My Bichon Sparky was an amazing dog. We originally adopted him from a breed-specific rescue after he’d endured months of neglect — including being chained continuously to a backyard grill. In the end, he lived to be a treasured member of our family for nearly 21 years. Together we experienced a range of miraculous joys and unexpected challenges. One of the most unnerving of these challenges was pancreatitis.
Essentially, canine pancreatitis occurs when a dog’s pancreas becomes inflamed. The pancreas, which is situated on the right side of the abdomen just next to the stomach, is a vital organ, which produces enzymes that help with food digestion. It also secretes hormones such as insulin, which regulates blood sugar. When pancreatitis strikes, these digestive enzymes are often released prematurely and can begin to corrode the actual organ itself.
According to my vet, the enzymes can also spill over into the abdominal cavity, which may cause secondary damage to the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and/or intestines. A dog who recovers from one bout of pancreatitis can sometimes experience recurring episodes. If secondary organ impairment occurs, then digestion may be compromised for the rest of that pup’s life.
Because of Sparky’s affectionate yet relatively low-key personality, we weren’t initially concerned one winter when he began acting a little sluggish. At first he simply seemed bored of playing fetch; but then one day, he also refused to finish his food. I’ve found this to be one of the most exasperating problems with canine pancreatitis: While initial onset is sometimes severe, it can often be surprisingly subtle. Unfortunately, those unobtrusive early symptoms can hint at a great deal of internal damage silently taking place.
Soon our Sparky took an alarmingly abrupt turn for the worse. He began to experience abdominal tenderness, diarrhea, and violent nausea, which caused our dog to vomit a thick yellowish liquid repeatedly, despite having no food in his stomach. This prompted a frantic midnight trip to the emergency vet, where Sparky was placed on immediate IV antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and fluids in an urgent effort to save him.
I learned that when the pancreas becomes overly inflamed, it’s usually necessary to rest it by withholding all food and liquid taken through the mouth. In acute-onset cases, dogs can often go into systemic shock and require high doses of IV fluids and medications in an attempt to revive them. Sparky was hospitalized for nearly five days while a host of IV preparations were administered. Oral nourishment was reintroduced at a snail’s pace — first liquid, then puree, and finally tiny chopped morsels every few hours by hand.
We were, of course, incredibly lucky with Sparky, and he survived for many years. However, his battle back to wellness compromised his digestion for the rest of his life. I’d like to share the key lessons we learned from pancreatitis, so other pet parents can take action if they notice unusual behavior:
We also found a holistic vet who shared some eye-opening guidelines. In my opinion, these insights were critical to preserving Sparky’s quality of life and gradually returning him to wellness. She suggested that we:
Pancreatitis can be a life-threatening condition and, as we learned the hard way, its onset can be remarkably subtle. But Sparky’s long life is proof that by staying informed, aware, and observant, we pet parents can help to protect our furry friends and decrease the chances of serious damage occurring. It definitely pays to pay attention.
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About the author: Marybeth Bittel is a freelance writer who lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, her crazy rescue dog Grant, and her level-headed rescue dog Maizy – all of them Heinz 57 mixed breed types. Marybeth identifies as mostly Italian, so she enjoys feeding family, friends and furkids almost as much as Grant and Maizy enjoy eating. She’s also a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. Connect with her on LinkedIn or — to see her latest pet pics (and be careful what you wish for here) — check out her family Instagram feed.