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Pancreatitis

Almost all dogs will have a tummy upset at some point in their lives. In most cases this will get better over a few days without any treatment. Occasionally vomiting may be a sign of something more serious in your pet. One such disease which can cause vomiting is pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is a condition with a huge range of severity from almost no clinical signs to severe abdominal upset and even death. Your vet is best placed to advise you on any illness in your pet so if you are worried about your pet's health a visit to the vet's surgery for a check over is always warranted.

Your questions answered

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is a small organ located close to the stomach. It has an important role in the digestion of food and produces large volumes of digestive enzymes after each meal which are released into the gut to help digest food as it leaves the stomach. These enzymes are normally stored in specialised storage granules in the pancreas until they are needed.  Quite simply pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. Once the pancreas is damaged the digestive enzymes are released from the specialised storage granules into the pancreas itself and can start the process of self digestion. If large amounts are released the enzymes can start to affect other parts of the body.

The pancreas also has a second, and completely separate function, which is to produce the hormone insulin which helps to control levels of blood sugar.

Why has my dog got pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is usually a disease of middle-aged dogs. Some breeds of dogs are more at risk from pancreatitis - more cases are seen in small breeds of dogs particularly Miniature Schnauzers. Obese dogs are more at risk and diet can have impact. Bouts of disease may be set off by scavenging or stealing fatty foods. Occasionally some dogs have structural disease in the pancreas, eg cysts that increase the likelihood of the pancreatitis developing. Some medications can cause pancreatitis so if you are worried about your dog in anyway always remind your vet what medications your dog is taking - even if you think the vet may know already. However, in most cases no reason is found for pancreatitis to develop.

How would I know if my dog had pancreatitis?

As stated above, there is a range of severity of pancreatitis in the dog which can reflect the amount of inflammation in the pancreas and also the effects on the rest of the body. The more severe forms of pancreatitis (also termed necrotising or acute pancreatitis) can be a frightening disease with sudden onset of severe signs such as vomiting and severe abdominal pain and sometimes jaundice. Dogs with acute pancreatitis show discomfort and may adopt a 'praying ' stance - bowing down on their front legs - as they try to relieve the pain their tummy. Other signs include diarrhoea and fever but these signs often look just like any other tummy upset. Dogs with pancreatitis are usually very miserable and don't want to eat. In the most severe form of the disease large amounts of enzymes released from the pancreas start to move to different parts of the body which can result in difficulty breathing and bleeding from multiple sites in the body.

The milder form of the disease (also termed chronic pancreatitis) is a grumbling form of the disease which can affect dogs for months or years. In some patients there are no outward signs of pancreatitis in these pets.

How will my vet know that my dog has pancreatitis?

Vomiting is a very common presentation in dogs and most dogs that are vomiting get better within a few days with no specific treatment. However, if your vet is worried that your dog has a more serious condition they will want to run some blood tests from your dog and probably take some X-rays or ultrasound your dog's abdomen. There are some special blood tests that can be run to diagnose pancreatitis and ultrasound examination may show changes in the pancreas itself to confirm the diagnosis and to assess for structural abnormalities. Ultrasound examination of the pancreas is an advanced ultrasound technique so your vet may wish to refer your pet to a specialist.

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?

Mild cases of pancreas may recover without any treatment over a few days. Dogs with a more severe condition will need to be admitted to a veterinary hospital. Often dogs with pancreatitis will not want to eat but this is not a problem for 48 hours, but after this period measures may be taken to ensure food intake as current evidence suggests that maintaining nutritional intake can assist with recovery. Drugs may be given to reduce nausea and vomiting which help control clinical signs and may help with appetite. In patients with severe pancreatitis feeding tubes are placed. In cases in which feeding tubes are not appropriate then intravenous feeding may be used.

Pancreatitis is a very painful condition and pain relief is an important component of management. Pain relief in most cases necessitates the use of opioid pain relief that can only be administered in hospitalised patients. 

In very severe cases dogs become extremely unwell and need to be admitted to hospital for intensive care or maybe an operation. When pancreatitis is severe there can be serious effects on other organs in the body and intensive care including blood and plasma transfusions may be required.

Will my dog get better?

Most dogs with pancreatitis get better within a few days to a week. Your vet will advise you on longterm care of your pet after an episode of pancreatitis which will depend on individual cases and whether any reason for the pancreatitis was found. It may be necessary to provide your pet with a lower fat diet following its recovery from pancreatitis. Often dogs that have had one episode will be more likely to have repeated bouts later in life and these may need to monitored more carefully.

In dogs that have been severely affected there may be long term consequences of the disease. Damage to the pancreas can result in failure of its other functions. Loss of large amounts of pancreas can mean that the dog is no longer able to produce sufficient quantities of insulin (thus becoming diabetic) or not producing enough digestive enzymes (resulting in poor digestion of food and weight loss).

Unfortunately some dogs with the severe form of pancreatitis will die despite all treatment.

If you have any concerns about our dog contact your own vet for further advice.

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