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Pancreatitis in Dogs: Signs & Care Guide

Written by: Arden Moore

Last Updated on January 22, 2024 by Dogster Team

beagle dog sick sad on bed

Pancreatitis in Dogs: Signs & Care Guide

Pancreatitis tops the naughty list of tummy traumas during the holidays.

But veterinarians view this time of year more as the TTS — the tummy trouble season. The number of dogs rushed to emergency veterinary clinics in the middle of the night due to digestive issues seems to spike during the holidays. And, topping the list of tummy traumas in dogs is a potentially lethal condition known as pancreatitis.

What is the pancreas?

But let’s back up a bit. Let’s first identify the pancreas and why it is so doggone important to your canine. The pancreas is an organ located between the stomach and the small intestine.

“The pancreas does a lot of complicated and complex things,” says Karl Jandrey, DVM, DACVECC, professor of clinical small animal emergency and critical care at University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in Davis, California. “Its two biggest functions are to secrete enzymes to aid in digestion and to secrete insulin to keep a dog’s blood glucose balanced.”

A healthy pancreas masterfully helps your dog digest proteins, fats and carbohydrates. When the food consumed is healthy and nutritious, all is good with the canine digestive process.

“When something goes wrong with the pancreas, a whole lot of problems can arise,” says Jason Nicholas, BVetMed, chief medical officer and president at The Preventive Vet, based in Portland, Oregon. “Problems with the pancreas can come on suddenly or progress over time.”

Pancreatitis can be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (developed slowly over time). Neither type is welcomed because each can be potentially fatal if not diagnosed or treated promptly and properly.

Nurse helping veterinarian examining stomach of labrador retriever dog
Image Credit: Dragon Images, Shutterstock

When it’s acute

“It is not uncommon for a dog to appear healthy yesterday, and today not want to eat and require hospitalization and aggressive treatment and hospitalization,” Dr. Nicholas says. “Acute pancreatitis can rapidly progress and can rapidly become fatal.”

A dog dealing with an acute pancreatitis attack often gets into what is called the “prayer posture.”

“At first, the prayer posture looks like an inviting play bow, but look closely and you will see that the dog in pain extends his front paws out, arches his back and sticks his butt in the air in an effort to stretch for more room in his abdomen to deal with the building pressure and pain,” Dr. Nicholas says.

Other classic signs of acute pancreatitis can include:
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea that is often yellow and greasy
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inability to lie down comfortably
  • Whining or growling when his abdomen
    area is touched
  • Elevated temperature

When it’s chronic

Chronic pancreatitis is sneakier, with the condition slowly worsening without noticeable symptoms initially.

“Sometimes, dogs with chronic pancreatitis will exhibit waxing and waning signs of anorexia, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal discomfort,” Dr. Jandrey says. “Often, these are short-lived, subtle and resolve, but can return in a few days, weeks or months. Frequent insults to the pancreas like acute bouts can scar the pancreas, so it does not function as well.”

How do you get it?

Pancreatitis has many causes, ranging from genetics, diet, blunt-force trauma and adverse reaction to medications and even due to the presence of other diseases, such as diabetes or hypothyroidism.

Veterinarians don’t know why, but Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, Miniature Poodles, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Collies and Boxers tend to be at the highest risks for this condition. But any dog at any age can develop pancreatitis.

Dr. Nicholas, known as The Preventive Vet, is on a campaign to keep pets at their healthy best. That’s why he is continuing to educate people to never ‘treat’ their dogs to fat cut from their steaks, seasoned skin from the roasted chicken or even worse — bacon grease added to kibble as a gravy.

“All of these increase a pet’s risk for pancreatitis,” he says. “If I could wave a magic wand and eliminate pancreatitis in dogs, one of the biggest causes is people feeding table scraps to their dogs. It is devastating to see their dogs in our hospital in pain, and needing IVs and feeding tubes.”

Sick Bulldog on Veterinarian's Table
Image Credit: LWA, Getty Images

How to treat it

If your dog is exhibiting symptoms mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to draw blood to evaluate the condition of your dog’s pancreas and other organs as well as detect any signs of infection, inflammation or electrolyte imbalances. Your dog may undergo X-rays, ultrasounds and, possibly, a surgical biopsy to help pin down the condition. The cause of your dog’s abdominal pain, for example, may not be pancreatitis but the fact he swallowed your sock that is discovered in an X-ray.

The treatment prescribed for your dog depends on the findings as well as your dog’s age and health condition.

A newer test called the pancreatic elastase-1 (cPE-1) is often used to verify acute pancreatitis in dogs.

“There are no current medications that are used to specifically treat the disease,” Dr. Jandrey notes. “The standard of care is still supportive hospitalization to ensure pain control, fluid balance, nutrition and other specific treatments to address unique secondary effects of the pancreatitis.”

Post-pancreatitis care at home includes working with your veterinarian on a diet that your dog can easily digest and is nutritious. Digestive enzyme supplements as well as salmon oil and probiotics may also be recommended for your dog.

But do your dog a favor this holiday season and skip the table scraps moving forward.

“Please don’t succumb to those begging eyes at your dinner table,” Dr. Nicholas says. “The best ways to show how much you love your dog is to give them healthy dog treats, exercise them and keep them at ideal weights.”

Insights Into Pancreatic Cancer

In addition to acute or chronic inflammation of the pancreas, some dogs develop cancerous tumors of the pancreas.

The two main types include:
  • Adenocarcinomas — malignant tumors that can appear in the stomach, rectum or intestines in dogs.
  • Insulinomas — tumors in the pancreas that cause hypoglycemia (low-blood sugar) more so in middle-aged to senior dogs.

Primary treatment options for pancreatic cancer are surgery, chemotherapy and dietary management.

While pancreatic cancer is rare in dogs, the prognosis is poor because often the symptoms are detected only after the fast-growing cancer cells have spread beyond the pancreas to other parts of the body.

Read more  on

Featured Image Credit: Iryna Imago, Shutterstock

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