How could my dog possibly have pancreatitis? He is 9 years young, receives incredible care, and yet here I am scouring the Internet to learn how to help a dog with pancreatitis. My Cocker Spaniel has had two bouts of acute pancreatitis in the last 60 days as of this writing, and we hope it stays away. Our previous Cocker Spaniel had one bout of acute pancreatitis in her nearly 15 years on earth. This is an in-depth article to help in your dog’s journey with pancreatitis.
If you’ve arrived at this article, it’s either because your dog has pancreatitis or you suspect he does AND you want to know:
What to feed a dog with pancreatitis
How to get a dog with pancreatitis to drink water
How to prevent pancreatitis in a dog
Treatment for dogs with pancreatitis
Some other question about how to help a dog with pancreatitis
We are a very hands-on, empower the dog parent kind of resource here at Fidose of Reality, so step by step, this is our experience, what we’ve learned, and information to help your dog get better, stay well, and things to discuss with your veterinarian.
What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?
Whenever you see the suffix ‘-itis’ on a word, it means inflammation. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas and it is very painful, potentially dangerous, and affects millions of dogs each year.
The pancreas is a part of your dog’s digestive system. It is an organ that performs two very important functions: to help regulate the dog’s blood sugar levels by produce hormones (insulin and glucagon); and to help in digestion by producing enzymes. According to the Merck Vet Manual, these two pancreatic functions are called endocrine and exocrine.
The pancreas is a really big deal because it involves food digestion and its breakdown with digestive enzymes as well as controlling a dog’s blood-sugar levels via insulin. If you like to geek out on your dog’s health like I do, the location of the pancreas is in the lower part of the stomach and at the beginning of the small intestine. Here’s a handy diagram to show you the location:
Pancreatitis occurs when something upsets the balance of the pancreas: This “something” can be an outside source, such as a fatty meal, raiding a garbage can, ingesting something foreign or not part of the regular diet, medications, and in other cases, the cause is unknown. According to the UC Davis Book of Dogs, about one third of acute pancreatitis cases in dogs are primary with no known cause, so it is the responsibility of the diligent dog parent to catch it early and stop it in its track.
If you take one key thing away from this article, it is this: Stop pancreatitis early and stop it fast so it cannot progress because that’s when things can get nasty, painful, and urgent.
What are the Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs?
In speaking with our dog’s Internal Medicine veterinarian, some dogs have very subtle signs of pancreatitis that dog parents can easily dismiss or miss. On blood work, the abnormal levels show up, meriting further investigation. Other times, there are outward signs of pancreatic distress in dogs.
Here are some of the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs, of which your dog may have some or all of these symptoms. Keep in mind, these symptoms may indicate other issues, so always seek veterinary care for your dog:
- • Lack of appetite
• Hunching of the back (indicates pain)
• Retching of the neck (our dog did this a lot – indicates pain)
• Difficulty breathing
• Excessive panting
• Abdominal pain to touch
• Abdominal distention
• Air licking (lip smacking) – sign of nausea
• No interest in drinking water
• Increased temperature
Is Pancreatitis in Dogs an Emergency?
Despite the fact that it generally occurs in dogs who are middle aged or older and those dogs are well cared for, pancreatitis is an emergency, which is why stopping it early on is crucial. If it progresses, it can be fatal in some cases.
There are two forms of pancreatitis: Acute and chronic.
Acute pancreatitis, as the name suggests, comes on suddenly with symptoms that are mild to severe. Our dog’s second bout of acute pancreatitis occurred after a fun day of playing, walking, eating his normal meal, and napping. At 10:30 in the evening he suddenly vomited without any warning. Things rapidly progressed from there and we found ourselves at the emergency veterinary hospital a few hours later.
The folks over at DVM360 advise veterinarians with this information regarding cute pancreatitis, “Once you have determined the dog is vomiting rather than regurgitating, the next step is to determine if a self-limiting or life threatening problem is present. This assessment is crucial and must be based on a thorough history, careful physical examination, clinical experience and judgment, and a sound understanding of the differential diagnosis of acute vomiting. Dogs with acute pancreatitis can present with both types of vomiting. Animals should be considered to have a potential life-threatening problem if some of the following are present: Moderate or severe abdominal pain, lethargy, dehydration or pyrexia, enlarged distended bowel, frequent and severe diarrhea, hematemesis, frequent vomiting or increasing frequency of vomiting, signs of systemic disease, or puppies with an incomplete vaccination history. If a clear distinction cannot be reached, it is better to error on the cautious side and consider a potential life-threatening problem.”
Chronic pancreatitis can affect dogs who recover from acute pancreatitis, which is what we are trying our best to prevent in our dog. Many times, dogs with chronic pancreatitis will have a normal blood panel, normal abdominal ultrasound, and may not even have outward signs.
Dogs with chronic pancreatitis may show signs similar to those in acute pancreatitis. In most cases, the symptoms are generally milder and more severe complications are not as prevalent. In the Cocker Spaniel world, a breed known for its predisposition to pancreatitis, we have seen many dogs affected with chronic pancreatitis who are successfully managed.
What Tests Are Available to Diagnose Pancreatitis in Dogs?
There is not one specific test that shouts out, “yes, the dog has pancreatitis because this result says so.” However, a combination of diagnostic testing, clinical judgment, and patient history points to a diagnosis of acute pancreatitis.
During our first emergency vet hospital visit, the following tests were performed with a final diagnosis of acute pancreatitis:
• Complete blood panel including CBC and chemistry panel
• Abdominal ultrasound
Thirty days later, during our second Internal Medicine visit, the following tests were performed with a final diagnosis of acute pancreatitis:
• CBC and Chem 17 panel
• Abdominal ultrasound
• IDEXX Spec CPL blood test: The Spec cPL® Test is a tried and tested diagnostic tool which allows vets to quickly and confidently assess pancreatitis in dogs. IDEXX has developed qualitative and quantitative testing to deliver the ability for veterinarians to rule in or rule out pancreatitis. (this blood test was sent out and we had results 24 hours later). There is an in-house version of this test, but it will only report negative or positive, not how high or low the number is. We were advised to have the test done at IDEXX, so we opted for this option and are grateful for it.
Further, the spec CPL test, according to VCA Hospitals, should be performed:
• Dogs with signs of sudden onset vomiting, abdominal pain, or loss of appetite.
• Dogs with recurring episodes of vomiting or poor appetite.
• Dogs at increased risk for pancreatitis, such as Miniature Schnauzers, or dogs receiving Potassium Bromide anticonvulsant therapy.
Often times, amylase and lipase will be elevated in the dog’s blood panel if acute pancreatitis is present. Of special note, the folks at VetFolio state, “Approximately 50% of dogs with elevated amylase and lipase levels have pancreatitis. Neither amylase nor lipase are pancreas-specific because both enzymes are produced in sites other than the pancreas, such as the gastrointestinal tract and the liver.”
Our internal medicine veterinarian does not include amylase and lipase in the follow-up blood panels for this very reason, but this dog mom does like to keep tabs on them so I ask they are tested. I am a “look at the whole picture assessment” kind of gal in that way.
In some cases, a biopsy of the pancreas can be performed, but this is not the norm and is done in extreme cases.
Should a Dog With Pancreatitis Be Hospitalized?
Many times, yes, a dog with acute pancreatitis should be hospitalized. Dogs with acute pancreatitis should be provided with:
• Pain relief
• Proper hydration
• Antiemetic(s) to stop vomiting
• Nutritional support
If the dog is hospitalized, and many times this is and should be the case, the dog should receive supplemental fluids via intravenous method or subcutaneously under the skin, depending on the severity of the situation. Dogs will be monitored, blood levels checked, pain controlled, and a diet will be introduced only when appropriate. Dogs can easily become dehydrated during pancreatitis, so re-hydration is crucial. Simply providing water at home or using a syringe to get fluids into a dog orally is not enough. In extreme cases, a food tube may be inserted to provide proper nutrition.
In both cases, we took our dog home after he received a diagnosis, subcutaneous fluids, pain medication, anti-vomiting medication, and instructions to return to the hospital for any new changes and for follow-up care and assessment.
Never second guess yourself if a dog is sick and you have any sort of suspicion that pancreatitis is rearing its ugly head. Get your dog to the vet. Hours do matter and pancreatitis can rapidly get worse. I know because I’ve seen it first hand!
Dogs not responding to treatment at home under the care of the vet should be seen again and consideration of inpatient care should be given.
VetFolio reports the routine use of antibiotics is considered to be of no benefit in animals with pancreatitis because, in contrast to human pancreatitis patients, bacteria do not seem to play a role in pancreatitis in small animals.
When Should I Feed a Dog With Pancreatitis?
The folks at Whole Dog Journal hit the nail on the head with their assessment of what to feed a dog with pancreatitis, which pretty much echoes what our dog’s Internal Medicine veterinarian shared with us.
It used to be that all food and water were withheld from the dog until symptoms subsided, thus resting the pancreas. If the symptoms lingered longer than 72 to 96 hours, the dog received nutrition via feeding tube so that the stomach and pancreas were bypassed. This is called parenteral nutrition. An older school of thought also was that the sight or smell of food could flare the pancreatitis due to the production of enzymes and make matters worse. Yikes!
Whole Dog Journal shares, “Today, though, there is growing evidence that dog pancreatitis recovery time is reduced and survival rates increased when patients are fed early in the recovery from pancreatitis. It is now accepted that prolonged withholding of oral food and water for more than 48 hours (including the time before the dog was brought in for treatment) can lead to increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), atrophy of the digestive cells in the small intestine, and sepsis (blood poisoning). In turn, sepsis can contribute to multiple organ failure and decreased survival rates.
ALWAYS discuss your dog’s feeding schedule, meal instructions, and liquid intake with the dog’s veterinarian. Every dog is unique, so what is right for one dog may not be right for your dog. Never trust something “just because this one person said it on a forum online dedicated to the topic.” In writing this article, we are presenting you with facts, our experience, the journey of others, and what trusted experts say on the topic of acute pancreatitis in dogs.
What Should I Feed a Dog with Pancreatitis?
After our dog’s second bout of acute pancreatitis, we had a heart to heart discussion with the Internal Medicine veterinarian on his case.
“You need to start feeding a lower fat diet,” he instructed.
“For how long,” I asked.
You could have heard a pin drop and the silent sound of me thudding onto the cold veterinary floor. But all of my dog’s treats and food
have had well over 10 percent fat in them. Well, this is the case no more and I learned why.
Despite what caused the pancreatitis, the fact is dogs who get one episode of pancreatitis are prone to more attacks. I have a Cocker Spaniel, meaning the breed has an inherent risk of developing pancreatitis of an acute or chronic nature at some point in their lives.
Here are questions to ask yourself, your vet, and potentially a veterinary nutritionist, as dietary needs vary from dog to dog, as they do in people:
• What should I feed my dog on discharge from the office/hospital? Often smaller, more frequent meals are recommended. For the first two weeks of my dog’s acute pancreatitis episodes, we fed four small meals throughout the day and made sure he was taking in fluids.
• When to do I return to my dog’s regular diet and moreover, what changes should I make in my dog’s diet?
• Are table scraps allowed? I am answering this now for you: NO. This also means no wrapping pills/medications in lunch meat, cream cheese, a piece of bacon, etc. I learned from our dog’s regular veterinarian that doing so can cause the pancreatitis to flare.
• Can you recommend a veterinary nutritionist?
• If you are more into prepackaged dog food, talk to a qualified veterinary nutritionist about what type of food is best for your dog. Even this seasoned dog mom/blogger is a bit kerfuffled in trying to calculate fat content and protein ratios. You want to generally look for food and treats that are both nutritionally sound and are not likely to exacerbate pancreatitis in the dog. NOTE: If you want to talk to your vet or figure out the fat content and ratios, here’s a fat content resource for dogs.
• Can my dog continue on his medications? Could any of the medications have caused this? In our case, my dog was being treated with prednisolone for 50 days as of that time for an autoimmune disease that reared its ugly head two months earlier. There is some evidence in the veterinary community to believe long-term steroids can contribute to acute pancreatitis. My gut, pun intended, tells me the combination of medications, an autoimmune disease, other medications in the mix, and a diet of 18 percent fat made for the perfect pancreatic storm. Steroids have since ceased.
You need to ensure all friends and family are on board with knowing not to give the dog scraps or anything outside the norm. Even one piece of lunch meat or a high fat treat can incite pancreatitis to come crashing down on your dog. This is why you read so many posts about what to avoid feeding your dog during holidays. Veterinary visits increase exponentially during ‘food holidays,’ so keep your dog away from such edible temptations.
HACK: I boil lean, low fat organic ground beef to mix into my dog’s base mix of The Honest Kitchen Preference dog food. In doing so, the fat is lessened and my dog is thriving, knock on wood. I keep a small amount of the boiled beef on hand during holiday meals to feed my dog while we eat our meal. He loves it. Be careful on the type of treats and the quantity of treats you feed as well.
There are a few veterinarian-prescribed diets for dogs with pancreatitis, and those include Two Hill’s I/D (intestinal diet) dog food, and Purina EN (Gastroenteric).
How Can I Get a Dog With Pancreatitis to Drink Water?
For some reason, dogs who do are affected by pancreatitis often refuse water. Coupled with the vomiting, this creates a dehydration situation.
Dog dad, Al Nelson, is dealing with acute pancreatitis in his 15-years-young Cocker Spaniel, Maxie. In her initial days following diagnosis, Maxie refused to drink water.
“I have a syringe to give her vitamin water in a little while if she doesn’t on her own,” Nelson told us. “She did get a “hump” with fluids Thursday night at the vet.”
The hump is subcu fluids and my dog received the same thing prior to discharge with his episodes.
After giving Maxie some baby food, she progressed to this dog food from the vet and is doing well on it:
Often times, dogs are nauseous and not into drinking. Keep your veterinarian apprised of this situation and follow our tips to encourage dogs to drink water.
Homemade low-fat diets for dogs to treat and prevent pancreatitis are another option and one that I am using. Whole Dog Journal says a low-fat homemade dog food diet should consist of about half carbohydrates, and half low-fat protein. Make sure the protein is mostly meat, but eggs and non-fat dairy is good, too.
What About Enzymes?
I am here to tell you that not all dogs need the addition of digestive enzymes if they are diagnosed with pancreatitis. If your dog’s stool returns to its normal state after the acute pancreatitis bout, he likely does not need digestive enzymes. For chronic pancreatitis, or if a dog is unable to keep up a healthy body weight, discussed enzymes in your dog. Many of them can be crushed and sprinkled on the food.
Like people, enzymes should be considered on a case by case basis and because you discussed it with a qualified expert like your vet who sees this a lot or a holistic veterinarian familiar with treating dogs successfully in this capacity.
I encourage you to discuss digestive enzymes and supplements with your dog’s vet. My friend, June Myers, added a digestive supplement to her dog’s diet when he was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. Buster ate a good diet with a digestive enzyme added to it and he lived a long life of live.
Dogs with pancreatic problems, such as those in chronic cases, will have problems absorbing fats and oils from foods. Some experts recommend giving a quality omega 3-omega 6 supplement, but this needs to be discussed with your vet.
What Can I Do to Prevent Future Pancreatitis Episodes in My Dog?
Weight: So much of pancreatitis is related to fat, so you want to be sure your dog is a proper weight. An obese dog is more prone to pancreatitis.
Exercise: This is a great aide in preventing pancreatitis to get the digestive juices flowing. It is a myth that dogs need more calories in the winter months. This is true for sled dogs or working dogs, but dogs need year-round exercise. Here are ways to entertain a dog indoors.
Thyroid Check: Have a full panel performed on your dog of his thyroid function. If your dog is gaining weight, is overweight, and this is despite your balancing his diet with exercise, a thyroid issue may be to blame. I recently had a complete panel performed and sent out of town to an outside lab. Here are the results below. Everything was normal. I like seeing all the different levels and not just a free T4. Learn more about the thyroid function and your dog’s hormones here.
Lipid and Cholesterol Check: Elevated triglycerides and lipids can lead to pancreatitis. My dog’s triglycerides are up since the steroids, so now that they are eliminated we are working to get the triglyceride number down. Be sure to fast your dog 12 hours before testing for hyperlipidemia.
Proper Diet and Treats: As above. No fatty treats like pig ears. Keep your dog on the new balanced diet with the low fat and lower fat treats. I believe that irritating a pancreas with fatty foods invites another episode. Also with my dog’s triglycerides being elevated this year, we are working to get those down with medicine and through diet. We plan a triglycerides level check every six months.
Eliminate Table Scraps/People Food: I know how hard this is, and trust me, I remember how sick my dog was whenever the urge comes over me to give scraps that can harm him.
Keep the Garbage Can Closed: My dog is known to try to topple the garbage can, so he has zero access to the kitchen when we aren’t in that room with him.
Can Pancreatitis Recur in My Dog?
Yes. Even if a fatty meal was not the cause of your dog’s pancreatitis, high fat foods can trigger another pancreatitis episode. If the pancreas was scarred or damaged, your dog is more prone to future episodes.
Can Pancreatitis Cause Other Problems in My Dog?
It most certainly can!
Dogs with pancreatitis are may encounter diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, hyperadrenocorticism, and other endocrine diseases.
A condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) may occur in recurrent cases.
Medications We Were Prescribed
Pain Medication: Tramadol
Medications vary by dog, and our dog was given an injection of pain medication prior to discharge from the emergency visit at the vet hospital. Do not give your dog over the counter medications or people medication. There are many pain medications that dogs cannot take.
The Role of Hyperbaric Oxygen Chambers
If you feel your dog is developing pancreatitis, rest his stomach from food, and if the vomiting does not subside, seek veterinary care and don’t attempt to self-diagnose. If the pancreatitis was caused by a medication, the medication should be discontinued. If it was caused by a toxin, infection, or other condition, the appropriate therapy for the underlying condition should be started.
In rare instances where there are intestinal complications or the development of a pancreatic abscess, surgery may be necessary.
Hyperbaric oxygen chambers are also being used to treat dogs with both acute and chronic pancreatitis. I learned of this treatment from my dog’s Internal Medicine veterinarian. During veterinary hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the dog is placed safely and comfortably in a large chamber with 100 percent oxygen at pressure 1.5 to 3 times that of normal atmospheric pressure. The sessions last about one hour and are given one or two times daily. Dogs sit and breathe in the oxygen. Our vet shared that some dogs get four or five sessions with amazing results and curative responses.
When divers go underwater, sometimes they come up too quickly and experience a cramping sensation known as “the bends.” These divers are often treated the same way. This video explains it. Knowing I have access within 90 minutes of my residence is reassuring:
How to Help Dogs With Pancreatitis: Advice from Experts
There is a LOT of information online about how to help a dog with pancreatitis. A lot of it is not true, as is the case with any topic online. There are, however, some very valuable and trustworthy resources that we infused into this article. Here is a final video to share from Dr. Judy Morgan, DVM, about pancreatitis:
I am also a fan of this white paper that has been peer reviewed on the topic of canine pancreatitis.
I will diligently watch my dog and what he eats, continue with visits to his Internal Medicine vet and regular vet. We have veterinary pet insurance, and I would do whatever I needed to for my dog. I highly suggest you start a savings, invest in pet health insurance, or both. It is expensive to treat issues like this.
If you missed my dog’s journey with IMT (immune-mediated thrombocytopenia) and why he was prescribed steroids in the first place, read here: Help for dogs fighting IMT.
Has your dog been diagnosed with pancreatitis? Have you ever dealt with it in your dog? We’re listening and appreciate comments in the box below.