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What Does Pancreatitis Do to Dogs?

Symptoms are unclear and diagnosis is difficult, but treated early, pancreatitis in dogs can be managed.

 |  Dec 27th 2013  |   1 Contribution


The pancreas is an essential part of a dog's digestive system. It produces hormones like insulin that process sugars and proteins, as well as enzymes that help with digestion. The pancreas nestles by the stomach and has a duct that empties out where the stomach transitions into the start of the small intestine.

When the pancreas is functioning properly, enzymes travel from that duct into the small intestine through the duodenum, where they start their great labor, their dedicated purpose of breaking down food and processing nutrients.

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If your dog seems to be experiencing abdominal pain, get him to the vet, stat. Busy waiting room by Shutterstock

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, diverts digestive enzymes from their wonted course out into the abdomen itself. Enzymes produced by the pancreas are catalysts for digestion. In the common parlance, "catalysts gonna catalyze," and they will perform their task no matter where they are. When an inflamed pancreas forces them into unfamiliar territory, they begin their natural work on unnatural targets -- both the pancreas that produced them and other nearby organs. Essentially, the dog's digestive enzymes begin breaking down the dog’s own tissues.

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Pancreatitis in dogs has no single cause nor cure. Sad, lonely puppy sitting in nature by Shutterstock.

Pancreatitis in dogs is classified as either acute and chronic, and both kinds can be mild or severe. Acute canine pancreatitis has a sudden onset, meaning that an otherwise healthy dog can manifest signs of pancreatitis rapidly. With chronic canine pancreatitis, the onset is gradual.

Whether it is acute or chronic, pancreatitis in dogs tends to show up with the same array of symptoms. These symptoms are common to other canine diseases and disorders, so the symptoms alone are not conclusive. Unfortunately, there is also no single definite cause.

Causes of pancreatitis in dogs

Any number of circumstances might prevent enzymes from flowing naturally from the pancreas. Though the causes of pancreatitis in dogs are very difficult to pinpoint, there are conditions under which pancreatitis becomes increasingly likely to manifest. Obesity and diets that contain excessively fatty foods are often cited as risk factors.

Dogs who already have disorders such as diabetes, hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, or epilepsy seem to have greater risk of developing pancreatitis. Pancreatitis in dogs can also be caused by an external physical injury to the dog's abdomen, like being struck or kicked.

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Obesity puts dogs at higher risk for developing pancreatitis. Fat labrador retriever sleep on floor by Shutterstock.

It is thought that breeds at increased risk for canine pancreatitis include the Miniature Schnauzer, Miniature Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, and certain breeds of Terrier, like the Yorkshire Terrier. However, since the causes of pancreatitis are ill-defined, the recurrence of these breeds in the literature may be anecdotal and traditional, rather than clinical.

Signs of canine pancreatitis

The causes of canine pancreatitis are unclear and the symptoms are also somewhat vague and imprecise. The symptoms most frequently ascribed to pancreatitis in dogs include vomiting, abdominal pain, lack of appetite, loss of energy, dehydration, diarrhea, depression, fever, and shock. A dog with pancreatitis might also have a higher heart rate and a harder time breathing.

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This dog models the "hunched over" position that is one of the signs of pancreatitis in dogs. Young French Bulldog dog by Shutterstock.

Among the physical signs of pancreatitis in dogs, perhaps the most noticeable might be a tendency to express abdominal pain by a dog placing its head close to the ground and raising its hind quarters in the air. This is referred to often as “hunching over,” or the dog assuming a “praying” position. The abdominal pain a dog is acting out in this scenario might be caused by those misdirected, leaking enzymes acting on parts of the dog's abdomen, such as the pancreas, the stomach, the liver, or the kidneys.

Treating pancreatitis in dogs

Troublingly, the symptoms noted above are not exclusive to pancreatitis in dogs and may be signs of other digestive problems or an infection unrelated to canine pancreatitis. If your dog begins to exhibit several of these symptoms, you should take her to the veterinarian immediately. Just as the causes and symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can be difficult to determine, there isn't one completely reliable or infallible test that will diagnose pancreatitis.

Your veterinarian may employ a number of methods and tests, from physically examining the abdomen, to performing blood work, to giving your dog an ultrasound or an x-ray before making a diagnosis. A biopsy of the pancreas might even be required.

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Among a battery of tests, a vet will examine the abdomen for swelling. Young vet doctor checking pet dog skin in animal hospital by Shutterstock.

Since pancreatitis in dogs has no single root cause, there is no definite cure for it either. Recurrence is always a risk. Treatments exist that have proven effective in managing symptoms while the pancreas heals. Hospitalization for several days is often required, during which intravenous fluid will be used to nourish the dog while swelling in the pancreas recedes and the enzyme flow is restored. Additional recovery time could be needed if any abdominal surgery is performed.

Managing pancreatitis in dogs

While dogs can recover from isolated incidents of canine pancreatitis, whether acute or chronic, a particularly severe case could lead to longer-term problems like diabetes or exocrene pancreatic insufficiency. In the latter condition, a badly damaged pancreas cannot cannot produce enough of the enzymes required to properly digest and absorb nutrients in food.

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Chronic canine pancreatitis will likely require a change of diet. Dogs and dogs food in a white bowl by Shutterstock.

If a dog has been diagnosed with and received treatment for canine pancreatitis, regulation of the dog's diet is the most commonly described long-term method of treatment and management. Changes to a dog’s food intake normally require a diet that is lower in fat and higher in things like carbohydrates and fiber.

Has your dog dealt with short- or long-term pancreatitis? Please, share your experiences in the comments.

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