Pancreatitis…When Organs Attack

In the past few years, we as the veterinary community have taken more of a look at the pancreas as a potential cause happy-thanksgiving-cat-dogfor some health issues when your pet comes in with more generalized signs.  We know quite a bit about this integral organ but there are still some mysteries to be solved.  With Thanksgiving coming up in the USA (unfortunately we had ours in Kingston already), this might be a good time to take a look at what it does, how it causes problems, and what we can do about it.

The pancreas sits in the abdomen adjacent to the stomach and upper small intestine.  Among it’s more important functions, it produces enzymes to help digest food and also insulin to help regulate blood sugar levels.  There are actually small tubes that secrete these compounds into the digestive tract and blood stream to help these functions happen.  But there are also inhibitors to keep these enzymes from starting to work too early….like while still in the pancreas.  If these inhibitors fail, reactions begin within the pancreas and it actually starts to digest itself.  Sounds nasty right?


It really can be quite complicated but I’ll break down the essentials.  We can see both an acute (sudden onset) and chronic (long term) form.  Acutely, the pancreas will become inflamed, can become necrotic (dead tissue), swollen, and potentially hemorrhage.  Chronically, the long term inflammation can lead to the tissue itself turning fibrous essentially killing off cells and rendering them non-functional and this can lead to diabetes or another condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI).

baconBut how does this happen?  That can be hard to distinguish and there are MANY factors.  There is a higher incidence for dogs who get exposed to high amounts of fat whether repeatedly in their diet or the one dog I knew who unfortunately drank from the deep frier at home.  Yes, even bacon is bad for dogs.  Other factors in dogs may include certain drugs, trauma, toxins, and intestinal reflux while in cats, diets & drugs do not play a role but they are more at risk due to infectious diseases, hepatitis, diabetes, and parasites to name a few.  Terrier breeds & miniature schnauzers may be more at risk as well.  Unfortunately, the causes of almost every case of pancreatitis often goes unknown. min schnauzer

But how do you know if your pet has pancreatitis?  Of course there are tests we as veterinarians will do that can give us this answer but first they’ll show you signs at home that will be concerning to you.  Loss of appetite, vomiting, lethargy, fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea are all possible signs.  Signs in cats may be vague or less noticeable with regards to vomiting and pain.  Cats also uniquely may have hepatitis and inflammatory bowel disease along with pancreatitis; this is often referred to as “triaditis.”  Blood tests will show numerous variations affecting the kidneys, electrolytes, liver, and blood cells.  Diagnostic imaging may be of use in some cases.

sick dog

Once the diagnosis is made, treatment can begin which will often include intravenous fluids, anti-nausea, anti-vomiting, pain, & appetite stimulant medications, vitamin supplementation, and in some cases antibiotics.  In certain cases, plasma transfusions can be given.  For dogs, long term management may often include low-fat diets, whereas in cats diet selection is not as important as getting them to eat what they will eat.  Despite all our options, there is no specific treatment or guaranteed course of action that will resolve a pancreatitis case but many patients will do well with these plans. hospitalized cat

This is just the basics of pancreatitis as there can be more complex problems such as abscesses or tumors though these are less common.  The important thing to keep in mind is that if your pet is showing abnormal signs, don’t delay.  It can be okay to wait a day in case of the uncommon upset stomach but it’s best to not make your pet wait almost a week to get them veterinary attention as it will only make the problem worse.  So this Thanksgiving, keep your pets safe and avoid the table foods just in case (not to mention possible toxicities)!

Disclaimer: All blog posts are personally written and my opinion and do not reflect those of current or former employers.

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