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Pancreatitis in Dogs – Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Diet

If you're a pet owner, you've likely heard of the term "pancreatitis" - a painful condition that damages the pancreas and the surrounding organs. In dogs, pancreatitis is the most common disease of the exocrine pancreas and often remains undiagnosed until the condition becomes severe (1).

So, let's get you up to speed on pancreatitis before it can affect your dog.

In this article, we'll talk about:

  1. What does the pancreas do?
  2. What is pancreatitis?
  3. What causes pancreatitis?
  4. What are the signs your dog may have pancreatitis?
  5. How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
  6. How do you manage pancreatitis?
  7. Which NutriCanine recipe is best for dogs with pancreatitis?

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas is a glandular organ of the digestive system situated next to the stomach, intestines, and liver (2). Because of this proximity with other major organ systems, keeping the pancreas healthy is crucial to maintaining the health of your dog.

We can break down the role of the pancreas into two main functions that involve sugar regulation (endocrine) and food digestion (exocrine):

 

Endocrine Pancreas
The role of the endocrine pancreas is to release hormones into systemic circulation where they can regulate blood glucose - namely insulin and glucagon (2).

After a meal, sugar makes its way into the bloodstream and reaches the pancreas, where beta cells detect elevations in glucose. The pancreas responds by releasing insulin, promoting glucose uptake from the blood and into the cells (2). Alternatively, suppose your dog is fasting and glucose levels become too low. In that case, the pancreatic alpha cells will release glucagon and instruct the liver to break down glycogen into glucose for the body to use (2).

These endocrine cells are localized to pancreatic islets and make up just 1% to 2% of all the pancreas cells (3). Since sugar regulation relies on this rare population of highly specialized cells originating from the pancreas, we need to do our best to keep this organ healthy.

Exocrine Pancreas
The role of the exocrine pancreas is to produce enzymes necessary for food digestion. These pancreatic juices are produced by acinar cells and released into the digestive system, where they help break down fats, proteins, and sugars (2). Exocrine cells make up nearly 99% of all pancreatic cells (3).

These enzymes enter the small intestines through small ducts that connect the pancreas to the duodenum - the first portion of the small intestines (2). The enzymes are stored as zymogen granules that only become active once they reach the intestinal environment, avoiding enzymatic digestion of the pancreas itself. This is a significant factor that helps the pancreas prevent autodigestion and, thus, the onset of pancreatitis (3).

The basic structure and location of the pancreas in dogs, NutriCanine

Fig 1. The basic structure and location of the pancreas in dogs (3).


What is pancreatitis?

Simply put, pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas.

The onset of pancreatitis begins with the mismanagement of pancreatic enzymes. Since pancreatic enzymes are targeted to the intestines, premature activation leads to autodigestion of the pancreas. Quite literally, the pancreas begins to digest its own tissue, initiating an inflammatory response and triggering the onset of pancreatitis.

Comparison between a healthy and inflamed pancreas. NutriCanine

Fig 2. Comparison between a healthy and inflamed pancreas.

Two primary forms of pancreatitis may affect your dog:

  • Acute Pancreatitis
  • Acute pancreatitis is more easily recognizable by pet owners and veterinarians. Although several factors may lead to your dog experiencing acute pancreatitis, the main contributing factor is food intolerance (4). Often, this results from your dog ingesting table scraps or foods that are high in fat.

    Imagine your dog was fed table scraps. As the food makes its way toward the intestines, the pancreas becomes hyperstimulated and releases excessive amounts of digestive enzymes (3). Overexpression of digestive enzymes (coupled with their loss of regulation) leads to autodigestion of the pancreas, inflammation, and necrosis of pancreatic tissue (3). If the inflammation goes untreated, the digestive enzymes can access the peritoneal space and damage all the abdominal organs (3). At this stage, pancreatitis has become severe and systemic.

    Initially, the body has measures in place to prevent improper enzymatic regulation through the use of α-Macroglobulins and other enzyme inhibitors (3). These molecules circulate in the blood and bind to pancreatic enzymes, allowing their deactivation. The problem is that these inhibitor molecules are limited, and once depleted, the pancreatic enzymes continue causing damage.

    Exactly how pancreatitis presents from dog to dog can vary significantly. In some cases, pancreatitis is sub-clinical, meaning that neither the owner nor veterinarian can detect pancreatitis (even though it is technically occurring at the cellular level). On the other hand, some cases are extremely severe and can become life-threatening.

    At NutriCanine, we recognize this high degree of variability and aim to avoid it altogether. That's why we've formulated recipes that balance fat, protein, and carbohydrates to minimize the risk of pancreatitis without compromising food quality.

  • Chronic Pancreatitis
  • The onset of chronic pancreatitis takes time - typically months or years. It was initially thought that chronic pancreatitis was uncommon in dogs until recent pathological and clinical studies confirmed otherwise (5).

    The factors leading up to chronic pancreatitis are less clear than acute cases (5). In patients facing chronic pancreatitis, the pancreas either has recurring episodes of hyperstimulation, or an autoimmune component leading to inflammation and damage (5).

    Whether your dog is dealing with acute or chronic pancreatitis, veterinarians have recommended NutriCanine recipes to support the pancreas and promote recovery.

     

    What causes pancreatitis?

    Pancreatitis can be the result of several factors, but the three main contributors are:

  • Food Intolerance
  • We've focused on food intolerance up until this point since it is the leading cause of acute pancreatitis in dogs. In a study investigating the association between dietary factors and pancreatitis, researchers found that dogs who ingested unusual foods, table scraps, or got into the trash had a higher risk of pancreatitis (4).

    There's no foolproof method to avoid your dog eating something they shouldn't. We know that mistakes happen and that it's just a part of pet ownership! To help make things a little easier, we've created delicious human-edible recipes that are gentle on your dog's digestive system and keep them coming back for more. Suddenly table scraps became less appealing.

  • Obesity
  • Aside from causing a list of health problems, obesity can have severe implications on the ability of the pancreas to function properly.  Researchers investigating the effects of a 6-week fatty diet on dogs found the pancreas to exhibit clear signs of pancreatitis and severe abnormalities (6).

    Further, through microscopic examination of biopsy samples, pancreatic cells had lost cellular integrity and exhibit weakening of the plasma membrane (7). The loss of cell structure associated with the high fat diet makes pancreatic cells more vulnerable to injury, increasing the likelihood of pancreatitis. This emphasizes the need to provide your dog with quality food right from the start. NutriCanine can help with that!

  • Hyperglycemia / Diabetes
  • Elevated blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is also a problem that can have widespread effects on every organ system in the body, including the pancreas. Hyperglycemia can occur due to acute stress, but if this elevation in blood sugar persists, hyperglycemia is likely the result of diabetes mellitus (3).

    In a retrospective study looking at dogs with fatal pancreatitis, 30% of dogs were hyperglycemic at the initial visit. Further, 63% of these dogs exhibited persistent hyperglycemia and were previously diagnosed with diabetes (8). Overfeeding is often the culprit of diabetes and puts your dog at greater risk of developing pancreatitis. NutriCanine has made it easy for you to feed your dog the appropriate amount by portioning each healthy meal into customized servings.

     What causes pancreatitis in dogs, NutriCanine

    What are the signs your dog may have pancreatitis?

    Now that we've discussed what pancreatitis is and the reasons behind disease onset, let's talk about what may be the first signs of pancreatitis that you notice as a pet owner.

    Typically, an affected dog will show a combination of these signs:

    • Abdominal pain - As a result of inflammation/effusion (most common).
    • Hunched posture - Often a result of abdominal pain.
    • Decreased appetite - When pets have digestive issues, they won't eat.
    • Vomiting - Even if they manage to eat, they have difficulty holding food down.
    • Dehydration - Waterloss attributed to lack of appetite and/or diarrhea.
    • Diarrhea - A result of impaired digestion that can lead to dehydration.
    • Lethargy and weakness - Without adequate nutrient absorption, your dog may become very weak.
    • Fever - If inflammation persists, body temperature will elevate.

    6 signs of pancreatitis in dogs, NutriCanine

    If your dog is showing any combination of these symptoms, it should raise a red flag. If you suspect pancreatitis, the best course of action is to call a vet and have your dog looked after.

    Remember: Pancreatitis can quickly become fatal, so don't wait around for things to get worse.

     

    How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

    Diagnosing pancreatitis can be tricky. Since the preferred assessment method uses non-invasive diagnostic tools, the multifactorial nature of pancreatitis makes it challenging to reach a definitive diagnosis.

    Suppose your veterinarian suspects pancreatitis after a clinical examination. In that case, they will likely request for radiographs (x-rays), complete blood count (CBC), a biochemistry report, and a pancreatic lipase SNAP test (1). Each test provides valuable information for your vet to consider, but a definitive diagnosis is impossible because current non-invasive diagnostics lack sensitivity.

    In particular, SNAP tests have become increasingly popular because of their practicality in veterinary clinics. By collecting a blood sample, your vet can make a subjective decision whether or not your pet has pancreatitis based on the intensity of test indicators. In a study conducted by Cridge et al., researchers testing the sensitivity of in-clinic SNAP tests for pancreatitis found these tests were correct between 71% and 78% of the time (9). This highlights the inability for veterinarians to make a definitive diagnosis based on non-invasive diagnostics alone.

    Reaching a definitive diagnosis requires invasive techniques and biopsy collection from the pancreas directly. Only after histopathological examination can a veterinarian officially confirm the diagnosis of pancreatitis (10).

     

    How do you manage pancreatitis?

    Since a definitive diagnosis can be challenging to reach, it's best to opt for supportive therapy through your veterinarian and treat for suspected pancreatitis without reaching an official confirmation.

    Supportive therapy typically includes administering IV fluids, pain management, monitoring blood glucose levels, and shifting to low-fat food (1). Your veterinarian may also recommend fasting your dog for 48 hours, allowing the pancreas to rest before reintroducing small amounts of low-fat food. There is no single treatment or medication that will resolve pancreatitis - it just takes time to heal.

    Once your pet improves, it's essential to implement dietary changes that reduce the risk of future pancreatitis attacks. At NutriCanine, we make it easy to help your dog through pancreatitis and other health concerns with our variety of healthy pet food options. Our primary focus is disease prevention and we do this by providing quality food that meets your dog’s nutritional needs right from the start.

     

    Which NutriCanine recipe is best for dogs with pancreatitis?

    Our Gently Cooked Chicken Recipe is specifically curated to support and prevent pancreatitis. Here are two main reasons why our recipe stands out:

  • Low in Fat
  • With only ~2% of total fat content, this recipe is ideal for dogs facing digestive issues and pancreatic flareups. The idea behind a low-fat diet goes back to what we mentioned about preventing hyperstimulation of the pancreas. As food makes its way to the small intestine, it stimulates the release of a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) from the intestinal lining, which in turn will act on the pancreas to stimulate secretions (11). So by decreasing the amount of fat your dog ingests, we can avoid overloading the pancreas.

  • Gently Cooked
  • Gently cooked food is not the same as Raw food. By gently cooking our food, we can make complex carbohydrates and dense nutrients more digestible. For example, a recent study demonstrated that dogs fed gently cooked food for 28 days improved digestibility and were more palatable compared to kibble (12).

    This is particularly important for dogs with pancreatitis. Since their digestive system is impaired, your pet can benefit from the improved digestibility that our Gently Cooked Chicken Recipe provides. In addition, our recipes at NutriCanine are incredibly palatable. This will be sure to kickstart your dog’s appetite. You’ll be tempted to try it because it’s just that good (and human-edible)!

    What we've created is a recipe that is both lean and packed with nutrients. So when you order from NutriCanine, you know that we're only using the highest quality ingredients to ensure your dog's optimal health. We also stay away from anything that includes antibiotics, hormones, or preservatives. If it's not good for us, then it's certainly not suitable for our dogs.

     Best recipes for pancreatitis in dogs, NutriCanine

    Conclusion

    As a disease, pancreatitis isn't going away. This means that we need to learn how to best prevent and manage conditions like pancreatitis. Making things a little easier for pet owners, we've tailored meals at NutriCanine to meet and support your dog’s nutritional requirements - regardless of their health status.

    Not only does our food have strong support from our Canadian and US customers, but NutriCanine is also backed by veterinarians who vouch for the quality and efficacy of our food. Our products arrive straight to your door in pre-portioned meals, flash-frozen to lock in freshness and flavour.

    To learn more about our Gently Cooked Chicken Recipe, click here. If you are looking for more recipes or nutritional advice tailored to your animal, visit our website and get in touch! Our team will be happy to work with you and craft the perfect diet plan just for your dog.

    Talk soon,

    NutriCanine Team

     

    References:

    1. Shukla A. Acute pancreatitis attributed to dietary indiscretion in a female mixed breed canine. Can Vet J. 2010;51(2):201-203.
    2. A-Kader HH, Ghishan FK. The Pancreas. Textbook of Clinical Pediatrics. 2012;1925-1936. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-02202-9_198
    3. Mix, K., & Jones, C. (2006). Diagnosing Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs.
    4. Lem KY, Fosgate GT, Norby B, Steiner JM. Associations between dietary factors and pancreatitis in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2008 Nov 1;233(9):1425-31. doi: 10.2460/javma.233.9.1425. PMID: 18980495.
    5. Watson P. Chronic pancreatitis in dogs. Top Companion Anim Med. 2012 Aug;27(3):133-9. doi: 10.1053/j.tcam.2012.04.006. Epub 2012 Jun 23. PMID: 23148854.
    6. Haig THB. Experimental pancreatitis intensified by a high fat diet. Surg Gynecol Obstet. 1970 Nov;131(5):914-8. PMID: 5471544.
    7. Haig TH. Nutritional alteration of pancreatic acinar cell stability. Ann Surg. 1970;172(5):852-860. doi:10.1097/00000658-197011000-00010
    8. Hess RS, Saunders HM, Van Winkle TJ, Shofer FS, Washabau RJ. Clinical, clinicopathologic, radiographic, and ultrasonographic abnormalities in dogs with fatal acute pancreatitis: 70 cases (1986-1995). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1998 Sep 1;213(5):665-70. PMID: 9731261.
    9. Cridge H, MacLeod AG, Pachtinger GE, et al. Evaluation of SNAP cPL, Spec cPL, VetScan cPL Rapid Test, and Precision PSL Assays for the Diagnosis of Clinical Pancreatitis in Dogs. J Vet Intern Med. 2018;32(2):658-664. doi:10.1111/jvim.15039
    10. Berman CF, Lobetti RG, Lindquist E. Comparison of clinical findings in 293 dogs with suspect acute pancreatitis: Different clinical presentation with left lobe, right lobe or diffuse involvement of the pancreas. J S Afr Vet Assoc. 2020;91(0):e1-e10. Published 2020 Apr 21. doi:10.4102/jsava.v91i0.2022
    11. Beglinger C, Degen L. Fat in the intestine as a regulator of appetite--role of CCK. Physiol Behav. 2004 Dec 30;83(4):617-21. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2004.07.031. PMID: 15621067.
    12. Algya KM, Cross TL, Leuck KN, et al. Apparent total-tract macronutrient digestibility, serum chemistry, urinalysis, and fecal characteristics, metabolites and microbiota of adult dogs fed extruded, mildly cooked, and raw diets1. J Anim Sci. 2018;96(9):3670-3683. doi:10.1093/jas/sky235


    Embedded Links:

    1. (Shukla) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2808289/
    2. (A-Kader) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7124086/
    3. (Mix & Jones) [PDF] Diagnosing Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs
    4. (Lem) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18980495/
    5. (Watson) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23148854/
    6. (Haig #1) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/5471544/
    7. (Haig #2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1397350/
    8. (Hess) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9731261/
    9. (Cridge) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5866996/
    10. (Berman) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7203193/
    11. (Beglinger) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15621067/
    12. (Algya) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6127788/#CIT0041