What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an organ in the abdomen that releases digestive enzymes into the intestine when an animal eats. The enzymes are usually not activated (ie, they do not start to work) until they reach the intestine. Occasionally, enzymes can be activated while they are still in the pancreas. This means that the pancreas effectively starts to digest itself, leading to tissue damage and pain – this is what we call 'pancreatitis'. Pancreatitis can sometimes spread to involve the liver ('hepatitis') or the entire abdomen ('peritonitis'). Pancreatitis occurs in both dogs and cats, and is most common in middle aged, overweight, female dogs. Miniature schnauzers are particularly at risk.

What causes pancreatitis?

The most common cause of pancreatitis is ingestion of a particularly fatty meal, which overstimulates the pancreas. Pancreatitis can also occur in animals that have been on corticosteroid medication (eg prednisolone). Sometimes there is no obvious reason why pancreatitis occurs. We do know that once an animal has had pancreatitis, he or she is prone to recurrence.

What are the signs of pancreatitis?

Dogs with pancreatitis may show some or all of the following signs:

  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Poor appetite
  • Abdominal pain and altered stance
  • Increased drinking
  • Diarrhoea
  • Jaundice (yellow tinge to skin and gums)

In cats, signs are often more subtle but include lethargy, reduced appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

If we suspect pancreatitis, we will usually recommend blood tests to confirm the diagnosis. We look at a specific enzyme called lipase that is released into the blood in cases of pancreatitis. We also look at the white blood cell count, which gives us an idea of the level of inflammation, and the liver enzymes, which may be elevated if the liver is starting to become inflamed. Blood tests also show any changes in the levels of electrolytes and proteins in the blood, which can be affected by vomiting and reduced appetite.

How is pancreatitis treated?

Treatment often requires hospitalisation and involves the following:

  • Fasting for 12 hours, followed by slow re-introduction to bland food
  • Intravenous fluids to maintain normal hydration until the animal is eating
  • Anti-nausea or anti-vomiting drugs
  • Pain relief
  • Drugs to reduce pancreatic enzyme release and protect the gut

What is the prognosis for animals with pancreatitis?

Most animals with pancreatitis recover after 1–5 days in hospital, but severe cases can be fatal. The sooner we diagnose pancreatitis and commence treatment, the better the prognosis. Usually there are no long-term complications, although severe cases can lead to pancreatic insufficiency (where the pancreas cannot produce sufficient digestive enzymes) or diabetes mellitus (where the pancreas cannot produce sufficient insulin). Even in the absence of complications, animals that have had pancreatitis should receive a prescription low-fat diet for the rest of their lives to prevent recurrence. Weight loss should also be an aim for pets that are overweight.

My pet has been diagnosed with pancreatitis. Can he still have treats?

The main concern for animals with pancreatitis is minimising the fat content of food; however, some dried meat treats can also trigger episodes of pancreatitis. The ideal diet for an animal with pancreatitis is twice daily gastrointestinal low fat food with no treats, but by feeding the right kinds of treats we can still keep the risk of relapse to a minimum.

The best treats to feed are fruits and vegetables, if the animal will accept them! Apple and carrot tend to be reasonably well accepted by dogs. Boiled chicken (no skin or oil) is another good option.

Low fat commercial treats include:

  • Greenies
  • Hills low fat treats
  • Purina meaty d'lites
  • Purina lite snackers

Try introducing one type of treat at a time so that if one ends up causing a bout of pancreatitis, you know which one you need to avoid in future. If your pet is sensitive enough that even these low fat treats cause relapses, you should consider cutting out all treats.