Pancreatitis is a very common condition among dogs, and it can be pretty uncomfortable. Some dogs can suffer one acute episode, often associate with raiding a bin. Others have repeated episodes of pancreatitis which often get better with simple treatment, but form a chronic, grumbling disease.

Occasionally, we do see some dogs become very poorly from severe episodes of pancreatitis. And unfortunately, we can lose them to the severity of the disease and its detrimental secondary effects. 

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is an L-shaped organ that sits close behind the stomach and follows the first part of the small intestine. There is a small endocrine part, responsible for the production of hormones that are key for glucose regulation. Then there is a much larger, exocrine part which secretes the enzymes essential for digestion.

These enzymes are normally stored in inactive forms in the pancreas, to avoid them causing any damage. But in pancreatitis they seem to be activated inappropriately inside the pancreas, causing inflammation and damage. They can then leak out into the tissues surrounding the pancreas, causing further inflammation and damage.

The result is significant pain, as well as gastrointestinal signs like vomiting, diarrhoea and anorexia. Repeated bouts can be self-perpetuating because the damage done to the pancreas makes it more likely to become inflamed in the future. 

Why can it be life-threatening?

In very severe cases, there is significant inflammation of both the pancreas, its surrounding fat, and the abdominal cavity (this is known as peritonitis). In addition, the enzymes are absorbed into the bloodstream. All of this can lead to a very severe, systemic inflammatory response. Even causing changes in blood pressure, blood supply, and clotting pathways.

These can have severe effects on key organs such as the lungs, liver and kidneys, leading to multiple organ failure or widespread bleeding. Many dogs affected by such severe disease will not survive and are often put to sleep to prevent further suffering. 

What is the treatment for pancreatitis?

The treatment of pancreatitis depends on the severity of the dog’s signs. Many will have just very subtle signs of being unwell, like vomiting, anorexia, and no significant changes on blood analysis. These cases can be treated successfully at home with painkillers, often antibiotics, stomach protectors and an appropriate light diet once any vomiting has subsided.

Those dogs that are much more unwell, have marked abdominal pain and significant changes in their bloodwork, will need to be hospitalised. This gives them the best chance of a speedy and successful recovery. They will often need fluid and electrolyte supplementation, repeated blood analyses, intravenous painkillers, supplemental feeding, medications for vomiting and gastrointestinal protection. In severe cases, they may reequire transfusions of blood or plasma, or even assisted ventilation.

A period of hospitalisation from 24 hours up to over a week of hospitalisation can be required to get these dogs under control. Very severe cases will be referred to a specialist centre but, even then, sometimes their disease is too severe to overcome. 

My dog has pancreatitis, what’s next?

Many dogs will have a long term, low-grade form of pancreatitis without any obvious clinical signs. This may be interspersed by acute episodes, where they are obviously unwell. It’s impossible to completely prevent these recurrences, but there are steps we can take to reduce the frequency and severity with which they occur.

By keeping your dog on a consistent low fat, digestible diet, avoiding fatty treats or scavenging, and keeping a close eye on him for any subtle signs of the disease, you can enable him to enjoy a good quality of life and minimise the frequency and impact of any recurrences. 

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