Pancreatitis in Dogs: The Perplexities of Pancreatitis

If your dog has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, it may seem like you didn’t get straight answers to your questions.  The disease can be confusing, and not just for owners but for the veterinarians who treat it as well.

Pancreatitis can be no more serious than a mild “tummy ache,” or it can be a killer.  It may be a one-time event with an obvious underlying cause. But it can occur over and over again despite the best treatment.  Pancreatitis may have no long-lasting effect, or it may lead to severe complications down the road. 

Pancreatitis in Dogs: The Perplexities of Pancreatitis

And to top it all off, it is impossible to predict the outcome at the disease’s onset.  What initially looks like nothing serious can rapidly become a nightmare.

Let me go over the basics of this disease and try to clear up some of the confusion.

Pancreatitis in Dogs: The Perplexities of Pancreatitis

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is an abdominal organ that lies next to a portion of the small intestine.  It has two major roles.  It produces the hormone insulin. Insulin plays a critical role in regulating blood sugar levels. Pancreas also manufactures digestive enzymes that are pumped into the intestinal tract in response to a meal.

What is pancreatitis?

The suffix “itis” means “inflammation of” in medical jargon.  So pancreatitis simply means inflammation of the pancreas… but that is where the simplicity ends.  The inflammation can develop for a number of reasons. However, one of the most well known is the ingestion of an especially fatty meal. 

Dogs that get into the trash or are fed lots of table scraps are at higher risk for developing pancreatitis. 

However, many dogs come down with the disease with no recent history of such an event.  In these cases, an underlying problem might be to blame. Predisposing conditions include:

  • obesity
  • infection
  • metabolic disorders
  • trauma
  • breed predilection (e.g., Schnauzers)
  • recent abdominal surgery

Often, though, we never find out what caused the inflammation in the first place.

Once the inflammation causes the pancreas to leak digestive enzymes onto its surface and into the abdomen, the situation starts to snowball.  These enzymes are essentially continuing their digestive function. But now outside of the intestinal tract. That invites even more inflammation.  Permanent damage to the pancreas and surrounding organs is possible.

Diagnosis pancreatitis

Diagnosing pancreatitis is also not always easy.  (What else did you expect?) 

A dog with a “typical” case of pancreatitis has the following symptoms:

  • a poor appetite
  • lethargy
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • painful abdomen

However, these symptoms are common to many other diseases. As well as not every dog with pancreatitis looks like this, so diagnostic tests are necessary. 

Routine blood work may show an elevation in two pancreatic enzymes, amylase and lipase. However, even if these levels are normal, pancreatitis is still possible.  A more sensitive blood test called a cPLI provides answers if the diagnosis is not clear. 

Other diagnostic tests that may be necessary to diagnose some cases of pancreatitis and/or rule out other diseases that have similar symptoms include:

  • x-rays
  • abdominal ultrasound
  • urinalysis
  • fecal examination
  • and even exploratory surgery



To stop the cycle of inflammation, the pancreas must stop secreting its digestive enzymes for a period of time.  How is this done?  Typically, the dog needs a 24-hour fast. In the past, food used to be withheld until resolution of symptoms. However, new research indicates better outcomes if the dog resumes eating as soon as possible.

Supportive treatment

To support the body and deal with dehydration, intravenous fluid therapy is usually necessary. Although milder cases might be able to get away with fluids injected under their skin. 

If a dog is not beginning to recover after several days, he may need to be fed via a tube that is surgically inserted into his intestinal tract below where the pancreas empties or perhaps receive nutrition directly into his bloodstream.


Nausea and pain-relieving medications are a very important part of pancreatitis treatment.  Your veterinarian might prescribe antibiotics in case a bacterial infection is involved. This helps prevent the formation of pancreatic abscesses.  If an abscess develops, it needs to be drained surgically. Plasma transfusions can be a life-saver in severe cases of pancreatitis.

Recovery diet

Once a dog is able to eat and drink again, he will usually be offered small, frequent meals of a low-fat, easily digested diet and will be closely monitored for relapses.  Low-fat diets may be prescribed in the long term in an attempt to prevent future flare-ups. 

If the pancreas has been severely damaged, it may not be able to perform its normal functions of producing insulin and digestive enzymes.  Diabetes mellitus or pancreatic insufficiency can result, and if these or other complications develop, additional treatment will be necessary.

Many dogs with pancreatitis recover uneventfully and go on to live normal lives, but these are the lucky ones.  Unfortunately for some, pancreatitis can be a life-altering, or ending, disease.

Related stories:
The House is on Fire: Bridget’s Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis Up Close and Personal

Further reading:
Acute Pancreatitis – A Disease That Should Not Be Ignored!

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