During the holidays, pets are more likely to ingest high-fat foods, but such a dietary indiscretion can lead to pancreatitis—a painful, potentially life-threatening condition. Our Smithtown Animal Hospital team provides information about pancreatitis in pets and how you can decrease your four-legged friend’s risk.

The pet’s normal pancreas

The pancreas is a small glandular organ that lies under the stomach and runs along the duodenum (i.e., the first small intestine section). The  organ is made up of exocrine and endocrine glands and has digestive and hormonal functions:

  • Exocrine — The exocrine pancreas section secretes digestive enzymes that help break down carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and acids in the duodenum. These enzymes normally travel in an inactive form down the pancreatic duct to the bile duct and are activated when they enter the duodenum. The exocrine gland also secretes a bicarbonate that helps neutralize stomach acid in the duodenum.
  • Endocrine — The endocrine pancreas section secretes insulin and glucagon, which regulate blood glucose, and somatostatin, which prevents the release of insulin and glucagon. 

The pet’s inflamed pancreas

In pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes secreted by the exocrine pancreas tissue are activated prematurely, causing them to digest the pancreas and surrounding tissues. In many cases, the reason for this is unknown, but factors that can increase your pet’s pancreatitis risk include:

  • High-fat meal — Ingesting a high-fat food, such as a juicy turkey leg or butter-laden mashed potatoes, can trigger the release of excess enzymes to digest the fat. 
  • Excess weight — Overweight and obese pets are at increased risk because their fat metabolism is altered. 
  • Breed — Certain breeds, including miniature schnauzers and cocker spaniels, are at increased pancreatitis risk.
  • Trauma — Trauma to the abdominal area, which may occur during a car accident or a fall from an elevated height, can injure the pancreas, resulting in inflammation.
  • Endocrine disorders — Endocrine disorders, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism, cause the fat metabolism to be altered, which can lead to pancreatitis.
  • Medications — Certain medications, such as trimethoprim sulfa, chemotherapy agents, and anti-seizure medications, can increase your pet’s pancreatitis risk.

The pet’s pancreatitis consequences

Pancreatitis is a painful condition that typically leads to signs such as lack of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. Affected dogs also may exhibit a bowing posture, crouching down on their front limbs, to help relieve abdominal pain. The condition can progress, resulting in serious complications such as:

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) — The body-wide inflammation caused by pancreatitis can lead to DIC, resulting in abnormal bleeding and clotting throughout the body. Pets experiencing DIC typically have a poor prognosis.
  • Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) — SIRS is an exaggerated body defense response that can lead to severe inflammation throughout the body and multi-organ failure.
  • Pancreatic encephalopathy — Fat tissue protects the central nervous system, including the brain, and if these tissues are damaged, brain damage can occur.
  • Diabetes — If the endocrine pancreas tissue is damaged enough, diabetes can result. This condition may be permanent or temporary.

The pet’s pancreatitis treatment

Pancreatitis treatment is mostly supportive, although a new medication is available that can be administered intravenously (IV) to help control inflammation. Other treatments include:

  • IV fluids — IV fluid therapy is critical to correct dehydration and restore blood flow to the pancreas.
  • Pain management — Pancreatitis is a painful condition, and medications are necessary to alleviate discomfort.
  • Nutritional support — Feeding tube placement may be necessary to ensure your pet receives adequate nutrition and to support their gastrointestinal (GI) health.
  • Antiemetics — Nausea and vomiting are common in pancreatitis patients, and antiemetics can be helpful to alleviate these signs.
  • Gastric acid suppression — Medications to suppress gastric acid may be necessary to prevent gastric or intestinal ulceration.

The pet’s pancreatitis management

Once your pet is eating well and clinically stable, they can be discharged from the hospital, but they will need ongoing management to prevent a pancreatitis relapse. Dietary modification is the most important aspect of long-term pancreatitis management. Our team may prescribe a low-fat diet for several weeks or more, depending on your pet’s condition. If your pet experiences issues such as diabetes mellitus, our team will devise an appropriate treatment and monitoring strategy to manage their condition.

The pet’s pancreatitis prevention

Since the exact cause of pancreatitis is often unknown, you can’t prevent every case, but steps to decrease your pet’s risk include:

  • Keeping your pet at a healthy weight — Calculate your pet’s daily caloric needs and feed them appropriately to ensure they remain at a healthy weight.
  • Feeding your pet appropriate foods — Avoid feeding your pet table scraps, which may contain high-fat ingredients that can trigger pancreatitis.
  • Exercising your pet — Daily exercise helps keep your pet fit and trim and lowers their risk for several health conditions, including pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis is a serious condition, but you can take steps to decrease your four-legged friend’s risk. Contact our Smithtown Animal Hospital team if your pet is overweight or you have questions about their nutritional needs.