Top Signs of Pancreatitis in Dogs and What to Do Next

Many dogs will be one-time offenders for pancreatitis, while others will struggle with symptoms for their entire lives. Understanding pancreatitis signs and symptoms, the diagnostic process, as well as dietary and holistic management, are important steps toward helping your dog manage the pain.

What does the pancreas do?

The pancreas is an organ located to the right of the stomach that plays an important role in the digestive health of your dog. It produces enzymes that aid in digestion and insulin to regulate blood sugar.

Pancreatitis is defined as inflammation of the pancreas and can present acutely or become a chronic disease over time. Many times, pancreatitis is triggered by dietary intolerance and the consumption of high-fat foods. This is why veterinary emergency facilities experience an increase in pancreatitis cases around holidays, when pets typically eat more human foods. Other causes of pancreatitis include genetic predisposition, cancer, obesity, hormonal imbalance like Diabetes mellitus and certain medications. Causes of pancreatitis are often unknown.

Top signs of pancreatitis in dogs

When considering whether your dog is suffering from pancreatitis, look for the most common signs and symptoms. Symptoms of acute and chronic pancreatitis will vary in length and severity.

A veterinarian may perform an abdominal ultrasound to diagnose pancreases in your dog ©Vesnaandjic/Getty Images

Acute pancreatitis is a sudden onset of symptoms including:

  • Persistent vomiting
  • Abdominal pain
  • Inappetence or decreased appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Extreme lethargy

Chronic pancreatitis persists over a long period of time with symptoms including:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Intermittent vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Acute pancreatitis will present with severe symptoms and is more common in dogs than chronic pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis may present more subtly and worsen with time. Some dogs with chronic pancreatitis will have periods where they experience more severe, acute symptoms.

How do you diagnose pancreatitis in dogs?

If your dog has pancreatitis symptoms, take him to a veterinarian to determine next steps. During the diagnosis process, you can expect:

  • Examination. An exam including abdominal palpation will be the first step to diagnosing your dog with pancreatitis. Your vet will collect information about your dog’s diet, including changes in appetite, and history and frequency of vomiting. Before the visit, log these changes, so you are ready to present them during the exam. This timeline could help expedite your dog’s diagnosis and treatment plan.
  • Bloodwork. Because signs of pancreatitis are often non-specific, your veterinarian may run specific blood tests, which can hone in on a possible pancreatitis diagnosis and rule out other medical conditions and contributing factors.

Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity (PLI) is the most sensitive laboratory test available for dogs with pancreatitis because it assesses lipase levels in the bloodstream. During pancreatitis, normal trace levels of lipase increase considerably. While PLI laboratory tests are highly specific, results take longer to receive than alternative in-house tests, which becomes important when treating a sick dog.

  • Abdominal Ultrasound. An abdominal ultrasound is a noninvasive diagnostic that assesses organs and structures within the abdomen. This test is around 40-70% sensitive for pancreatitis in achieving a formal diagnosis. Ultrasounds rule out non-related medical conditions that may be contributing to your dog’s symptoms, as well as pancreatic tumors.
  • Biopsy. If a pancreatic mass is found, it may need to be removed for testing. Biopsy is the most invasive diagnostic test and may be contraindicated (not suggested) for seriously ill patients. Discuss the details with your veterinarian and consider getting a second opinion.

What should my dog eat if he has pancreatitis?

Diet therapy is the most critical component to the prevention and management of both acute and chronic pancreatitis, and it starts with introducing a low-fat diet.

A low-fat diet can help manage your dog’s pancreatitis symptoms ©Stefan Cristian Cioata/ Getty Images

For acute pancreatitis, a low-fat diet will be an important part of your dog’s temporary treatment plan. For chronic pancreatitis, a low-fat diet will be a permanent change.

Such diet changes may include the following:

  • Low-fat prescription commercial diets. These diets will require a prescription from your veterinarian. Examples of low-fat dog diets include:
  • Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal
  • Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets Gastroenteric
  • Hills Prescription Diet Veterinary Care ID
  • Low-fat commercial diets. Most common commercial dog food diets include low fat options. Discuss these options with your veterinarian before use. Some examples include:
    • Wellness Core Reduced Fat
    • Blue Buffalo Life Protection Healthy Weight
    • Canidae Pure Healthy Weight
    • Instinct Raw Boost Healthy Weight
  • Low-fat treats. There are many prescription and commercial low-fat treats available. Avoid high-fat table scraps or treats such as marrow bones and opt for homemade treats, such as dehydrated fruits or vegetables, instead. Examples include sweet potato, kale, green beans, carrots and apples. Avoid toxic foods such as onions, garlic and grapes.
  • Home-cooked diets. Home cooking for dogs with pancreatitis is a great option because you have control over ingredients and can adjust as needed. Using an online resource such as Balanceit.com you can create a home-cooked diet specifically supportive for dogs with pancreatitis that will provide necessary vitamins and minerals.

Communicate with the people in your dog’s life. Providing house guests, family members, pet sitters, veterinary staff, trainers and groomers with alternative, safe treats can reduce pancreatitis symptoms. Environmental management, such as removing access to trash and cleaning the kitchen to prevent counter surfing, is also important.

Are there holistic treatments for dogs with pancreatitis?

According to Dr. Angie Krause, holistic veterinarian and owner of Boulder Holistic Vet, there are some holistic approaches that may support your dog through pancreatitis symptoms.

Dr. Krause’s suggestions include:

  • CBD has natural anti-inflammatory properties and reduces nausea and pain. Start at the low end of CBD’s dosing range (0.25mg/kg twice daily). Find a reputable CBD product that does not include additional ingredients. Dr. Krause uses HempRx products.
  • While Dr. Krause suggests all dogs take a quality probiotic, this is especially helpful for supporting the gut health of dogs with pancreatitis. Alternating probiotic strains may be beneficial. Dr. Krause uses Thorne Bacillus and RxBiotics in her practice.
  • Chinese Herbs. Certain Chinese herbs can work to alleviate pancreatitis symptoms in dogs. Find a veterinarian who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine near you through the Chi Institute website.

Dr. Krause recommends starting with one diet or supplement change at a time, in order to carefully track results.

What online resources are available for pancreatitis in dogs?

Pancreatitis can be an extremely stressful disease to manage and may leave you feeling discouraged and isolated. Online resources, such as Dogs with Pancreatitis on Facebook, which has 5,000 members, connect you with other pet parents going through a pancreatitis diagnosis with their dogs. These groups are an excellent way to expand you and your dog’s team while also supporting other pet parents.

While pancreatitis is a very serious disease, many dogs who experience it will live long and happy lives! Because pancreatitis shares symptoms with many other conditions, it can be difficult to diagnose. Advocating for your dog and educating yourself will give your sick dog the voice he needs.

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