Pancreatitis is a dangerous master of disguise—many pet owners do not notice, or understand, the condition’s vague warning signs. To protect your dog or cat from serious complications, Somerset Animal Hospital has compiled five important facts about this common, potentially fatal, condition. 

Defining pancreatitis in pets

The pancreas is an unremarkable looking organ tucked alongside your pet’s small intestine, attached to the stomach. However, what the pancreas lacks in size, it makes up for in function. The pancreas secretes hormones to control blood sugar and digestive enzymes, to help break down food in the small intestine. 

In a healthy pet, digestive enzymes are not activated until they reach the small intestine. However, when the pancreas is inflamed (i.e., pancreatitis) the enzymes are prematurely activated while still in the pancreas. When this happens, the powerful enzymes begin to digest the proteins and fats in the pancreas itself.

Five pancreatitis facts every pet owner should know

When your dog vomits and refuses their food, or your cat is lethargic, you may not immediately react. Unfortunately, undiagnosed pancreatitis can progress rapidly, and lead to a host of complications. Education and awareness can help you recognize pancreatitis in your pet, and take quick, appropriate action. Here are five facts you need to know about pancreatitis:

  • Pancreatitis can be deadly in pets —As pancreatic enzymes digest the protein and fat in pancreatic tissue, they are actually digesting the organ. In addition to causing extreme pain—which, because of their stoic nature, may or may not be appreciable in your pet—this releases the microscopic enzymes to the abdominal cavity, where they can travel to the nearby liver and kidney. Untreated acute or severe pancreatitis can cause irreversible organ damage, clotting disorders, heart conditions, and multi-system organ failure.
  • Pancreatitis warning signs are vague in pets — For its potentially dramatic outcome, pancreatitis does not provide any obvious diagnostic hints. Dogs and cats with acute (i.e., sudden onset) pancreatitis often present with vague signs, such as:
    • Vomiting
    • Poor appetite or inappetence
    • Weight loss
    • Weakness
    • Lethargy
    • Dehydration

Additionally, cats may show increased thirst and urination, while dogs may express abdominal pain by repeatedly bowing, stretching, or standing with a hunched back. Pets with chronic pancreatitis may exhibit fewer or no signs at all, depending on the inflammation level.

If your pet is exhibiting such illness signs, schedule an appointment at Somerset Animal Hospital as soon as possible. In addition to a physical examination, bloodwork and imaging (i.e., Xray and ultrasound) will be necessary to determine a diagnosis.

  • Pancreatitis in pets isn’t always caused by fatty foods — The reason for pancreatitis in dogs and cats is most often unknown (i.e., idiopathic), making diagnosis and prevention a challenge. Fortunately, several potential risk factors have been identified, including: 
    • Inappropriate diet — Dogs with a history of eating trash, or counter surfing, are considered candidates for pancreatitis, which may be triggered by foods high in fat, salt, or sugar. Feline pancreatitis is not linked to diet.
    • Breed — Pancreatitis may be hereditary in miniature schnauzers, and is common in poodles, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, and Yorkshire terriers.
    • Other inflammatory conditions — Cats with pancreatitis tend to have concurrent conditions, such as liver or inflammatory bowel disease.
    • Trauma — Blunt injury caused by a fall or auto accident can damage the pancreas.
    • Chronic medication use — Pets on long-term medications can be at increased pancreatitis risk.
  • Hospitalization is necessary for some pets — Your pet’s condition may deteriorate rapidly without aggressive medical intervention. Pancreatitis can lead to dehydration, intense pain, nausea, and nutritional deficiency that must be corrected and managed with intravenous fluids, medication, nutritional support, and close monitoring. At-home treatments and diets are never recommended for pets with pancreatitis signs, and may jeopardize your pet’s long-term health.

Bring your pet to Somerset Animal Hospital at the first sign of pancreatitis, especially if they meet the risk factors, or have previously been diagnosed. Your pet’s veterinarian will determine the appropriate treatment protocol based on their history, physical condition, and test results. Early diagnosis may prevent your pet’s condition from worsening, and allow management with outpatient care.

  • Pets with pancreatitis are likely to experience it again — Once your pet has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, the condition will likely re-occur. While outward signs may be successfully treated, some pets can continue to have subclinical pancreatitis that is only noticeable during a flare-up (i.e., acute-on-chronic).

While pancreatitis cannot be prevented, you can take steps to minimize recurrence, including:

    • Monitoring your pet for changes in behavior, appetite, and health
    • Feeding your dog a low-fat diet, and avoiding unusual or rich foods
    • Helping your pet lose weight—overweight pets are more likely to suffer with pancreatitis
    • Following your veterinarian’s recommendations for managing any concurrent diseases.

Pancreatitis can blindside pet owners and veterinarians alike with its sudden arrival, nonspecific signs, and unknown cause. Fortunately, Somerset Animal Hospital’s skilled veterinary team and state-of-the-art diagnostic and imaging equipment ensure your pet receives the best possible care. If your pet is experiencing pancreatitis signs, don’t wait—contact our team for an appointment.