Pancreatitis is a scary and confusing disease for any pet parent to encounter. For veterinarians, it’s maddening. Pancreatitis is often difficult to diagnose, difficult to identify its underlying cause, and sometimes resistant to treatment. To fully understand why, you must know what exactly is pancreatitis.
What is Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a small organ that is located between the stomach and the first part of the small intestine. It has two main functions: the production of the hormone insulin and the manufacture of digestive enzymes. Pancreatitis develops when the organ becomes inflamed for any of a number (or no particular) reason.
The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can be rather vague. Most dogs have some combination of poor appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain, but others seem to have forgotten to read the textbooks.
A definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis can require some combination of a blood chemistry profile, complete cell count, urinalysis, fecal examination, specific tests for pancreatitis (fPLI or SPEC-FPL), abdominal X-rays and/or ultrasounds, and even exploratory surgery.
How is Pancreatitis Treated?
Treatment for pancreatitis is essentially symptomatic and supportive. The goal is to keep the patient comfortable and otherwise healthy while interrupting the inflammation-tissue damage-more inflammation cycle. Most dogs are hospitalized so they can receive fluid therapy, pain relievers, anti-nausea medications, antibiotics, and sometimes plasma transfusions. Once a dog’s condition is stable and he can drink, eat, and take his medications by mouth, he can go home to finish his recuperation.
Dogs that are being treated for pancreatitis, or are at high risk for the disease, should eat bland, low-fat, easily digestible foods. The goal is to provide the dog with nutrition while simultaneously resting the pancreas as much as possible. Dogs that are vomiting are typically held off food and water until they have not done so for 12 to 24 hours. Research is showing that the sooner dogs can eat again, the better they do, so aggressive anti-nausea treatment is very important. Dogs that cannot hold down food within a reasonable amount of time (a few days generally) may need a feeding tube.
Many dogs that have a single episode of pancreatitis (say from getting into the Thanksgiving turkey) recover uneventfully and never look back. In more severe cases, however, pancreatitis may be acutely fatal or become a chronic and/or recurrent problem. Chronic pancreatitis can result in the destruction of enough pancreatic tissue that insulin and/or digestive enzyme production becomes insufficient, leading to diabetes mellitus and/or pancreatic enzyme insufficiency respectively.
Do what you can to protect your dog from pancreatitis. Limit treats, snacks, and other "extras" to only 10-15 percent of his total daily caloric intake and make sure your offerings are low in fat.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Image: Elizabeth Tersigni / Flickr