependent on the severity of each case, and the animal must be on fluids and other support to survive and heal the pancreas while off of oral food and water.

What about follow up care post-recovery, and what is involved in the management of chronic Pancreatitis?
Your vet will likely prescribe a low-fat, high-fiber diet to aid in your pet's recovery and to prevent future bouts of pancreatitis. Depending on your pet's case, the diet recommendations may be for life for optimal health and preventative care.

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM. All rights reserved
Image: Half in the bag © klynslis on Flickr

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