Pancreatitis in dogs

Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Sadly, pancreatitis in dogs is all too common, certain breeds are more susceptible to it such as Cocker Spaniels and Miniature Schnauzers, but it can affect any pooch.

What is pancreatitis in dogs?

Pancreatitis is the name given to the inflammation of the pancreas. Cases of pancreatitis in dogs range from mild to severe and in the worst-case scenario, the condition can be life-threatening.

The pancreas is a small glandular organ that produces and secretes enzymes that are used in digestion. It releases these enzymes into the small intestine to help break down food. The pancreas is also responsible for creating and releasing some hormones too, including insulin, which regulates a dog’s blood sugar levels.

If your dog develops pancreatitis, it means something has happened to your pup that has caused the pancreas to become inflamed. When this irritation occurs, it can disrupt the flow of enzymes and lead to the pancreas secreting these digestive enzymes into the abdomen. This is a problem as the enzymes will begin to break down the dog’s own fat and proteins, effectively beginning to digest itself. In addition, due to the placement of a dog’s pancreas, other nearby organs like the kidneys can be affected as the enzymes break down their tissues.

Are there different kinds of pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is typically divided into two different kinds, acute pancreatitis and chronic pancreatitis. Both forms of illness can range in severity, but acute pancreatitis is often more severe.

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Acute pancreatitis is when the illness occurs suddenly in your dog and tends to be more severe. If their illness is acute, it should go away with treatment and will be a one-off incident provided you make all advised lifestyle changes for your pooch.

Chronic pancreatitis appears more gradually over time. If a dog suffers from bouts of pancreatitis frequently, they will have chronic pancreatitis. In these cases, the illness is associated with changes to the pancreas, and can also lead to secondary conditions.

Identifying between acute and chronic conditions often comes down to tissue analysis, as chronic pancreatitis causes changes such as pancreatic fibrosis and atrophy that are not seen in acute cases.

Regardless of whether the case was acute or chronic, a dog will need to undergo certain lifestyle changes in order to prevent future flare-ups. These changes are particularly pertaining to their diet and weight management.

What causes pancreatitis in dogs

The cause of pancreatitis remains largely unknown. However, there are factors that are proven to make a dog more at risk of developing pancreatitis. These include:

  • Being overweight

  • Other illnesses

  • Eating food with a high-fat content

  • As a side-effect to some medication

  • Can occur following surgery

Older dogs and certain breeds are more at risk of developing pancreatitis. However, the most common trigger for pancreatitis is eating food that is high in fat.

Dogs that eat a highly-processed diet are also more at risk of pancreatitis due to the high-fat, low-protein composition of dry dog biscuits. The lack of nutrients in dry food not only impacts the dog’s immune system, but it can also cause persistent low-grade inflammation of the pancreas and other digestive organs. This makes the dog more susceptible to digestive diseases including pancreatitis and gastroenteritis.

However, even a one-off indulgence can be enough to trigger pancreatitis in dogs. You may have a pooch that likes to steal things. Random fatty foods that your dog may pinch that can spark the condition could be baconchips and even cat food! Our cocker spaniel helped herself to a fatty lamb steak that had been left out and developed acute pancreatitis and stayed at the vet’s for 24 hours on a drip. Thankfully, this was a one-off occurrence but it goes to show that even a single “treat” or indiscretion can cause serious illness.

Some research has linked auto-immune disease and even allergies to an increased risk of pancreatitis. However, you may never know the specific reason why your pup became ill. This is why it is important to manage the biggest risk factor, their diet, to reduce their likelihood of falling ill.

Despite this, pancreatitis can even be happen spontaneously or in response to certain medications.

Are some dogs more likely to get pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can affect any dog. However, certain breeds are at higher risk of developing the condition. These breeds include Miniature Poodles, Miniature Schnauzers, and Cocker Spaniels.

Pancreatitis is also more prevalent in overweight dogs, older dogs, and female dogs. Middle-aged, female dogs are more likely to develop pancreatitis than others in the population.

The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs

The most common symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs are vomiting, diarrhoea, anorexia, and abdominal pain. Signs of abdominal pain include the dog showing reluctance for their tummy and hindquarters to be touched, as well as adopting a “prayer position”. This is where the dog won’t lie down fully, instead, they lie with their front legs and chest on the floor but keeping the back legs extended to keep their belly and backend off of the floor.

The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs include:

Sometimes a sick dog will also show signs of depression. Additionally, dogs suffering from prolonged or recurring illness can lose weight, and lose the lustre of their coats.

The above list is the most prevalent symptoms, and if your dog shows several of these at once, it is a sign they are sick and you must contact your vet urgently. If you have any concerns about your pet or suspect they might be suffering from pancreatitis, you need to contact your vet urgently.

Signs of chronic pancreatitis are often more subtle and may be as little as your dog refusing the odd meal, picking at food, or just losing their usual playfulness and joy.

Is pancreatitis in dogs fatal?

Most cases of pancreatitis are not fatal but they will range in severity. However, some severe cases of pancreatitis can be life-threatening. This is why it is important to seek veterinary assistance urgently because if left untreated, pancreatitis can threaten your dog’s life and lead to secondary infections. Severe and untreated pancreatitis can also lead to multiple organ failure.

Dogs that suffer from severe pancreatitis, or repeatedly fall ill with pancreatitis, might develop complications and secondary infections including diabetes mellitus or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, also known as maldigestion or EPI.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in dogs

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in dogs is a condition where the pancreas is unable to produce enzymes. Also known as EPI, it is a malabsorption and maldigestion condition, as it means food cannot be properly digested and absorbed into the body as there are not adequate enzymes being released into the small intestine, leading to the inability to break down and digest food.

EPI is caused by pancreatic atrophy, which is the deterioration of the pancreas. This is usually associated with chronic pancreatitis which causes gradual tissue changes in the organ. Alarmingly, your dog might not show clear signs of serious illness until the majority of their pancreas has degraded.

Symptoms of EPI include:

  • Weight loss despite a voracious appetite

  • Large amounts of stool

  • More frequent toileting

  • Greying or yellowish coloured stool

  • Noisy digestion

  • Increased flatulence

  • Intermittent vomiting

  • Intermittent watery diarrhoea

If your dog shows any of these symptoms, particularly if they have suffered from pancreatitis in the past, you must consult your vet.

Pancreatitis in dogs recovery time

In most cases, a dog will recover from pancreatitis if given prompt veterinary care. Their recovery time will depend on the severity of their condition.

For some cases of acute pancreatitis in dogs, they will be required to stay at the vet’s overnight to be nursed and monitored. They will then need some time at home to rest and recuperate but they will usually recover within a few days.

More severe cases may require a week’s stay in a veterinary hospital and longer recuperation at home.

Sadly, some dogs will suffer from pancreatitis several times in their life and may develop other conditions as a result. In some rare cases, suffering from chronic pancreatitis can lead to diabetes. However, the majority of dogs will recover from pancreatitis and will not suffer from any consequences from their illness.

How to treat pancreatitis in dogs

There is no specific treatment to cure pancreatitis. Most care given is supportive in order to manage their symptoms and give your dog the time and rest needed for their pancreas to recover. This might include a short period of starvation to give the dog’s gut time to settle.

The treatment for pancreatitis will vary depending on the severity of the condition. Most dogs will need to stay at the vet’s for at least a day in order to be treated and monitored appropriately.

Dogs will often be given an intravenous drip to replenish their lost fluids and electrolytes. They may also be given anti-sickness medication to help control the urge to vomit, as well as some pain relief. Your pooch might be given antibiotics to try and prevent any secondary infections that might occur.

Once your pup is home from the vets it’s important to make sure that they get plenty of rest and time to recover. They will also need access to freshwater to prevent dehydration. It is usually advised to feed them small but frequent meals of low-fat food that is easy to digest.

How to manage pancreatitis in dogs

For any dog that has suffered from pancreatitis, it becomes important to monitor and manage their weight and diet in order to prevent any future flare-ups.

The biggest factor in preventing pancreatitis in dogs is to keep them on a low-fat diet. This is because overweight and obese dogs are at an increased risk of developing the condition.

Secondly, the pancreas is responsible for creating the enzymes that break down fat, so the less fat they eat, the fewer enzymes need to be produced which helps prevent the pancreas from overworking.

In addition to dietary changes, dogs that have suffered from pancreatitis may be advised to complete more daily exercise in order to manage their weight, their cortisol levels, and to help to boost their metabolism.

Your vet may also advise the addition of digestive enzyme supplements into their diet. This will be a powder containing various enzymes that help aid the pancreas and better digest food. You need to consult your vet before adding any supplements to your dog’s diet. Even with supplements, your pet will need to eat a highly digestible diet. Adding supplements does not make food more digestible, as it cannot increase the nutritional content of the food, it only aids your dog’s own digestive ability.

Dietary choices to help with pancreatitis

The ideal diet to prevent pancreatitis is low in fat, low in carbs, and free from additives. It is particularly im-paw-tent that the food is low in fat to lower the strain on the pancreas to create digestive enzymes. A highly-digestible food is also advised because it has a higher nutritional value and is easier to digest, putting less strain on the dog’s digestive system as a whole.

There are many paw-some success stories on our site from owners whose dog’s lives have been changed thanks to a Pure diet. Including a pooch that has gone from suffering regular attacks of pancreatitis, to never experiencing an episode again. You can read their stories and find out more below.

It isn’t just your pooch’s day-to-day diet that will need to be monitored. As well as changing your dog’s dinner, you will need to make sure you are feeding them healthy, low-fat treats too. These could be dog-safe human food like apples, carrots or broccoli, or specific dog treats made to be highly digestible and extremely tasty.

What is the best dog food for pancreatitis?

The best dog food for pancreatitis will first and foremost be low-fat. Regardless of whether your pooch has suffered from acute or chronic pancreatitis, they will need to eat a low-fat diet to prevent future flare-ups.

The level of fat your dog can tolerate without a flare-up is specific to them. We would always recommend speaking to your vet about your dog's pancreatitis too, simply because all dogs are different and it's important to work out the right approach for them.

As Andy Miller MRCVS explains, “The mainstay treatment for chronic pancreatitis is feeding a highly digestible and low-fat diet. This is because it’s the pancreas that produces enzymes to break down fat. By reducing the fat intake, it reduces the need for the pancreas to work hard to produce these enzymes and therefore decreases the risk of flare-ups.”

It’s also worth noting the pancreas also creates insulin. Monitoring your dog’s glucose intake and making sure their food contains lots of fibre to slow down sugar absorption can prevent strain on the pancreas and help to prevent diabetes.

Prescription food is an option for dogs with pancreatitis, but it can be costly and owners may worry about the amount of artificial additives present in the food. Plus, some dogs turn their noses up at the bland meals. Kizzy the border-terrier cross certainly did, driving her owner mad with worry until a pet nutritionist advised her to try Pure Pet Food. Kizzy’s improvement was so dramatic her owner said it “sounds like a fantasy”. But it is reality and thankfully one that other dogs have found too with their own paws-onalised diet from Pure. The delicious and nutritious meals have helped many dogs heal and prevent future attacks of pancreatitis.

We've helped hundreds of owners manage their pooch's pancreatitis. As well as having low fat recipes suitable for this condition, we include ingredients that support, soothe and help protect your dog's digestive system, preventing future flare-ups.

This includes natural omega 3 from algae which is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and chicory extract, a prebiotic that supports gut health.

If you’re looking for healthy dog food for pancreatitis, start your personalised plan today and we can advise you on the paw-fect, all-natural recipe to suit your pooch and their individual needs.

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