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Pancreatitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Dog owners are often unaware of the existence of the dog’s pancreas, at least not until this organ starts giving signs of problems. The pancreas indeed is a pretty quiet organ that for the most part lives in the shadow giving no signs of trouble when all is going well. Make this organ irritated though and soon enough the dog develops several problematic symptoms that will make him quite miserable. To better understand pancreatitis, it’s helpful to first better understand the role of the pancreas and how it normally functions.

The Function of the Dog’s Pancreas

The pancreas is a gland found in the dog’s digestive system and is located just below the stomach, surrounded by the duodenum. One of its main roles is to secrete special digestive enzymes that help break down nutrients in the small intestine and help assist in digestion. On top of aiding digestion, the pancreas is also an endocrine gland, meaning that it also secretes hormones in the blood stream. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas and then spread into the blood stream.

In a normally functioning pancreas, the digestive enzymes travel from the pancreatic duct to the small intestine where they become active and start helping with digestion. In an abnormally functioning pancreas, the enzymes instead activate prematurely before reaching the small intestine. This causes the pancreas to end up self-digesting its own glandular tissue causing much associated pain and inflammation. Pancreatitis is the medical term used to depict this inflammation of the pancreas.

Symptoms

Clinical signs of pancreatitis vary depending on how many enzymes were prematurely activated and for how long the condition was left untreated. Because several other health conditions may cause symptoms similar to pancreatitis, it’s important to have the dog see a veterinarian so he can be diagnosed properly and the most appropriate treatment can be initiated. Dogs affected by pancreatitis may suffer from the acute form that comes on suddenly, or the chronic form which causes repeated bouts. Following are common symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs.

canine pancreatitis Understanding Canine Pancreatitis
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Dehydration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Lethargy
  • Panting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trouble breathing

In severe cases, dogs with strong abdominal pain may be seen standing with their back arched or lying down with their rear up in the air and their head and chest on the floor in what is known as the “praying position.” In particularly severe cases, the dog may become severely depressed, develop heart arrhythmia, abnormal clotting of the blood and shock and death may also occur.

Diagnosis

Clinical signs are often not enough to attain a diagnosis for pancreatitis. The vet may want to order a complete blood count, x-rays to identify the presence of any trauma to the pancreas and serum chemistry testing so to check the levels of pancreatic and liver enzymes in the bloodstream. Typically, the levels of amylase and lipase are elevated in dogs suffering from acute pancreatitis. Further testing may involve checking the levels of trypsin substances which are typically elevated in dogs with pancreatitis.

Causes

With a serious condition as pancreatitis, dog owners often wonder what may cause it in the first place. The exact dynamics that cause the enzymes to prematurely activate within the pancreas are yet to be fully understood, but there are some common factors that seem to trigger pancreatitis. Many times, the condition is triggered by well-meaning owners feeding their dogs fatty meals. It’s not at all unusual for bouts of pancreatitis to occur after festivities, when dog owners feed their dogs greasy leftovers or pet parents are too distracted by guests to notice that their dog got into the kitchen and started licking bacon fat off a pan.

In some other cases, it has been noticed that the administration of corticosteroids may play a role in the onset of pancreatitis. Unfortunately, in many cases an exact cause cannot be found which leads to much frustration as dog owners don’t know what can be done to prevent another episode. Regardless of the cause, treatment protocols for canine pancreatitis overall remain quite the same.

Some smaller breed dogs like Miniature Schnauzer, Cocker Spaniels and Yorkshire Terrier have elevated risk of developing pancreatitis. Also of importance is the fact that dogs suffering from Cushing’s disease have increased risk of pacreatitis too.

Treatment Protocols

In the case of mild pancreatitis, treatment is supportive. The dog’s pancreas is allowed to rest by withholding food for 24 to 48 hours. This way, the pancreas can relax during this brief period since it no longer will need to secrete enzymes that can potentially further injure the inflamed pancreas and other surrounding organs. Pain relievers will be administered to help the dog deal with the intense pain. Intravenous fluids are given as needed to help correct fluid levels in dehydrated dogs. In many instances, affected dogs will require anti-inflammatory drugs or other medications meant to reduce to instances of vomiting and diarrhea. Severe cases may require hospitalization for an average of 3 to 4 days so the dog can receive intravenous fluids and medications. Intensive care may be needed for dogs that have become depressed and have developed shock. The prognosis is often guarded in these cases.

In some cases, the secretion of pancreatic enzymes during a bout of pancreatitis may destroy important cells. When several cells responsible for producing digestive enzymes are destroyed, digestion may be affected long term and affected dogs may develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. These dogs will need long term administration of pancreatic enzymes. On the other hand, if cells responsible for producing insulin are destroyed, dogs may also develop diabetes mellitus.

Preventing Further Episodes

Unfortunately, dogs who recover from a bout of pancreatitis are susceptible to future episodes. Further episodes of pancreatitis can be prevented by putting the dog on a low-fat diet and ensuring the dog doesn’t get any table scraps. Dietary management along with avoidance of drugs known for triggering pancreatic problems can help reduce re-occurrences. Feeding meals in smaller, more frequent servings can help prevent over-stimulation of the pancreas. A good weight control program is suggested for dogs that are overweight.


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