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Pancreatitis: Why Is It So Common In Dogs And Cats, How To Prevent It, And How To Recognize It

Sick Dog

Pancreatitis is a potentially severe, life threatening inflammatory disease of the pancreas.  Under normal circumstances, the pancreas plays an important role in the regulation of blood glucose metabolism through the secretion of insulin, as well as secreting digestive enzymes into the upper segment of the small intestine to emulsify fats and break down proteins into small segments, for absorption of these nutrients.  These powerful digestive enzymes do not activate until they have reached the upper small intestine via the pancreatic duct.

In the case of pancreatitis, an inflamed, abnormal pancreas releases enzymes excessively, while enabling the digestive enzymes (namely amylase and lipase) to activate while still within the pancreas.  In essence, the pancreas begins to digest itself, creating a condition that is severely painful and leads to severe vomiting and ill thrift.  The source of the inflammation could be the result of an infection of the upper small intestine, but the definitive cause is often not  identified.

Pancreatitis is significantly more common in dogs and cats than it is in people.  It is most commonly seen in small terrier type dogs, but it is not uncommonly seen in other small breeds and even big dogs.   It is also very common in cats.  So, what is the reason for all of this pancreatitis in petss?  Is there a way to prevent it?  If it happens to your pet, how do you recognize it, and how is it treated?

Cause:

As previously mentioned, pancreatitis can be set off by an ascending infection of the gut.  It has been linked to the feeding of foods that are high in saturated fats, such as pets fed rich items from the table by their owners, (fatty meats like bacon, ice cream, cheese, etc.).  Most commonly, however, a definitive cause is not found, and we are left with the most likelyhood that pancreatitis is a genetic ticking time bomb that will go off if a pet is genetically predisposed to the disease.  Case in point, a few years ago, three Cairn terrier patients of mine from the same litter developed severe pancreatitis all within one week of one another at the age of 3 years.

How to recognize it:

Severe vomiting, not eating, abdominal pain, and lethargy are the primary signs of disease in dogs and cats.

Prevention:

Refrain from feeding pets rich and/or fatty foods.  Since feeding a pet predisposed to pancreatitis a pancreas friendly diet (see more on this below in the treatment section) goes against how we recommend feeding pets under normal circumstances (high protein, low simple carbohydrate, insoluble fiber, low to moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates), I am not a proponent of feeding a pancreatitis prevention diet preemptively.   However, some vets recommend feeding prescription pancreatitis prevention diets to small terrier type breeds that have the highest incidence of disease.

Treatment:

When recognized it early enough and we engage in treatment aggressively, we rarely lose patients to pancreatitis.  Treatment consists of IV fluids, antibiotics, pain management, and feeding a highly digestible, absorbable diet that is minimally irritating to the gut.  This translates to diets that are restricted in insoluble fiber, fats and proteins; while feeding more simple carbohydrate.  Again, this goes against how we should be feeding our pets under normal circumstances, but this really is the only way to prevent pancreatic disease.

Dr. Roger Welton is the President of Maybeck Animal Hospital in West Melbourne, FL, Chief Editor of the Veterinary Advice and Information Website, Web-DVM, and founder/CEO of Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care.

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