Your big dinner party was a great success and, as usual, your dog had fun, too — especially the part that involved gobbling up all the tasty morsels that your guests were willing to share. Only now, your dog is sick. Not just the one upchuck-and-everything-is-fine kind of incident, but really sick: Frequent vomiting, lethargy, abdominal pain.
After a quick telephone conversation with your veterinarian, you’re told to take your dog to the clinic, that she might have pancreatitis, and without treatment, could die.
Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. “Under normal conditions, digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas are activated and secreted when they reach the small intestines,” explains James Barr, DVM, a resident in emergency and critical care at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. “But with pancreatitis, these enzymes are activated prematurely in the pancreas. This results in digestion of the pancreas itself and the surrounding tissues.”
What leads to the condition isn’t always known, Barr says. “But there is often a history of a pet ingesting a high fat meal or dietary indiscretion, like getting into the trash. Sometimes an underlying cause isn’t found.”
Clinical signs usually include vomiting, lethargy, poor appetite, abdominal pain, and sometimes fever. “Any age or breed dog can be affected,” Barr says. “While there is not an overwhelming body of data to support it, most veterinarians hold true that overweight dogs are predisposed to developing pancreatitis.”
Diagnosis can be tricky, as both clinical signs and test results can be suggestive of several other disorders including kidney disease, liver disease, tumors, and other maladies. “Most of the time,” says Barr, “pancreatitis is diagnosed by a combination of X-rays of the abdomen, an ultrasound of the abdomen, clinical signs, and a few specialized blood tests, such as a pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity.”
Treatment includes withholding food and water from the dog for at least 24 hours (in severe cases, for several days) and administrating IV fluids — a protocol essential for restoring normal pancreatic function and minimizing complications. “This often necessitates keeping the pet in the hospital,” Barr says. “Sometimes management needs to be quite intensive.” In some cases, electrolytes and antibiotics are also administered.
Although pancreatitis can be fatal, prognosis for most dogs receiving prompt and appropriate treatment is good. “However, in severe acute cases, overwhelming inflammation can cause a serious, life-threatening condition,” Barr warns. “Fortunately, this is uncommon.”
Pancreatitis can strike the same patient more than once, therefore some veterinarians recommend feeding a low-fat diet to help prevent recurrence.
Also, some dogs that recover from acute pancreatitis eventually develop a chronic form of the disease. While they may not display clinical signs, these dogs are at risk for developing diabetes and pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, in which the pancreas stops producing and secreting enough digestive enzymes to digest food in the small intestine. These cases are best managed by feeding the dogs low-fat diets.
Although there are no sure-fire ways to prevent pancreatitis, Barr says you can minimize the risk of this disease by keeping your dog out of the garbage and by limiting fatty foods.
Marcia King is a DOG FANCY contributing editor who lives in Ohio.