Pancreatitis: What is it and How Can You Help Your Dog Manage It?

Pancreatitis can be an awful condition.  It can cause major discomfort and pain for your dog and it is extremely distressing to watch this as an owner.  In extreme or persistent cases, there is a risk of death. This is why, if you spot the symptoms of the condition, it is important that you seek veterinary assistance immediately.

Once a dog has had a bout of pancreatitis it means that the chances of it reoccurring are much higher.

The good news is that, with a few simple steps, it is possible to reduce your dog’s chances of having an episode in the first place and there are things that can be done to help reduce the chances of a flare up too.

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Pancreatitis can be a serious and debilitating condition for your dog and speedy treatment and lifestyle changes can be key for a good prognosis


What is Pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdominal area, just underneath the stomach.  One of its functions is to help the body manage the digestive process. It releases enzymes that are activated when they hit the small intestine.  For dogs suffering from a bout of pancreatitis, these enzymes activate immediately, within the pancreas, and this can cause the organ to become inflamed and even damaged.  It can also cause damage to the organs and tissue that surround the pancreas too, these can include the liver, kidney and the gallbladder. Essentially, the pancreas begins to digest itself!

The inflammation results in severe pain for the dog.  There are two different types of pancreatitis. The Acute variety involves a sudden onset attack.  The Chronic variety develops over a prolonged period of months or years if the dog continues to have recurring acute attacks and the long term impact on the dog’s organs as a result of this chronic condition can be serious if it is not able to be controlled.  The long term prognosis for a serious chronic case can be guarded.

What Can Cause Pancreatitis?

There are a wide number of factors that are believed to contribute to a pancreatitis attack occurring, and it can sometimes be a combination of different factors.  It can also appear, seemingly spontaneously, with no apparent trigger.

It is still an area that is being studied to gather more scientific and medical data about the exact causes as, currently, it an area where they are not always clear.  Some of the most common possible causes that we are aware of are outlined below.

A High-Fat Diet

It is understood that the most common cause of pancreatitis is one that we have control over.  If your dog is fed a poor quality, high fat diet, or is given a lot of fatty table scraps or tidbits, this can greatly increase the chances of your dog suffering from a pancreatitis attack.  Sometimes even just a one-off, large amount of something unusually high in fat can be enough to trigger an attack.

Dogs that are fed a large, fatty meal just once a day or those that are scavengers and manage to eat from the bin or from food sources found out on walks may also be at greater risk.


Dogs that are obese are understood to be more at risk of suffering from pancreatitis.  Dogs can often become overweight as a result of too much fatty food though so this could also be linked to diet.

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Obesity has been linked with pancreatitis 


It is believed that some medications, particularly certain steroids, can trigger a pancreatitis attack.

Breed Genetic Predisposition

Certain breeds are believed to be more likely to develop pancreatitis than others.  It seems to be more prevalent in Cocker Spaniels, Yorkshire Terriers, Miniature Schnauzers and Miniature Poodles, for example.

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Certain breeds, like Miniature Schnauzers, have been linked to having a genetic predisposition to the condition 

Physical Trauma

While it is not known for certain, it is believed that harsh physical trauma to the pancreas area could trigger a pancreatitis attack.  So if your dog has been in an accident or even banged against something hard directly on their abdomen area, this could result in an attack.

Other Possible Causes

There are also believed to be possible links between pancreatitis and hypothyroidism, diabetes, Cushing’s disease and liver disease.

It is more commonly seen in older dogs and females too.

What Are Some of the Common Symptoms of Pancreatitis?

The signs of pancreatitis can vary from case to case but some of the most common symptoms include:

Abdominal Pain

This is a common symptom.  Your dog may be in visible discomfort, carrying themselves with a hunched, arched back. They may howl or whine, particularly if you try to touch or manipulate their tummy.  Their tummy is often tense, can be bloated and they can be restless and find it difficult to lie down or get comfortable.

Vomiting and/or Diarrhea

These are also common symptoms and can vary from mild to very severe.  In severe cases, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.  This can be a major factor in the dehydration that a severe case of pancreatitis can cause.

Changes in Behaviour/Mood

The prolonged and severe pain of pancreatitis can cause your dog to become lethargic, weak and even depressed.  A normally placid dog may start to display signs of aggression if the pain is extreme. They may not want any contact with those they normally actively seek attention from and they can become withdrawn and subdued, not wanting to take exercise.

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Dogs suffering from pancreatitis can become lethargic, seek solitude and even depressed

Other Symptoms

The inflammation of the pancreas can mean that your dog could run a high fever, suffer from a loss of appetite, lose weight rapidly, have an elevated heart rate or respiratory issues.

In extreme cases, your dog can go into shock, and without speedy and aggressive treatment it can be fatal.

How is Pancreatitis Diagnosed?

Because a number of the symptoms can be similar to other maladies in dogs, it is not possible to definitively diagnose a pancreatitis attack without performing further tests.

Usually, blood tests, urine and faecal samples and, sometimes, even x-rays will be done to rule out other possible conditions and to check on organ functionality.  An ultrasound of the abdomen may also be required to help reach a conclusive diagnosis.

There is also a specific blood test that is usually done if pancreatitis is suspected called the canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test (cPLI) and this is widely regarded as one of the most accurate indicators of whether the dog has the condition.  It measures the levels of lipase that is specific to the pancreas and the blood values will be raised when there is an inflammation of the organ.

cPLI can also be used to measure how a pancreas is recovering, and for dogs with chronic pancreatitis, they may get regular cPLI tests to make sure that the pancreas is continuing to function effectively.

How Can Pancreatitis be Treated?

The treatment for cases of pancreatitis will vary greatly depending on how severe the attack is.    While it may be possible to manage things from home if your dog is only having a very mild case, if your dog is showing severe symptoms and discomfort or has been having milder problems that are lasting for more than a day or two, then it is crucial to seek speedy veterinary intervention.  If the pancreatitis is left untreated for too long it can quickly progress into a more serious hemorrhagic form and this can prove fatal.

For mild symptoms sometimes a short period of fasting, usually around 24 hours, to give your dog’s pancreas a rest and time to heal, followed by frequent, very small meals of a low-fat and bland diet can be enough to resolve the issue.

More severe cases generally require a period of hospitalization at your vet to allow them to try to stabilize your dog.  They will usually immediately start with a course of IV fluids and electrolytes as a severe attack can cause dehydration.  They will also administer appropriate pain medication to help your dog feel more comfortable.

Often they will also give them anti-sickness meds to help reduce any vomiting and also to help them to get their appetite back.

If a dog gets their appetite back quickly this can be an encouraging sign and the prognosis is usually better. Vets will generally try to get them to eat again as soon as they are stabilised, but it will be very, very small, frequent and specific low-fat meals initially.

For dogs with chronic pancreatitis, they will usually be switched permanently onto an appropriate low-fat diet as a higher fat diet will increase the chances of a repeat attack occurring.

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Dogs usually need veterinary intervention to help them cope with a bout of pancreatitis 

What is the Long-term Prognosis?

For some dogs, they may only have one pancreatitis attack and then it will never occur again, this is particularly true if you take appropriate steps to manage their diet and lifestyle going forward.  Of course, sometimes, regardless of how well you work to manage the possibility of a further attack, sometimes it can be out with your control.

If a dog has had a very severe acute attack or they end up developing chronic pancreatitis and suffer from regular acute attacks, then this can lead to further problems.  Some of these can include the development of diabetes, scarring around the organ that can cause pain and the development of EPI.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)

If regular attacks or one serious attack does enough damage to destroy a large number of the cells that produce digestive enzymes from the pancreas then this can lead to the condition Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) and it can make it difficult for your dog to digest food effectively.  This can usually be successfully managed by administering a daily enzyme replacement supplement. It is usually in a powdered form that is added to their food.

What Steps Can You Take To Reduce the Chances of Your Dog Developing Pancreatitis?

As we have already discussed, sometimes pancreatitis may occur without you having any control over it, but there are some steps you can take to minimise the chances of your dog developing the condition.

Avoid a High Fat Diet and Treats

Unless your dog has actually had recurring bouts of pancreatitis, there is no need to feed a specific very low-fat diet, however, it is always good to ensure that your dog’s diet is a high-quality, protein-rich one that is not too high in fat.  For those dogs that have recurring bouts of the condition, then a specific low-fat diet will need to be used going forward. There are specific prescription diets available designed for the condition or, if you want to look into alternatives, then it is always advisable to speak with your vet and/or a qualified canine nutritionist to get the best guidance.

Dogs that are regularly fed unhealthy, fatty table scraps or treats as part of their diet are at a much higher risk of developing pancreatitis, so if this is something that you do you should stop this habit immediately.  There are lots of healthy low-fat treat options available on the market.

Keep a Scavenging Dog in Check

Dogs that have a problem with scavenging can also be more likely to suffer from pancreatitis.  If they regularly raid the garbage or pick up inappropriate leftovers from BBQs or picnics when out on walks this could cause a problem. Make sure that you use management tools like a dog-proof bin, or keeping the garbage in a room or space out of their reach, or use a baby gate.  When out on walks you may want to consider getting them used to wearing a well-fitting muzzle, or having them on a long line while you work on getting a reliable ‘leave it’ and ‘drop it’ command sorted out.

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If you have a dog that regularly scavenges or raids the garbage you will need to be proactive with your management 

Watch Your Dog’s Waistline

Keeping your dog lean, trim and healthy is very important for any dog.  As already mentioned, obesity has been linked to pancreatitis so by feeding a healthy, low-fat diet and making sure that they do not put on too many extra pounds, you can be helping to minimise the chances of an attack occurring.

Unless Necessary, Avoid Administering Medications that are Linked with Pancreatitis

Because some medications, especially certain steroids, are linked with pancreatitis attacks, if these can be avoided that would be much better.  Always chat with your vet about potential risks and side effects with any medications that are being prescribed and, if it is one linked with pancreatitis, especially if your dog has already had an attack, then it would be best to look at an alternative option where possible.

Feed Smaller Meal Amounts

If you have been feeding your dog just one large meal a day, changing to feeding more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day can be better for your dog’s digestion and it can also help to decrease the possibility of a pancreatitis flare up as it means you are not putting the pancreas under as much pressure.

If it is difficult for you to do multiple meals throughout the day because of your schedule, you could consider introducing an automatic timed feeder for your dog.

The WOpet Automatic Feeder receives generally good reviews, it holds up to 7 litres of food and it will dispense at set times and you can even record a message to signify that it is mealtime for your dog.

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