Canine Pancreatitis: What Causes It?

The most common and well-known triggers of pancreatitis in dogs are a fatty meal(s) or table scraps.

That’s why veterinary emergency clinics the busiest with cases of pancreatitis during the holidays.

Canine Pancreatitis: What Causes It?

But is the answer really that simple?

How does that explain a dog that regularly raids the garbage and gorge on fatty bits and never gets pancreatitis? And why another gets a little piece of steak or nothing at all and becomes severely ill?

How does it explain why you can have two dogs of the same breed in the house, eating exactly the same stuff, and one of them stays perfectly healthy while the other one dies from severe acute or chronic pancreatitis?

Lacking understanding

We are familiar with risk factors for the disease, but we don’t fully understand its true cause(s).

Why can one dog’s pancreas can deal with anything that gets thrown at it and another breaks down? What makes one dog more vulnerable than the other?

So what are the known risk factors, besides fatty meal(s) or table scraps?

Trauma to the pancreas or a tumor

Anything that disrupts normal pancreatic tissue can cause the inflammation that is at the heart of pancreatitis.

Reflux of duodenal contents

The duodenum is the first section of the small intestine, into which bile and pancreatic enzymes are secreted.

Pancreatic enzymes remain an inactive form and get activated once they enter the duodenum. If, however, duodenal contents back-washes into the pancreas, it activates the enzymes prematurely.

Breed predisposition

Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels get pancreatitis more frequently than other breeds, but any dog is at risk.


Hyperlipidemia, an excessive amount of fat molecules (lipids) in the blood, is associated with episodes of pancreatitis.

Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be always clear what comes first, the chicken or the egg. Or, in this case, hyperlipidemia or pancreatitis.

Hyperlipidemia most commonly occurs as a result of other disorders, such as

  • diabetes mellitus
  • hypothyroidism
  • Cushing’s disease
  • some liver diseases
  • kidney disease

Some breeds are more predisposed to primary hyperlipidemia where no such underlying disorder can be identified. These include Miniature Schnauzers, Beagles, Shetland Sheepdogs, Briards, Rough Collies and Poodles.

Hyperlipidemia can also occur after a meal of high-fat foods.


Yes, folks, here it is again. Overweight spayed female dogs are particularly susceptible to pancreatitis.

Metabolic disorders

There is a higher incidence of pancreatitis in dogs with diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome and hypothyroidism.

These diseases are all associated with metabolic changes and hyperlipidemia (see above).


Excessive levels of calcium in the blood can activate stored (inactive) digestive enzymes.

Hypercalcemia is typically the result of

  • some cancers
  • parathyroid dysfunction
  • kidney failure
  • Addison’s disease
  • or vitamin D poisoning
Drugs and toxins

Certain drugs or toxins increase the risk of pancreatitis

Drugs that can predispose dogs to pancreatitis are certain antibiotics, anti-seizure medications, and some chemotherapy agents. The role of corticosteroids is controversial. To my thinking, though, if Cushing’s can be a risk factor, so can corticosteroids.

Exposure to certain organophosphate insecticides has also been implicated.


High stress can be a contributing factor too. Think about it. Fight or flight response leads to major metabolic changes in the body. Those include the release of high levels of cortisol.

Autoimmune in origin

Some new studies seem to be showing that chronic inflammation can drive the immune system to destroy the pancreas.

Antioxidant deficiencies

Some studies in humans show that antioxidant deficiencies might play a role in chronic pancreatitis.

Unrelated health issues

The pancreas is not an island

In chronic cases, the function of other organs, particular digestive organs, need to be evaluated. IBD and liver, gallbladder and kidney disease can play a role.

Scorpion stings

Here is a rare one for those who live in relevant geographic areas, scorpion stings.

Scorpion venom can also trigger inflammation of the pancreas.

Unknown causes

And then there are dogs who get pancreatitis and nobody ever figures out why. As well as those dogs who live with undiagnosed low-grade chronic pancreatitis.

And, of course,  there is Cookie who got pancreatitis after getting into horse feed.

Pancreatitis is not a simple problem

But before you give your dog some fatty scraps, please think twice about it. That is the simplest way to help prevent your dog from getting pancreatitis.

Related articles:
Pancreatitis in Dogs: The Perplexities of Pancreatitis

Further reading:
Pancreatitis in Dogs

Categories: ConditionsPancreatitis

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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