There’s a reason that people say dogs are “man’s best friend.” We have a sense for the way they act at the prospect of treats or during belly rubs. And some of us can set our clocks by the time they ask for their daily meal or walk. If something’s not quite right, we can feel it too.
But how do you know when a dog is suffering from pancreatitis? Once you know what’s going on, how do you treat it? Here is everything you need to know about spotting and treating pancreatitis in your dog.
What is pancreatitis?
The pancreas is an organ that helps aid in food digestion. It produces two things: enzymes that break down the dog’s food and hormones that help nutrients into the bloodstream. One hormone the pancreas produces is insulin, which means a working pancreas is vital to prevent canine diabetes.
When a dog develops pancreatitis, its pancreas becomes inflamed and irritated. In mild cases, this merely causes the dog some discomfort after a fatty meal. However, the damage can be considerably more severe. The inflammation in the pancreas can cause digestive enzymes to leak into the abdominal cavity, resulting in damage to the liver, bile ducts, gallbladder, and intestines.
What causes canine pancreatitis?
Unfortunately, there’s no known definite cause of canine pancreatitis. There is no breed disposition; it’s neither more common in older or younger dogs, nor does it happen more in one sex over another.
However, there is one trigger that can make pancreatitis more likely to occur: fatty foods. Pancreatic enzymes become active during the digestive process—and the more fats the body has to break down, the more enzymes it will produce. If a dog eats something that is too fatty, its body will produce excess enzymes to accommodate the meal. While it’s not a guarantee, there is a chance that this fatty meal could cause the enzymes to irritate the pancreas, resulting in pancreatitis. This is just one of the many reasons why it’s so important to give your dog good, balanced nutrition.
If left untreated, pancreatitis can easily become a chronic condition in dogs. This means that they’ll suffer flare-ups throughout their lives (most commonly after meals), and dogs suffering from pancreatitis can have less energy and become depressed. Therefore, it’s important to recognize and treat this condition as soon as possible.
Signs and symptoms
The long-term risks of pancreatitis mean that early diagnosis and treatment are essential. But how will you know if your dog is uncomfortable after a meal — and how will you know if that discomfort is actually pancreatitis?
The most common signs of canine pancreatitis include:
- Abdominal pain
- Decreased appetite
Another sign you might notice during pancreatitis flare-ups is the “praying position.” Your dog may lower their front legs and head while keeping their rear end in the air (similar to a “downward facing dog” in yoga), trying to relieve the discomfort in their stomach.
If you notice these signs, it is worth taking your dog to the vet. If they suspect pancreatitis, they’ll do some lab work to check the dog’s white blood cell count. This is mainly to rule out other conditions; an elevated count can indicate many different illnesses, but NOT pancreatitis. The vet may also require a specific exam to check for pancreatitis, called Canine Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity, or simply cPLI, that measures Pancreas-specific lipase. This will be the key to diagnosing their pancreatitis.
Treating your dog
Once the vet has determined that your dog has pancreatitis, it’s time to figure out how to treat him.
Treatment options will depend on the severity of pancreatitis: for example, in mild cases, the best thing you can do is support your dog while he waits for the pain to pass. Allow your dog to rest, withhold food until any vomiting subsides, and when feeding, opt for a balanced and lean diet, and generally give your dog comfort and affection.
On the other hand, more severe pancreatitis can lead to hospitalization. Dogs can spend two or more days in the hospital, receiving intravenous fluids and medication. This helps counteract the effects of the pancreatic enzymes and prevents the dog from going into shock.
Preventing canine pancreatitis
Of course, the best way to treat pancreatitis in your dog is to prevent it from developing. How can you do this? The answer is the same whether or not your dog has ever had pancreatitis: keep your dog on a balanced diet with a healthy amount of fat.
Avoid treats that are high in fat, and never give a dog fatty table scraps. Some dog owners also incorporate pancreas supplements into their pet’s diet. These can help maintain balance in the digestive system or even offer some relief during pancreatitis flare-ups.
By keeping your dog’s diet lean, you can keep them happy and healthy.
Aaron Smith is a writer and copy strategist for several companies and non-profits. He often covers topics important to pet owners and is a dedicated dog dad to his three pups: Buddy, Roxy, and Kaya.