Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
Inflammation of the pancreas gland, i.e. pancreatitis, is not a disease that most owners would consider when it came to diseases that might affect their pet. Many other organ systems would spring to mind, but pancreatitis can be a very nasty disease resulting not just in causing a very sick pet, but it can be fatal if not aggressively treated. The pancreas gland in all mammals is responsible for producing insulin (its endocrine function), as well as digestive enzymes (its exocrine function). As a disease, pancreatitis can affect both dogs and cats, but there is a little similarity in how the disease acts in the two species.
Any dog can be affected, but it is more likely to affect overweight middle-aged female dogs. Typical clinical signs would be vomiting and diarrhea, poor or no appetite, lethargy with acute abdominal pain. These signs are not specific to just pancreatitis, although your veterinarian may well be suspicious based on clinical signs alone, as well as a physical exam. The simplest means to confirm this suspicion is through blood tests. Because a dog that has persistent vomiting from some other cause can develop pancreatitis secondary to the vomiting, the interpretation of the blood tests and other diagnostics has to be done carefully to ensure that the pancreatitis is the primary problem and not a secondary issue.
There is no specific drug or antidote specifically designed to counteract pancreatitis, although there are numerous drugs designed to stop the vomiting and diarrhea, sooth the inflamed gastrointestinal tract and intravenous fluids to counteract the dehydration and electrolyte imbalance secondary to all the clinical signs. If caught early enough, most cases of pancreatitis can be turned around with a positive outcome. Interestingly enough, one of the treatment modalities in the very early stages of treatment is to offer no food by mouth. The reason for this is that the exocrine function of the pancreas is to produce enzymes that assist in the digestion of food. These same enzymes, which are stimulated to be produced by eating, will actually start to digest the pancreas gland itself when it is inflamed. So, by withholding food, one is resting the pancreas and allowing the inflammation to settle down.
Food is a huge issue going forward in terms of preventing a re-occurrence of pancreatitis in dogs. The trigger factor appears to be the fat content of the food, so ideally a food that is very low in fat is indicated. Feeding a regular dog food is risky because most regular dog foods are quite high in fat to make them palatable. Your veterinarian will most likely recommend a special diet and it is very important to stick to this regime. Just because a patient survived the first episode of pancreatitis is no guarantee that it will survive a second, so prevention is very important. Although these special diets are more costly, the cost of treating a re-occurrence or losing a beloved dog far outweighs the risk.
Although feeding a regular dog food is absolutely fine for the vast majority of dogs, one can avoid the initial episode of pancreatitis by avoiding feeding your dog anything that is high in fat. A classic trigger factor is allowing your dog to lick the juices and fats from a roasting pan after dinner. At the very least, most dogs would develop vomiting or diarrhea from this special “treat” and at worst they may well develop life-threatening pancreatitis.
Cats have similarities and differences with dogs when it comes to this disease. Their clinical signs are highly variable and often non-specific. Lethargy, dehydration, and anorexia are typical signs, but they often don’t vomit or have diarrhea and their abdomens are not painful. It is not typically a disease diagnosed in the exam room. Also, unlike dogs, diet doesn’t seem to be a trigger factor. What they do have in common with dogs, though, is that the disease can be fatal.
What isn’t fully understood is what triggers pancreatitis in cats. It may be found secondary to another disease, like inflammatory bowel disease, or it may even occur secondary to trauma - like being hit by a car. Blood tests can be helpful, but the only definitive way to diagnose it in cats is through biopsy. This is not practical in most cases and so based on readily achievable diagnostics like blood tests and ultrasound, the same supportive treatment that occurs with dogs is initiated with cats. As with dogs, this treatment requires hospitalization over a number of days and can get quite expensive.
However, preventing a reoccurrence from an owner’s perspective is really not possible. Some cats have one bout and that’s it, while others end up having chronic pancreatitis for no known reason. The latter has a guarded prognosis because, with each episode, the pancreas will scar and shrink with the result that eventually, it can no longer carry out its body function. If your cat stops eating for more than a day, it would be prudent to visit your veterinarian to ensure there is nothing serious, like pancreatitis, going on.
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