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Pancreatitis - What you need to know

The pancreas is a V shaped gland in the upper part of your dog or cat’s abdomen. Its major function is to aid in the digestive process by producing and secreting a powerful liquid full of enzymes and other substances that eventually pass out of the pancreas and into the small intestine to aid in the digestion of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates and in the absorption of vitamins and minerals from your pet’s food. Inflammation of the pancreas occurs when there is a disturbance in secreting these enzymes and instead of passing out of the pancreas they remain inside the organ where they begin feeding on the pancreatic tissue itself.

There are two types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis can appear suddenly, be severe, and is life-threatening. Chronic pancreatitis tends to cause up and down symptoms repeatedly over time and the continuing inflammation may lead to irreversible and permanent damage of the pancreas and surrounding organs. Many pets with acute pancreatitis must be hospitalized for intravenous fluids and supportive care. Chronic pancreatitis requires careful, long-term management due to the organ damage that can occur.

What causes Pancreatitis?

Its causes remain unknown, although a wide variety of possible factors have been

associated with onset of the disease, such as excessive dietary fat, physical trauma,

ingestion of insecticides, adverse drug reactions, and parasitic infection.

One of the most common triggers we see with pets is dietary indiscretion, when a dog or cat eats food they normally do not eat or a food that is high in fat. We see an uptake in cases after major holidays, especially Thanksgiving. An important distinction to remember, some pets who eat table food on a regular basis and have never had a problem can still experience an episode of pancreatitis. Their pancreas has decided enough is enough.

Other factors include obesity, presence of other diseases, abdominal blunt force trauma and more.

As we have already stated, pancreatitis can be life threatening so it is important for pet parents to recognize the symptoms and to understand the importance of seeking veterinary care quickly. Dogs and cats often suffer different symptoms making it harder to diagnose. On top of that, sometimes the signs can be subtle, especially in cats, so it is even more important for you to know what to look for so as not to miss the signs that your pet needs help.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Symptoms in dogs include -

  • Loss of appetite

  • Vomiting

  • Weakness

  • Abdominal pain (your dog may look "hunched" up)

  • Dehydration

  • Diarrhea

  • Restless, panting or trembling

Whereas in cats with pancreatitis, clinical signs are more likely to include -

  • Loss of appetite

  • Vomiting

  • Lethargy

  • Dehydration

  • Weight loss

  • Fever

  • Abdominal pain

  • Diarrhea

  • Abdominal mass

  • Low body temperature

Because symptoms can be vague pet parents may dismiss the seriousness of the situation. It is important to seek medical care early on, remember pancreatitis can result in permanent damage to the pancreas and other organs and can be fatal. Repeated vomiting can quickly lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance especially if your pet is not drinking or cannot keep water down.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

No single test can diagnose pancreatitis in all cases. X-rays, ultrasound examinations, and

blood work provide supportive information. More specific blood tests include a test called the

PLI (pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test.) SPEC cPL (specific canine pancreatic lipase),

and fPL (feline pancreas-specific lipase.)

According to Dr. Jorg Steiner, University Distinguished Professor at the Texas A&M College

of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and the Director of the Gastrointestinal

Laboratory. "There are some conditions that may be found concurrent with pancreatitis,

including hepatic inflammation and intestinal inflammation. To give the most accurate diagnosis possible, your veterinarian will also test for diseases that mimic pancreatitis, such as kidney disease and liver disease." (Dr. Steiner, along with Dr. David Williams, developed the diagnostic test for pancreatitis, mentioned above, that eventually became SPEC cPL that

detects pancreatitis in dogs.

For cats, “a relatively reliable diagnostic indicator for the disorder is the feline pancreatic lipase immunoreactive (fPLI) test, developed at Texas A&M, which will accurately measure the amount of the digestive enzyme lipase that is present in an affected cat’s pancreas. (In pancreatitis, the level of lipase in the organ rises significantly.) Unfortunately, this test can be run in only a few laboratories in the U.S., and results may not be available quickly enough to help a seriously afflicted cat.”

“At present, the only achievable and fully reliable diagnosis of pancreatitis can be made through a biopsy of the patient’s pancreatic tissue. And even this procedure has its drawbacks for a cat that is critically ill; surgical removal of pancreatic tissue, for example, could prompt further inflammation in the organ.” Richard Goldstein, DVM, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of U.S. Diagnostics at Zoetis.

Dr. Goldstein recommends beginning treatment for pancreatitis based on other criteria if

a biopsy is not feasible.


Treatment is limited to intravenous fluids, antibiotics, anti-vomiting drugs, pain medication,

and electrolyte supplements to support the body as it heals itself. Sometimes hospitalization

and/or surgery may be required.


If your pet has had or is suspected of having pancreatitis, change over to a low-fat diet, and

decrease body weight, if they are overweight. Avoid giving too many treats, especially treats

containing fat. It is critical to avoid ANY fatty human foods such as meat, cheeses, etc. Consult your veterinarian for specific instructions on what to feed your pet as they know your

pet's health and history.

In Conclusion

Once a pet has had pancreatitis they are more likely to have another bout and each time they have pancreatitis their prospects of recovery diminish. It is critical that you adhere to your veterinarian's instructions and to your pet's diet restrictions. Remember it is up to you to

keep them safe and healthy.

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