What Is Pancreatitis? Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

Pancreatitis is a common and potentially dangerous illness for a dog or cat. Learn how to spot symptoms and prevent this ailment for your pet.

Vanessa Armstrong

Updated January 05, 2023 • Published November 10, 2022

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What Is Pancreatitis? Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention

As a pet parent, you may have heard of pancreatitis being an all-too-common and possibly fatal ailment for a dog or cat. Pancreatitis also often comes on quickly, making it all the more important that pet parents be aware of the condition, know what the signs are, and how to treat and prevent it. 

Read on to learn more about pancreatitis, including its symptoms, what to do if you think your pet has it, and what you can do to lessen the chances of your pet getting the condition. 

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an important organ close to the stomach and liver that releases enzymes that aid in the digestion of food. It also creates insulin and glucagon, two hormones necessary for managing several bodily functions as well as a pet’s metabolism. 

Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed. It can occur when the organ starts to digest itself, which disrupts the pancreatic membrane. If it's left untreated, it can lead to secondary infections and necrosis, where almost all the cells in the pancreas die.

“While there are various risk factors that can increase the risk of pancreatitis, the cause is usually undefined or not clearly known,” says Dr. Yui Shapard. “Extensive studies have shown, however, a correlation to certain medical conditions such as diabetes mellitus, Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism, epilepsy, and a history of gastrointestinal disease, as well as a connection to pets who are fed human food or a high fat diet.”

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis can be fatal, so it’s important to make an appointment with your vet immediately if your pet shows signs of having it. Symptoms can be relatively mild—a decrease in energy and appetite—or more acute such as diarrhea with or without blood, vomiting, or a painful and/or bloated abdomen. Dogs can also go into a downward dog pose, with their rear end up in the air and their front paws on head lowered to the floor.  

How do you treat pancreatitis?

“The condition can be acute or chronic and can range from mild—where some diet changes at home can resolve the condition—to severe, where hospitalization would be required for successful treatment,” explains Dr. Shapard. 

Your vet will likely take blood samples and run tests to check your pet’s white cell blood count and whether or not there are elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes. Your pet’s doctor may also do an ultrasound or radiograph to see if they see any signs of inflammation. These tests, in conjunction with your pet's symptoms, will help your vet determine if your furry friend has pancreatitis. 

For mild cases, your veterinarian might recommend your pet eat a bland and low fat diet via small and frequent meals. They may also prescribe anti-nausea medications as well as additional pain relief medication depending on the severity of the pancreatitis. 

For severe cases, your pet may need to be hospitalized and put on an IV to help with dehydration and electrolyte replenishment. 

How to avoid pancreatitis

“Unfortunately, there is no 100 percent guarantee to avoid pancreatitis since some breeds, such as Schnauzers, are more predisposed than others, and some are simply at higher risk due to other medical conditions,” says Dr. Shapard. 

There are, however, ways to decrease your pet’s risk of pancreatitis. First, you should make sure that your pet isn’t overweight or obese, as that increases their risk of contracting the condition. If they are, work with your vet to get them on a regimented weight loss diet

Even if your dog or cat isn’t obese, it’s best to avoid high fat foods, especially human foods like bacon, hot dogs, hamburgers, and anything deep fried.

“Anything that is not very healthy for us, you can assume is not healthy for pets as well,” says Dr. Shapard. “Make sure your pet is eating a well-balanced diet that is safe for your pet to consume and do not feed your dog cooking oil. There appears to be a popular trend to feed pets coconut oil or olive oil, since there are health benefits for us humans. But giving them oil can certainly increase the risk of triggering their pancreas to overreact and initiate a cascade of inflammation leading to painful pancreatitis.”

Have questions about pancreatitis and risk factors for your pet? The Vet Pros at Pawp are here to help 24/7.

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