The pancreas is an endocrine (hormone-producing) gland located below the stomach and attached to the small intestine. It manufactures two main products: the hormone insulin, which is involved in glucose (sugar) metabolism; and digestive enzymes that the intestines need to break down food so it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Inflammation of the pancreas, called pancreatitis, occurs in both dogs and cats, but is more common in overweight, middle-aged dogs.
Pancreatitis can range from mild to severe, but it is usually painful, and may sometimes become life threatening. Pets with mild pancreatitis may be supported at home while those with severe disease may require hospitalization and veterinary care. Pancreatitis can recur or become chronic, and destruction of normal cells may eventually lead to diabetes.
When the pancreas is inflamed, its digestive enzymes can leak out from cells instead of being channeled into protective ducts. When not confined to the ducts and intestines, these enzymes will digest any tissue they contact. Within the pancreas itself, cell breakdown creates even more inflammation; and in the abdomen, loose enzymes cause generalized inflammation and pain and may even damage other organs—especially the pancreas's next-door neighbor, the liver. Ultimately the inflammation may spread throughout the body and cause bleeding disorders or multiple-organ failure. Early detection and treatment are the keys to avoiding such results.
Causes of Pancreatitis in Pets
Fatty foods, obesity, toxins, certain drugs, or trauma can trigger pancreatitis. Pancreatitis may also indicate other underlying health irregularities, such as kidney or cardiovascular disease, or bacterial infection. Animals with hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease, or diabetes are predisposed to pancreatitis. In addition, Miniature Schnauzers are more prone to developing pancreatitis than other breeds.
Pancreatitis may develop within hours after a "dietary indiscretion," or it may take a day or two for symptoms to occur. This is often due to pets getting into the garbage, or eating large amounts of fatty leftovers, such as turkey skin, from the Thanksgiving dinner feast.
Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs and Cats
In dogs, signs of the disease may include depression, loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea. They may have a distended and/or painful abdomen, which can cause restlessness, panting, or resistance to lying down. Mild pancreatitis is harder to detect, since the dog may appear a bit lethargic, or have a reduced appetite. If the pancreatitis is mild and chronic, he may just become generally grumpy or snappy, likely due to pain.
Cats with pancreatitis may not show obvious symptoms, but typically become lethargic and have a decreased appetite. They may develop a fever and may or may not vomit. Mild pancreatitis causes such non-specific symptoms that it's hard to pin down; and general supportive approaches can help maintain good health. It's likely that most cases are never fully diagnosed. Because cats are so good at hiding pain and illness, the classic signs of systemic disease—lethargy and decreased appetite—should always be evaluated by your veterinarian.
Diagnostic tests for pancreatitis include blood tests, urinalysis, radiographs (x-rays), and ultrasound. Specific blood tests performed by a veterinarian may provide indications of pancreatitis in dogs, but are much less accurate in cats, though they do help rule out other possible cases of illness. For most causes, ultrasound is the most accurate diagnostic tool.
Approaches for Pets with Pancreatitis
Prevention, as always, is the best course. Feeding a properly balanced, high-quality diet, along with regular exercise, is fundamental. Exercise supports healthy digestion and proper weight management. (Please see our article Weight Management for Dogs and Cats — including tips for exercising cats — if your companion is overweight).
Fluid therapy and pain management are the mainstays of pancreatitis treatment. Additional therapies will vary, depending on the severity and duration. Anti-nausea and anti-vomiting medications are also commonly used; but antibiotics are rarely needed. In severe cases, hospitalization and 24/7 monitoring by a veterinarian will almost certainly be required.
Early diagnosis and intervention are crucial, so if your pet is displaying any of these signs, have your veterinarian do a thorough examination.
Mild chronic pancreatitis in dogs and cats can potentially be managed at home — after a visit to your companion's veterinarian for a proper diagnosis, of course!
It used to be recommended to withhold solid food; but this is no longer the case. In fact, such fasting may be detrimental to these patients (except to control vomiting). Careful feeding is a good alternative approach.
For animals prone to or recovering from pancreatitis, it may be helpful to be fed small, frequent meals. Food should be at room temperature or slightly warmed to increase palatability and support digestion. You can warm up natural canned food by mixing in a little hot water, but microwaving may lead to uneven heating and risk of burns. Dry food is less digestible than canned.
For dogs, an ultra-low fat diet can help support recovery. Cats are ordinarily very tolerant of fat, but may still need a relatively low fat diet.
If the animal is not eating on its own, it may be necessary to contact a veterinarian to discuss placing a feeding tube through the nose or esophagus so that food, medications, and supplements can be given directly into the stomach.
Helpful Supplements and Natural Support for Dogs and Cats with Pancreatitis
When the pancreas is inflamed, its ability to produce digestive enzymes — and get them to the right place — is compromised. Accordingly, enzyme and probiotic supplementation is a great way to ensure good health and support digestion.
Antioxidants support a healthy inflammation response and normal bodily functions. Essential Fatty Acids may be useful in the later stages of healing, but because animals with pancreatitis may be hyper-sensitive to any fat, be sure to okay it with your veterinarian first.
The liver can be damaged by pancreatitis when digestive enzymes seep into it. Additionally, the sensitive liver is like a canary in a coal mine; it is highly reactive to many drugs and disease conditions, and to the toxins released due to inflammation. Herbs, such as milk thistle, ginger, and turmeric can help maintain healthy liver function and may thus be useful to support animals with pancreatitis.
Alternative therapies such as acupuncture and homeopathy may also be helpful approaches for the pain and nausea associated with the disease.
Future diet changes, especially to lower-fat diets, should be made very gradually and carefully to avoid a recurrence.
Information in this article is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure your pet and is not a substitute for veterinary care provided by a licensed veterinarian. For any medical or health-related advice concerning the care and treatment of your pet, contact your veterinarian.
- Herbs for Pets by Mary L Wulff-Tilford & Gregory L Tilford
- The Nature of Animal Healing by Dr. Martin Goldstein
- Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Richard Pitcairn
- VeterinaryPartner.com - The Pet Healthcare Library - "Canine Pancreatitis" and "Pancreatitis (Feline)" by Dr. Wendy C. Brooks
- The Merck Veterinary Manual "Pancreatitis in Small Animals" by Jörg M. Steiner
- A Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine by Drs. Susan Wynn and Steve Marsden