The healthy pancreas is a small and unassuming organ that receives little attention, but becomes a raging beast when inflamed. Pancreatitis (i.e., pancreatic inflammation) is an acute or chronic inflammatory condition that can cause severe harm—or death—in dogs and cats. 

Learn about the pancreas’ potent power, as well as how prompt and diligent care can keep this ornery organ in check, with Neighborhood Veterinary Centers’ guide to pancreatitis in pets. 

Pancreatic function in pets

The pancreas is a small bi-lobed glandular organ tucked alongside the stomach on your pet’s right side. Despite its unimpressive appearance, the pancreas is responsible for two vital body functions—producing and releasing digestive enzymes (i.e., amylase, lipase) and insulin (i.e., the hormone that regulates glucose or blood sugar), which are released and activated as needed in response to food in the small intestine and to a blood glucose increase, respectively.

When good pancreases go bad—pancreatitis in pets

During pancreatitis, the inflamed pancreas prematurely activates its stored digestive enzymes, which begin breaking down the pancreas itself from the inside instead of breaking down food in the intestines. This causes excruciating pain and may lead to shock, hemorrhage, and death—sometimes despite intensive treatment. 

Pancreatitis can be acute (i.e., sudden, severe) or chronic (i.e., ongoing, progressive), depending on the cause. Acute pancreatitis recurs after treatment in some pets and becomes chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis causes in pets

While fatty foods are known to trigger acute pancreatitis in dogs, the cause is generally unknown. Feline pancreatitis is often spontaneous and not linked to diet, but may occur in response to intestinal or hepatic (i.e., liver) inflammatory conditions. Steroid medications are also known to inflame the pancreas. 

Unfortunately, without a definitive cause—besides dietary indiscretion in dogs—pancreatitis is impossible to completely prevent in pets in most instances, and early diagnosis and veterinary intervention are the best way to minimize pet suffering and ensure a successful outcome.

Pancreatitis signs in pets

Acute pancreatitis has a sudden, dramatic onset characterized by intense pain and nausea. Signs include:

  • Vomiting
  • Play bow or praying posture
  • Abdominal pain
  • Frequent lip-licking
  • Diarrhea that may be bloody
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Appetite loss

Chronic pancreatitis can be more subtle, especially between flare-ups. Mild chronic pancreatitis may be unnoticeable, but more intense flares can cause signs similar to those above.

Diagnosing pancreatitis in pets

Successful pancreatitis outcomes depend on prompt diagnosis and treatment. The longer your pet’s care is delayed, the longer their pancreas is damaged by enzyme activity. If too much of the pancreas is destroyed, serious complications, such as diabetes mellitus or digestive disorders (i.e., exocrine pancreatic insufficiency [EPI]), which require life-long medical management, can occur.

During your pet’s physical examination, your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers veterinarian will assess your pet for pain and dehydration, and ask important questions about your pet’s diet, behavior, and steroid medications. Additional testing is necessary to confirm pancreatitis, including:

  • Blood work — Blood work helps the veterinarian rule out other disease processes and measures your pet’s blood glucose and pancreatic enzymes. Elevated circulating enzymes strongly suggest pancreatitis. The pancreas-specific lipase test—referred to as a SNAP CPL or fPL, and the most sensitive test available—can diagnose pancreatitis in less than 10 minutes.
  • Ultrasound — Ultrasound is a low-stress, non-invasive method for visualizing the pancreatic tissue and surrounding abdominal organs. Visible inflammation or tissue thickening is a strong disease indicator.

Despite advanced testing, cats with chronic pancreatitis can be challenging to diagnose. For many cats, diagnosis is based on their history, signs, and concurrent medical conditions.

Pancreatitis treatment in pets

Acute pancreatitis requires immediate hospitalization, typically for 48 to 72 hours. Treatment goals include pain management, dehydration correction, and allowing the pancreas to rest, plus supportive care that includes anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medications. When the pet recovers their appetite, they are fed specialized nutrition by mouth or, in severe cases, through a nasogastric tube. Blood work is repeated to reassess the pet’s blood glucose and circulating pancreatic enzymes.

After hospital discharge, pets may be placed on a bland diet, probiotics, and gastrointestinal (GI) protectants to support continued healing and recovery.

Chronic pancreatitis management in pets

Fortunately, most pets with acute pancreatitis recover with treatment and do not experience chronic disease. However, pets who progress to chronic pancreatitis can still enjoy a good quality of life, although owners must be vigilant about their pet’s behavior and seek veterinary intervention at the first sign of a flare-up (e.g., inappetence, vomiting, depression).

Although diet is not always the cause, pets with chronic pancreatitis may benefit from a low-fat, highly digestible diet to reduce the pancreas’ workload. Pets with concurrent conditions (e.g., diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, liver problems) will require additional specialized management that their veterinarian prescribes.

Pancreatitis is like a sneak attack on your pet’s abdominal organs, but when you understand its pathology, warning signs, and causes, you can help block this dangerous threat before your pet suffers permanent harm. 

If you have additional questions about pancreatitis in pets, or you would like to schedule your pet’s next appointment, contact Neighborhood Veterinary Centers.