When your pet receives a new diagnosis, it is normal to have questions. Having a sick pet is frightening enough, and being unsure of what is going on can create even more anxiety. If your pet has recently been diagnosed with pancreatitis, here are a few frequently asked questions and answers.

Some breeds seem to be more susceptible to bouts with pancreatitis.

What is the pancreas? The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen, near the beginning of the intestines. It is responsible for both secreting digestive enzymes, as well as producing several important hormones (chemicals which regulate other parts of the body).

The digestive enzymes which the pancreas produces are stored in an inactive form in those cells. When everything is working according to plan, the enzymes should only be activated once they are excreted into the gastrointestinal system.

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen near the beginning of the intestines.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. When this occurs, digestive enzymes are activated inappropriately early, and cause damage to the pancreas itself.

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas.

This chemical irritation leads to activation of the immune system, pancreatic swelling, and pain. It can even lead to pancreatic necrosis, or death of the cells making up the pancreas.

In severe cases, the inflammation and damage can spread across the abdomen, and case damage to distant organ systems. It can even trigger a life threatening systemic inflammatory response, which can lead to kidney failure, cardiac arrhythmias, or bleeding disorders.

Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic. Acute pancreatitis occurs rapidly, and often resolves completely. However, it some cases it can lead to chronic pancreatitis, which involves long term damage and scarring of the pancreas. This can permanently compromise pancreatic function.

What causes pancreatitis? Despite significant research, veterinary medicine has not yet determined what triggers pancreatitis in most cases. However, certain factors are associated with the development of this disease. High fat diets, obesity, and hyperlipidemia (high amounts of fat in the bloodstream) are all more common in pets that develop pancreatitis. This may be because fat is one of the triggers to activate enzyme secretion by the pancreas.

High fat diets, obesity and high amounts of fat in the bloodstream

are common in pets that develop pancreatitis. Certain breeds are also more susceptible to pancreatitis, including miniature Schnauzers, miniature poodles, and several types of terriers. Animals with underlying endocrine diseases, such as diabetes and hypothyroidism, may be more develop pancreatitis.

Certain drugs and toxins have also been associated with pancreatitis, as well as severe illnesses, trauma, and recent abdominal surgery. Rarely, infectious disease can trigger pancreatic inflammation.

However, pancreatitis can develop in any dog or cat, even if they do not have any of the risk factors listed.

Certain breeds are more susceptible to pancreatitis.

What are the clinical signs? The signs of pancreatitis are nonspecific, and can vary pet to pet. They typically include lethargy, decreased or absent appetite, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Sometimes, pets can develop fever, diarrhea, or rapid breathing. Signs are often vague and nonspecific in cats, and cats with pancreatitis are less likely to have vomiting than dogs. In severe cases of pancreatitis, animals can develop hypovolemic shock, and be weak, unable to stand, and minimally responsive.

Understand the clinical signs

How is it diagnosed? Based on your pet’s age, breed, clinical signs, and history, your veterinarian may suggest a variety of diagnostics. Oftentimes, tests are needed to rule out other causes of anorexia and vomiting.

Your veterinarian will likely suggest baseline bloodwork, including a complete blood count and serum chemistry. These can help rule out other diseases, as well as guide treatment. The complete blood count allows assessment of the cells of the immune system, as well as red blood cells, and can determine if inflammation or anemia are present. A serum chemistry helps assess if several body systems, including the liver and kidneys, have signs of damage or malfunction.

Oftentimes, abdominal radiographs will be performed in order to rule out foreign material in the gastrointestinal tract or an abdominal mass.

Foreign body obstructions discovered in the digestive system of dogs

Once other causes are ruled out, your veterinarian may suggest an additional blood test called a canine (or feline) pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test.

This test is about seventy to eighty percent sensitive for pancreatitis. If it is normal, pancreatitis is unlikely. However, it can be elevated or abnormal with several other disease processes.

In some cases, an abdominal ultrasound may be indicated. This allows more direct visualization of the pancreas itself, as well as the rest of the abdomen. In about seventy percent of pancreatitis cases, the pancreas will appear abnormal on ultrasound. There is no single perfect test for pancreatitis, but the previous tests may be helpful in reaching a diagnosis.

How is it treated? The treatment for pancreatitis is largely supportive. The main goals of treatment are to maintain hydration, prevent nausea and vomiting, and control pain. In mild cases, this may be done on an outpatient basis, with subcutaneous fluids (fluids under the skin) and oral medications.

However, more severe cases may require hospitalization for intravenous fluids and more intensive pain control. Fluids are not only important for rehydration; they allow better blood flow through the pancreas to support healing.

Nutritional therapy is a controversial element of treatment for pancreatitis. Historically, treatment for pancreatitis included prolonged fasting, in order to prevent further stimulation of the organ. However, more recent research suggests that earlier feeding is most likely more effective for healing.

Most veterinarians will offer a low-fat diet when the pet is interested in food and vomiting is controlled. If a pet develops prolonged anorexia, placement of a feeding tube may be indicated.

Additional treatments may be necessary if other complications occur. These could include antibiotics, additional medications, or even a plasma transfusion. Rarely, surgery may be needed if a pancreatic abscess or severe pancreatic necrosis is present.

What is the prognosis?

For most cases of mild to moderate, acute pancreatitis, the prognosis is good to excellent. Severe acute pancreatitis with develop of a systemic inflammatory response can be life threatening even with treatment. And chronic, recurrent pancreatitis carries a more guarded prognosis. However, most cases can be managed with medical care.

Once a pet recovers from pancreatitis, can future episodes be prevented? Since the cause of pancreatitis is not always known, complete prevention is typically not possible. However, certain steps may reduce the risk of future flare ups. Your veterinarian may recommend a long-term prescription low fat diet for your pet if they have a history of pancreatitis.

If this is recommended, it is important to feed only the prescribed diet, and avoid table scraps or high fat treats.

Judicious weight loss may also be recommended.

Treating concurrent diseases, such as diabetes, may also make future episodes less likely.

If you have any other questions about your pet’s diagnosis, or if you are concerned that your pet may have pancreatitis, please do not hesitate to reach out to us!


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