Pancreatitis In Dogs

Written by Shula Berg BVSc CertAVP(GSAS) GPAdvCert(SASTS) MRCVS
Clinically reviewed by Elizabeth McLennan-Green BVM&S CertAVP(SAM) MRCVS

Table of Contents

- Overview
- Symptoms
- Diagnosis
- Treatment
- Outlook

The pancreas is a small organ in the abdomen which produces enzymes used for digestion, and hormones such as insulin. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, and can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). Pancreatitis can be associated with intestinal or liver disease, due to their anatomical relationship, but often occurs in isolation with no identifiable cause. Middle aged dogs are predisposed, especially Terriers, Cocker Spaniels and Miniature Schnauzers. 

What are the symptoms of Pancreatitis? 

Pancreatitis can cause any of the following symptoms: 

  • Vomiting 
  • Reduced appetite/anorexia 
  • Abdominal pain 
  • Discomfort after eating 
  • Dehydration 
  • Lethargy 
  • Jaundice 
  • Collapse 

Pancreatitis may be triggered by ingestion of food with a very high fat content or over-eating. Some endocrine diseases pre-dispose to pancreatitis, as can some medications. 

Which tests are used to diagnose Pancreatitis?

A biopsy is the only test that is 100% specific for Pancreatitis, however, this is almost never justified as it risks making inflammation worse. Instead, tests are used which indicate Pancreatitis and rule out other differentials. 

Blood tests 

These screen for other conditions (such as liver disease), and identify secondary effects of pancreatitis (such as dehydration). Elevated lipase levels are very suggestive of Pancreatitis, but can be normal even with moderate disease. A more specific test, known as a cPLI assay, can be performed by an external lab. 

Ultrasound 

Ultrasound provides the best method of viewing the pancreas, and can show inflammation and fluid accumulation. The pancreas is a very small organ, so identifying it on ultrasound can be tricky and takes practice. Ultrasound may be repeated to monitor improvement during the course of treatment. 

X-ray 

Pancreatitis causes few changes on x-ray, however, many of the symptoms of Pancreatitis can also be caused by intestinal obstruction. X-ray is a very good screening test for intestinal obstruction. 

How is Pancreatitis treated?

There is no specific cure for Pancreatitis, and treatment is mostly supportive. Depending on the severity of disease, pets may need to be admitted for inpatient care. Treatment typically includes: 

Fluids 

Many patients are dehydrated, and may be lacking in electrolytes due to vomiting and inappetence. Fluids are usually provided intravenously, using a drip. 

Pain relief 

Pancreatitis is very painful, which contributes to inappetence. Often strong, opioid based drugs are used. Pain relief is given by injection, especially in patients who aren’t eating.  

Supportive care 

Depending on the symptoms shown, other medications are used including anti-nausea, gastro-protectants, and hepatic support (if the liver is affected). Pancreatitis is rarely bacterial so antibiotics are usually not needed. 

Feeding 

Although most patients don't want to eat, feeding is extremely beneficial to the recovery process. Controlling pain and nausea will help, and in some patients, appetite stimulants are used. In severe cases, a feeding tube may be recommended. 

Is it suspected, but not proven, that there may be a link between ingestion of high fat foods and Pancreatitis. Your vet may recommend a low fat diet during the recovery process, and sometimes long-term to reduce relapses. If you are unsure about what to feed your dog after a bout of Pancreatitis, please discuss your pets' current diet with your vet. 

What is the outlook for dogs with Pancreatitis?

The prognosis for Pancreatitis is variable. Mildly affected pets usually make a full recovery, but more severely affected animals may need prolonged hospitalisation. Rarely, acute severe Pancreatitis can be fatal. Pets who have suffered Pancreatitis once are prone to repeat episodes, and development of chronic Pancreatitis. 

Page last reviewed: 3rd May 2024

Next review due: 3rd May 2026

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