Pancreatitis: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

(Photo by Tamara Bellis)

A Note From Dr. John:

We frequently have pets come into our clinic with pancreatitis.  When we use the suffix “-itis” in the medical field, that just means “inflammation of.”  So pancreatitis is a catch-all term for inflammation of the pancreas.  The problem with the inflammatory process is that it often times goes overboard, causing inflammation of more than just the pancreas.  We often see this inflammation extend to the upper intestines, stomach, and liver– an issue that most often leads to the clinical signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.  Other symptoms include abdominal pain, increased respiratory rate, and loss of energy.  Depending on the case, any or all of these signs may be severe. 

How did my pet get pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis can be the result of a number of reasons.  The frustrating thing about pancreatitis is that the underlying cause is often never found.  More often than not, it is caused by pets eating things that they should not (like the time Fido tore through the trash last week) or by owners feeding foods (particularly table scraps) that upset their pet’s stomach.  Dogs and cats have much more sensitive stomachs than we humans do, so a simple treat or diet change can be enough to send them to the vet’s office.  Other common causes are ascending bacterial infections from the intestines, physical trauma, toxins, and cancer. 

So my dog or cat has pancreatitis.  What should I expect?
While determining the cause of pancreatitis can be tough, knowing what to tell pet owners about the course of treatment can be even tougher.  Both cats and dogs are afflicted by pancreatitis, often in very different ways.  

The typical cat that I see in practice has chronic pancreatitis.  This means that for an extended period of time, (from three months to several years), the cat has had low-grade symptoms of vomiting, intermittent diarrhea, and loss of appetite.  Often times, treating these cats entails little more than some nausea medication and a change of diet.  

In dogs, the presentation is typically associated with acute pancreatitis.  In these cases, the prognosis and treatment protocol vary widely.  For some dogs, a quick dose of fluids and a nausea injection are enough to send the pet home with the owners immediately for further care.  Other times, dogs end up in the hospital for five to seven days on IV fluids, injectable medications, and pain relievers.  Depending on the severity of the case and whether or not the inflammation is able to be controlled, pancreatitis can be fatal.  Thankfully, such severe cases are rare.  

Prevention is key.
The best way to deal with pancreatitis is to never get it in the first place.  Pancreatitis is most often completely avoidable.  This means that next time Uncle Billy is about to sneak a pork chop sliver to your pup who is waiting patiently under the dining room table, it is your job to say, “Stop!”  This is easier said than done.  Giving your pet a treat now and again makes you feel like you’re doing the right thing for your pet, however, the opposite is true.  Showing self-restraint on behalf of your pet is the best thing you can do for their health (and your wallet, depending on the vet bill).  

That being said, we can’t always keep our pet from getting into something they shouldn’t. So when pancreatitis hits, the best thing you can do is get your pet to the veterinarian for evaluation and treatment.  Appropriate treatment will make your pet feel significantly better and will shorten the course of the illness.

Our information is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian.  Do not use this information for diagnostic purposes. Always take your pet to your veterinarian to obtain a diagnosis and course of treatment.