The pancreas is an organ that produces enzymes and hormones that aid in digestion and help control blood glucose levels, respectfully. When this organ fails to function properly, as with pancreatitis, it can lead to several complications including pain, organ failure, and death.
With pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes inflamed and enzymes can leak out of the pancreas and into the abdominal space. This can lead to autodigestion of the pancreas and can affect surrounding organs. Left undiagnosed or untreated, pancreatitis can lead to severe organ damage and failure as well as pain, shock, and death of the afflicted pet.
Pancreatitis occurs in dogs and cats and can be chronic or acute. It can be either minor or severe. Acute pancreatitis tends to be more severe than chronic pancreatitis, which usually presents with fewer symptoms. The true prevalence of pancreatitis still isn’t well known, but studies have proven the disease is fairly common in dogs1 and cats2.
Pancreatitis can occur because of and with the help of several contributors and triggers. These include hyperlipidemia (high amount of fat in the blood), hypercalcemia (high amount of calcium in the blood), drug reactions, surgery, obesity, trauma to the organ, and hereditary predisposition. Some breeds of dogs are more prone to the disease than others are. These include schnauzers, miniature poodles, and terriers.
Depending on the severity of the disease, symptoms of pancreatitis can be highly pronounced or unseen. In dogs, they can include lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, abdominal pain, dehydration. In cats, symptoms usually occur when the disease is severe and include lack of appetite, lethargy, dehydration, weight loss, vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. In both cats and dogs, less severe cases of pancreatitis can present with very few, mild, or no symptoms at all.
Both cats and dogs can have concurrent disease(s) that can divert diagnosis down a different path. Because of this, diagnosis of pancreatitis is multifaceted, usually including a combination of tests. The first step is gathering a list of noticed symptoms and as detailed a history as possible from the pet’s human and from previous visit records. This is paired with a thorough physical exam. Further testing includes blood work, which will either definitively rule out pancreatitis or confirm the possibility. An ultrasound is one of the best methods of discovery because in addition to showing inflammation, it can also confirm or rule out the presence of a foreign body, which can present with similar symptoms.
Treatment of pancreatitis depends on the severity of the disease and the swiftness of its discovery. It usually consists of supportive care including fluids, anti-nausea medications, pain relief medications, bland diet, and close monitoring. Euthanasia is often the most humane route if the disease is severe enough that a pet is non-responsive to treatment, or if the pet has concurrent diseases/complicating factors including diabetes, cancer, et cetera.
As always, prevention of disease is better than treating it. It may not be 100% preventable, but there are several ways to reduce the likelihood of pancreatitis. First, keep up with regular wellness exams. Establish a long-term relationship with a veterinarian and take your pet in for regular checkups. This will create a baseline and maintain a history of wellness. It will also increase the likelihood of catching any illnesses or diseases early. Keep pets at a healthy weight with proper nutrition and exercise. Don’t allow them to feed on table scraps, especially those with high fat content. Keep garbage contained and out of your pet’s reach.
Pancreatitis is a painful and dangerous condition. It can occur suddenly and severely or quietly over a long period. It can also be challenging to spot and diagnose. When symptoms present, it’s important to see a veterinarian right away to ensure the best possible outcome. Feed pets proper nutrition, keep them at a healthy weight, and see your veterinarian regularly for checkups.