Overview

Severity: High
Life stage: All
  • Pancreatitis happens when a dog’s pancreas gland is inflamed.
  • can cause severe abdominal pain and become serious if left untreated.
  • Symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, and abdominal pain.
  • Intravenous fluids, anti-nausea medications, and pain medications may be used for treatment.

Sometimes, pet parents just want to treat their dogs. This might involve extra playtime, or an extra-long walk. Or maybe the reward is a piece of thick, juicy steak that makes your pup forget all about that kibble that he’s usually scarfing down at mealtimes.  

But think twice before giving your dog that steak. While treating your pup can be fun, pet parents should know that fatty, human foods can bring on an attack of pancreatitis. 

This condition can cause severe abdominal pain, and in certain cases may lead to overnights at your veterinary hospital and ongoing health problems. But what is pancreatitis exactly? And how is it treated if your dog is suffering from it? We’re here to help you make sense of this condition.

What Is Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Pancreatitis happens when a dog’s pancreas gland is inflamed, says Dr. Karlin Erk, an emergency veterinarian at The Center for Animal Referral and Emergency Services (CARES) in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. The pancreas assists the body in processing food.  

The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen that has a few major functions including secretion of digestive enzymes into the gut and secretion of hormones—insulin especially—into the bloodstream,” he says. 

Types of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Erk notes that there are two types of pancreatitis in dogs—acute and chronic. 

Acute means it has come on suddenly, and chronic implies a more long-term condition that can wax and wane with time,” he says. “Acute pancreatitis is generally more serious and can sometimes cause life-threatening systemic complications.”

What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Dog looking at table food

Erk says that veterinarians aren’t always able to pinpoint the exact cause of a specific instance of pancreatitis, but there are factors known to incite an attack. 

We know there is a strong dietary influence on pancreatitis, specifically dogs that are fed a high fat diet or get into something they shouldn’t have, like a turkey carcass,” he explains. 

Dr. Sarah Wallace, a veterinarian based in Washington, D.C., with a background in dog nutrition, says that even feeding dogs one-time treats, like a piece of fatty steak from the table, can kick off an attack of pancreatitis. “Don’t feed your dog human food from the table. It can cause an attack, especially if the dog’s diet isn’t very well controlled,” she says.

Beyond diet, research shows that there is a connection between dog pancreatitis and diabetes (1). Erk says these dogs are much more prone to pancreatitis than the general population, and that he often sees the two conditions together. 

Any dog can get pancreatitis, regardless of breed, but Erk adds that Miniature Schnauzers are more likely to develop the condition because they are prone to chronically high lipid levels, which is a contributing factor.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Wallce says that pancreatitis is a painful condition, so dogs may guard their stomachs or react negatively to touching. “A dog may harden his abdominal muscles to protect his belly,” she says. “And if you get too close, he could react, either by vocalizing or even biting.”

She adds that drooling might also be a sign of pancreatitis, because it indicates nausea. 

Other signs of pancreatitis, according to Erk, include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea

Diagnosing Pancreatitis

Veterinarian diagnosing pancreatitis in a dog

Wallace says that pancreatitis is typically diagnosed through a blood test or body imaging—or both. 

“After a physical exam, the veterinarian will usually do a combination of imaging and blood panel. The imaging could be an X-ray or an ultrasound,” she says.

Diagnostic imaging can also rule out other conditions that may present like pancreatitis, such as an intestinal obstruction. 

The specific blood test used to look for pancreatitis in dogs scans for  pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity, or PLI. It tests for an enzyme called lipase, which is released by the pancreas to digest food in a dog’s intestines.  

“When the pancreas is inflamed and upset, it releases more of this enzyme, which then gets absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Wallance. “If there’s an elevated lipase level, chances are that your pet is suffering from pancreatitis.”

Pancreatitis in Dogs Treatment

Dog being treated for pancreatitis

Once your dog has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, the next steps are pretty open-ended. 

“There is no definitive therapy for pancreatitis,” Erk says. “Veterinarians focus on supportive care, specifically intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration, anti-nausea medications, and pain medications.” 

Wallace says fluid support is especially important. “You have to make sure that the pancreas and all of the organs are getting enough blood and oxygen to function properly. Since many dogs with pancreatitis are experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, they’re losing fluids, so you have to make an effort to keep them hydrated.”

In addition to hydration and fluid therapy, veterinarians focus on counteracting nausea. Wallace explains that veterinarians may prescribe an antacid or anti-nausea medication. Your pet may also need to take pain medication if diagnosed with pancreatitis. 

Medications Used to Treat Pancreatitis in Dogs

  • Omeprazole (antacid)
  • Cerenia (anti-nausea medication)
  • Pain medications
  • Antibiotics (only used in severe cases to prevent bacteria from entering the bloodstream)

Since pancreatitis is a painful condition, Wallace says that pet parents should try to make their dogs comfortable during the recovery process.  

“Bring them extra blankets and cozy bedding. Bring their food and water to them—don’t make them get up,” she says. “Eating and drinking is important to their recovery, so any way you can get them to eat is good.”

General Cost of Treatment

The cost of treatment for pancreatitis in dogs can vary depending on your location and veterinary provider. It also depends on the severity of the attack and the recommended treatment plan. 

However, Wallace offers the following cost estimates for treating pancreatitis in dogs: 

  • Exam/testing: $60-$100
  • Hospitalization (recommended to get fluids into a dehydrated dog): $1,000-$2,000 a day, includes personalized nursing care, medication, and getting regular exams from the veterinarian
  • Medications: $100-$300
  • Low-fat diet: $50-$100/month

How to Prevent Pancreatitis

Both Erk and Wallace note that a low-fat diet is key to managing pancreatic health. 

“Refraining from feeding your dog human food, like table scraps, is one of the most important things,” says Erk. “Maintaining a healthy body condition and preventing obesity is likewise important.” 

If your dog has other health conditions such as diabetes mellitus, work with your veterinarian to get these well managed. Your veterinarian may also prescribe medications that may help prevent future recurrences of pancreatitis. These can include anti-nausea medications, pentoxifylline, anti-inflammatory medications, antioxidants or nutritive supplements like omega 3 fatty acids.

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