Pancreatitis cases tend to increase during the holiday season, because pet owners are tempted to share the decadent seasonal foods with their pet. Unfortunately, when pets indulge in dietary indiscretions, weight gain isn’t their only concern—they also are at higher risk for pancreatitis. Our team at Millbrae Pet Hospital wants to educate you about this dangerous disease, so you can take steps to decrease your pet’s risk.

How are pets affected by pancreatitis?

The pancreas, a small organ lying between the stomach and the small intestine, is responsible for numerous important functions that maintain your pet’s health and wellbeing. The organ has two components: 

  • Endocrine pancreas — This component is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels throughout your pet’s body by producing hormones, including glucagon and insulin. 
  • Exocrine pancreas — The exocrine pancreas is responsible for helping digest nutrients by producing digestive enzymes, including trypsin and chymotrypsin, to digest proteins, amylase to digest carbohydrates, and lipase to digest fats.

When the pancreas is functioning normally, these digestive enzymes remain inert until they are transported via the pancreatic duct to the small intestine, where they are activated to begin breaking down nutrients. In pancreatitis, these digestive enzymes are prematurely activated, resulting in digestion of the pancreas and surrounding tissues. Pancreatitis is a painful condition for pets, and signs typically include a hunched posture in response to the pain, lethargy, inappetence, and vomiting.

Pancreatitis can have life-threatening consequences for your pet, and, should they survive the episode, may cause some long-term conditions, including:

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) — DIC is an emergency situation that causes excessive blood clotting throughout your pet’s body, and their clotting factors are consumed. When the clotting factors are depleted, the body cannot control bleeding, resulting in excessive hemorrhaging. DIC can quickly lead to multiple organ failure.
  • Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) — Inflammatory mediators can be depleted in response to the pancreas inflammation. This allows for inflammation to spread throughout the body, resulting in organ and tissue damage. SIRS can also cause multiple organ failure.
  • Diabetes mellitus — Damage to the endocrine pancreas can result in inappropriate insulin production, leading to increased blood sugar levels. Multiple organs, including the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, nerves, and blood vessels, are damaged by high blood sugar levels.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency — Damage to the exocrine pancreas can result in inappropriate digestive enzyme production, leading to an inability to digest and absorb nutrients. Affected pets exhibit signs including insatiable appetite, poor hair coat, oily feces, and weight loss.

What causes premature activation of the pet’s digestive enzymes?

The triggering incident that causes pancreatitis cases is frequently unknown, but certain conditions can precipitate the event.

  • Table scraps — Any change in your pet’s diet can result in gastrointestinal problems, and high-fat foods are especially dangerous, since they can cause pancreatitis. 
  • Excess weight — If your pet is overweight, their ability to digest fats is altered, putting them at higher pancreatitis risk.
  • Medications — Certain medications, including anti-seizure drugs, chemotherapy agents, and sulfa-containing medications, predispose your pet to pancreatitis.
  • Hormonal imbalances — Conditions causing hormonal imbalances, including diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and hyperadrenocorticism, predispose your pet to pancreatitis.
  • Trauma — Trauma sustained to the pancreas during a car accident or surgery predisposes your pet to pancreatitis.
  • Genetics — Certain breeds, including miniature schnauzers, cocker spaniels, and miniature poodles, are predisposed to pancreatitis.

What are the diagnostic approaches to pancreatitis in pets?

In addition to your pet’s history and physical exam, diagnostic approaches include:

  • Blood work — Screening blood work will help rule out other potential causes for your pet’s signs, and specific tests that check your pet’s pancreatic enzyme levels are helpful.
  • Imaging — X-rays are useful to rule out foreign body ingestion, and ultrasound can indicate pancreatitis, if the damage to the pancreas is significant enough to cause tissue changes.
  • Fine needle aspiration — Examining a fine needle aspirate sample taken from the pancreas can help definitively diagnose pancreatitis.

What does pancreatitis treatment involve in pets?

Treatment is supportive, since no cure is available. 

  • Intravenous fluids — Fluids are used to return blood flow to the pancreas, and other major organs. 
  • Pain medications — Pain control is necessary, to alleviate your pet’s discomfort.
  • Anti-emetics — These medications are useful for pets with nausea and vomiting. 
  • Nutritional support — Early nutritional support has been shown to improve a pet’s prognosis. If your pet cannot eat, they may require a feeding tube, to provide nutrition.

What are preventive measures for pancreatitis in pets?

Since the inciting cause for some pancreatitis cases is unknown, not all cases can be prevented. However, you can take steps to lessen your pet’s risk.

  • Table scraps — Never feed your pet table scraps. You can provide them with pet-friendly treats during the holidays, so they don’t feel left out.
  • Weight management — Keep your pet at an ideal weight, or put them on an appropriate weight loss program if they are overweight.
  • Trash scavenging — Keep all trash in a sealed container, so your pet cannot scavenge through the garbage.

By taking a few easy precautions, you can lessen your pet’s pancreatitis risk this holiday season. If you would like help devising a weight loss program for your pet, contact our team at Millbrae Pet Hospital, so we can formulate the right strategy for your pet.