Pancreatitis can make your pup very sick and requires immediate diagnosis and treatment from a veterinarian. Though the disease can be treatable, prevention by feeding your dog appropriate food (no table scraps!) and getting enough exercise can help prevent pancreatitis.

By Sarah Mouton Dowdy
August 24, 2020
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Credit: OlenaKlymenok / Getty

Resist giving in to your dog’s sad puppy eyes when there’s leftover bacon at breakfast. It isn’t just important for his figure; it could also protect him from a condition called pancreatitis. While the exact cause of pancreatitis isn’t always known, most cases occur after a high-fat meal. In dogs, pancreatitis can lead to serious problems, including dehydration, organ damage, diabetes, and even death. The best way to avoid these outcomes is to catch and treat the disease as soon as possible.  

What is Pancreatitis?

In order to understand pancreatitis, you need to know what the funtion of the pancreas is. The pancreas is an organ that’s located in the abdomen. It has two main jobs:

  • Endocrine: produces hormones (including insulin) that regulate blood sugar levels
  • Exocrine: produces pancreatic juice containing enzymes necessary to digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates

Just like the pancreas’ role in humans, your dog’s pancreas helps their body digest food through the secretion of enzymes that break down sugars, fats, and starches.

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, pancreatitis is the most common exocrine pancreatic disease in dogs, and it can be either acute (short-term; no permanent damage) or chronic (long-term; pancreatic tissue is permanently damaged). At the beginning of the disease, the amount of pancreatic juice secreted by the pancreas starts to decrease. Then, instead of digesting food in the intestinal tract, enzymes inside the pancreas begin digesting the pancreas itself. This causes damage and inflammation within the pancreas, which leads to problems in other areas of the body. 

What Causes Pancreatitis?

Unfortunately, the specific cause of a dog’s pancreatitis isn’t always known. However, risk factors can include:

  • Eating inappropriate food (such as table scraps and trash)
  • Severe trauma or surgery
  • Some medications
  • High blood levels of triglycerides (a type of fat)
  • Too much adrenal gland function (a condition called hyperadrenocorticism).

And while pancreatitis can occur in any breed, Theresa Entriken, DVM, a veterinary consultant based in Leawood, Kan., says miniature schnauzers may be more prone to the disease than other breeds because of a hereditary condition that leads to high blood triglyceride concentrations. 

What Are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Dogs with mild pancreatitis may not have any clinical signs, but some dogs become very sick. Common clinical signs in dogs with severe pancreatitis include:

  • vomiting
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • weakness
  • stomach pain
  • dehydration
  • diarrhea
  • fever

The American Animal Hospital Association recommends getting your dog examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible if your pet:

  • has been vomiting or had diarrhea for more than 24 hours
  • has not eaten for 24 hours

However, any time you’re concerned about your dog’s health is an appropriate time to call your veterinarian. 

How is Pancreatitis Diagnosed in Dogs?

According to Entriken, pet owners can play a key role in the diagnostic process. “Clues from your dog’s history—such as a middle-aged or older dog with a sudden onset of vomiting, lethargy, reduced appetite, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea, who’s had a recent unusual diet change (like getting into the trash or eating high-fat table foods)—may support a diagnosis,” she says. “And a physical examination by your veterinarian may reveal that your dog is dehydrated and has a fever.” Entriken adds that severely affected dogs may exhibit a fever or hypothermia. They can also be disoriented, have difficulty breathing, have an irregular heart rhythm, or collapse. 

Entriken says there are a couple of tests that can help your veterinarian make an accurate diagnosis. “There’s a rapid, patient-side test that indicates whether lipase, an enzyme produced by the pancreas, is present in normal or abnormal concentrations in the blood,” she explains. “And a separate or follow-up blood test sent to a diagnostic laboratory to quantify the enzyme can confirm the diagnosis and help indicate the severity of disease.” Abdominal ultrasound can also be helpful in diagnosing pancreatitis, as it can provide evidence of pancreatic inflammation. 

How Is Pancreatitis Treated?

Entriken says that treatment options for pancreatitis can include IV fluids to maintain appropriate hydration and correct any electrolyte imbalances, anti-nausea medications, analgesics (pain medications) to alleviate discomfort, and a low-fat diet reintroduced as soon as vomiting is controlled. She adds that although it was previously recommended to withhold food for several days, recent studies suggest that feeding these dogs within 48 hours positively affects the return of their appetite and reduces food intolerance.

If your dog needs to be hospitalized, Entriken says he may be given a nasogastric tube to ensure he’s getting important nutrients. “The small tube is placed through the nostril and runs down to the stomach so a liquid diet can be given,” she explains. “Dogs tolerate these tubes well.”  

According to Entriken, the recovery time for dogs with mild cases of pancreatitis is around two to four days. “Patients can be discharged from the hospital once they’re stable, not vomiting, and are eating well on their own,” she explains. 

For dogs with severe cases of pancreatitis, however, Entriken says hospitalization and recovery may take several days to weeks and require intensive care and monitoring. “Sadly, dogs with life-threatening illness may die from complications associated with this condition, such as systemic shock and organ failure,” she adds. 

How Can Pancreatitis Be Prevented?

Pet owners play an important role in prevention, though it isn’t always an easy one. That’s because one of the best ways to protect your pet is to avoid sudden diet changes like feeding fatty table scraps and high-fat treats—no matter how much your dog begs. This can be especially tricky to monitor when you’re entertaining guests for holidays or parties, so be sure to let visitors know not to share their plates with your pet. Entriken adds that researchers have suggested that obesity may be associated with pancreatitis, so keeping your dog at an ideal body weight through proper diet and exercise could be helpful as well. 

Early intervention is the best way to prevent pancreatitis complications, so don’t hesitate to call your veterinary office if you notice your dog acting differently—especially after eating something he shouldn’t have. You can also schedule a time to visit with your veterinarian about how to get and keep your dog at an ideal weight.