COVID-19 Update: AAHA staff is currently working remotely and will support our members virtually. All orders are currently shipping as normal.
Click here for more information.

What is pancreatitis?

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a painful inflammation of the pancreas that can make pets extremely ill. The pancreas is an abdominal organ located just below the stomach that produces digestive enzymes to break down dietary fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. The pancreas also produces insulin, which helps move glucose from the blood into cells for energy production. Pancreatitis can lead to dehydration, organ damage, diabetes, insufficient enzyme production, and, in severe cases, death.

What causes pancreatitis in pets?

Most pancreatitis cases occur after a pet eats a high-fat meal. Although resisting your pet’s puppy-dog eyes and drooling as you dig into a special dinner can be difficult, sharing food with your furry friend can be disastrous. Pancreatitis cases typically increase around the holidays, when families celebrate with festive meals. Pet owners or their houseguests often give the pet turkey trimmings or ham drippings to include him in the celebrations. These fatty treats stimulate a sudden release of lipase, a pancreatic enzyme that helps fat digestion and can cause internal pancreatic digestion, severe inflammation, and tissue damage. Toxins released from damaged tissue cause a systemic inflammatory response and severe illness.

Some breeds, including miniature schnauzers, are more likely to develop pancreatitis because of their pre-existing altered metabolism. 

What are the signs of pancreatitis in pets?

Pets with pancreatitis can become extremely sick and may display the following signs:

  • Lethargy
  • Inappetence
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain

A pet who has clinical signs of vomiting or diarrhea for more than 24 hours or who does not eat for 24 hours should be examined by a veterinarian immediately.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Routine blood tests can indicate infection or inflammation in the body, but they do not specifically test for pancreatitis. Fortunately, several tests are available to help your veterinarian make a detailed diagnosis, including:

  • Amylase and lipase levels: Although increased pancreatic enzyme levels indicate pancreatitis, they are not sensitive or specific enough for an accurate diagnosis. Other health conditions, such as kidney disease, intestinal perforation, dehydration, and steroid use also can cause elevated amylase and lipase readings.
  • Pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI): The PLI test, which measures only lipase released by the pancreas, is a more specific pancreatitis test. Unfortunately, the test requires specialized equipment that certain facilities run only occasionally, so results often are not available quickly enough to help a sick pet.
  • Specific canine pancreatic lipase (SPEC cPL): The SPEC cPL test also measures lipase of pancreatic origin and can be run overnight at most diagnostic laboratories, making diagnosis faster and more convenient. A veterinary hospital can run a version of the test that gives a positive or negative result within 30 minutes.
  • Abdominal ultrasound: If the blood tests described above don’t provide a clear answer, your veterinarian may recommend an abdominal ultrasound to view her pancreas. Anesthesia is not required for this 10- to 30-minute scan, and most pets rest quietly in the dark room while it is performed.

How are pets with pancreatitis treated?

Treatment for pets with pancreatitis typically includes aggressive rehydration with intravenous fluids and electrolytes during several days of hospitalization. Antivomiting and antidiarrheal medications can be used to treat symptoms, and pain medications can keep pets comfortable.

Historically, food was withheld from recovering pets due to the belief that a resting pancreas would heal more quickly. However, more recent treatments involve adequately controlling nausea and vomiting so the pet can resume eating as soon as possible to return the gastrointestinal tract to normal function. Recovering pets now are fed a bland, fat-restricted diet for several weeks before gradually resuming their normal diets.

How can pancreatitis in pets be avoided?

Gastrointestinal upsets likely will occur whenever pets eat unusual food. Dangerous pancreatitis can develop, so stick to a normal diet and add pet-friendly treats occasionally. At holiday parties, don’t give your pet fatty foods and tell guests that sharing with him is off-limits. Better yet, keep your pet away from the festivities so guests aren’t tempted to slip him a treat. You also can leave out a bag of low-fat treats or fresh vegetables, such as baby carrots, for guests who can’t resist befriending your pet with food.