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Pancreatitis in Companion Animals

The pancreas serves two main functions in the body: producing insulin that enables the body to utilize and store glucose; and producing pancreatic enzymes essential for the digestion of food. Problems with pancreatic function can cause either blood sugar problems, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, or pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas usually resulting in pancreatic enzymes leaking into the abdomen. It occurs in both dogs and cats, but is most common among overweight, middle-aged dogs. Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic and can be anywhere from mild to quite severe, painful, and life-threatening. Companion animals with mild pancreatitis may be treated at home while those with severe disease will require hospitalization and intensive care. Chronic pancreatitis can reoccur, or eventually lead to diabetes.

A high-fat diet, obesity or injury can bring on pancreatitis. Overuse of corticosteroids, sulfa-containing antibiotics, certain chemotherapy drugs, anti-convulsants, or diuretic drugs can also contribute to pancreatitis, as well as exposure to organophosphate insecticides. Pancreatitis may be an indication of other underlying disease issues such as kidney or cardiovascular disease or possibly a bacterial infection. Animals with a hypothyroid condition, Cushing’s disease, or diabetes are predisposed to pancreatitis. Miniature Schnauzers are more prone to developing pancreatitis than other breeds.

Pancreatitis may develop after an animal gets into the garbage or is offered a large amount of fatty leftovers from the Thanksgiving dinner feast. Symptoms in dogs can include depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. They may have a distended and/or painful abdomen – which can cause restless behavior, panting or a resistance to lying down. Mild pancreatitis is harder to detect since the dog may just appear a bit reserved with a depressed appetite. If the pancreatitis is mild and chronic, he may seem cross and more aggressive than normal due to chronic pain and feeling poorly.

Cats with pancreatitis do not generally show obvious symptoms, but rather seem depressed or withdrawn, have a poor appetite and may have a fever and an elevated heart rate. They are not as likely to have abdominal pain or vomit.

Prevention, as always, is the best course. Feeding a properly balanced, high quality diet with regular exercise is the key. Exercise improves digestion and helps keep your companion’s weight under control. (Please see our article Weight Management for Dogs and Cats if your companion is overweight).

The treatment of pancreatitis can vary greatly depending on the severity and duration of the illness. If the symptoms are severe enough to include vomiting or diarrhea, an immediate trip to the veterinarian is essential. Hospitalization will likely be necessary for the administration of fluids and monitoring of the animal’s condition. As pancreatitis can also be very painful, pain management is an important consideration.

Mild pancreatitis is more easily managed at home – that is after a visit to your companion’s veterinarian for a proper diagnosis. After an initial, mild attack of pancreatitis you will likely be advised to withhold food for several days. Cats cannot be fasted as long as dogs, so they may need to be fed intravenously or through a tube in the intestine.

Light broths in small amounts may be permitted, along with distilled water offered frequently in small portions. This allows the pancreas to rest and begin the healing process. Food will be reintroduced gradually in very small portions in the beginning. The diet should be very low in fat and any foods the animal seems to react to should then be avoided. A home-made diet is ideal for animals with pancreatitis. It is often recommended to feed grains separately from meats, or not at all as the pancreas must produce different enzymes in order to digest different foods, so feeding simpler meals will ease the work of the pancreas. Animals prone to or recovering from pancreatitis should be fed more frequent meals with small portions rather than two larger meals each day. Food should be at room temperature for optimal digestion and less stress on the pancreas.

Digestive enzymes are a very important supplement for animals that have experienced pancreatitis, as are probiotics. Antioxidants and vitamins, such as selenium, A, B complex, C, and E may help the healing process and strengthen the pancreas. Essential Fatty Acids are recommended as well; even though they are higher in fat, EFA’s can also contribute to healing and strengthening the pancreas. The liver can be adversely affected by an attack of pancreatitis when the enzymes seep into the abdomen, and may also be stressed by the higher level of toxins in the system. Support of the liver with Milk Thistle may be useful for animals recovering from pancreatitis.

Vaccinations should be minimized or avoided for any animal with pancreatitis. Diet changes should always be very gradual for animals prone to pancreatitis as well.

Lower fat foods for Cats.
Lower fat foods for Dogs.


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The articles and information in the Holistic Healthcare Library are presented for informational purposes only and are not intended as an endorsement of any product. The information is not intended to be a substitute for visits to your local veterinarian. Instead, the content offers the reader information and opinions written by our staff, guest authors, and/or veterinarians concerning animal health issues and animal care products.

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