When your canine companion is under the weather, it may leave you feeling worried and stressed. What could be going on, and how can you help them to feel better? If your dog receives a diagnosis of pancreatitis from your veterinarian, precisely what does this mean for your pet? And how concerned should you be?
We’ll discuss canine pancreatitis, including its signs, causes, diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis, giving you the most accurate information to help you support your pet and work toward recovery from this serious condition.
What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is an inflammatory condition affecting the pancreas, an important abdominal organ that lies underneath the stomach and along the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine). In a healthy dog, the pancreas has two main jobs: secreting digestive enzymes that help break down the food they eat and secreting hormones that help regulate how their body uses nutrients.
The digestive enzymes from the pancreas remain inactivated until they travel through the pancreatic duct and reach the duodenum, where they activate to begin assisting with digestion. In dogs with pancreatitis, however, these digestive enzymes are activated prematurely within the pancreas and begin to digest the pancreas itself—leading to inflammation and tissue damage, which may also affect the nearby liver. Pancreatitis may either be acute (sudden onset) or chronic.
Signs of Pancreatitis
Signs of pancreatitis in dogs can range from mild to severe. Mild cases of pancreatitis may show minimal, if any, signs, while more serious cases typically present with a combination of the following clinical signs:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal Pain
While many of these signs are easy to identify, abdominal pain in dogs may be more difficult to recognize. A dog demonstrating a “praying position,” in which their back legs are raised and their front legs and chest are held close to the floor, may be signaling that they are experiencing abdominal pain.
What Causes Pancreatitis?
The majority of canine pancreatitis cases are idiopathic, meaning that no specific cause is identified. Dogs of any age can develop pancreatitis, although the disease is more commonly seen in dogs greater than 5 years of age. Potential risk factors for the development of canine pancreatitis are diverse and include the following:
While certainly an undesirable situation, dogs suffering from stress or anxiety have not been noted to be at higher risk for the development of pancreatitis.
How Is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?
If your dog has an episode of vomiting but otherwise seems normal, it may be appropriate to monitor the situation. However, if multiple episodes of vomiting are noted or if vomiting occurs with any of the other signs noted above, a visit to the veterinarian is recommended. Your veterinarian will begin by taking a thorough history of your dog’s signs. They may also ask questions regarding any health conditions, current medications or supplements, changes in diet, or things your pet may have gotten into. Based on your dog’s history and exam findings, your veterinarian may recommend further evaluation with the following tests:
The SNAP cPL (canine pancreas-specific lipase) and Spec cPL are tests that measure pancreatic lipase concentration in the blood; they are considered the most specific diagnostic test for canine pancreatitis. A SNAP cPL can be performed quickly by your veterinarian in-clinic to rule out pancreatitis as a cause for your dog’s signs, while a Spec cPL requires sending a blood sample to a reference laboratory. The information obtained from a CBC, biochemistry profile, x-rays, or ultrasound may help support a diagnosis of pancreatitis or rule out other diseases; it is often considered together with the results of the SNAP cPL or Spec cPL when diagnosing pancreatitis.
Treatment for Pancreatitis
Specific treatment for pancreatitis will depend on the severity of your dog’s clinical signs and whether any underlying conditions predisposing them to pancreatitis have been identified. In general, supportive care for canine pancreatitis may include:
The prognosis for dogs with pancreatitis is variable, and the initial assessment of the severity of the condition may be challenging. Dogs with mild symptoms that are eating on their own may recover with outpatient supportive care such as a low-fat diet and oral medications—these dogs tend to have a good prognosis. Dogs with severe pancreatitis, however, tend to have a poor prognosis and may pass away even with hospitalization and aggressive treatment.
Dogs that experience multiple episodes of acute pancreatitis, and subsequent pancreatic tissue damage, may be at an increased risk for complications. These include the development of chronic pancreatitis, diabetes mellitus, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). While treatable, the management of these conditions may be lifelong.
In summary, canine pancreatitis is a common, yet serious medical condition that can present with a wide range of symptoms. If your dog receives a diagnosis of pancreatitis, partnering with your veterinarian to provide supportive care tailored to their specific needs will provide the best opportunity to overcome this difficult disease.