Ask the Vet: What is pancreatitis in dogs?

Ask the Vet: What is pancreatitis in dogs?

In this instalment of our Ask the Vet series, Yorkshire Vet star Peter Wright – the co-creator of our vet recommended dog food range, Harringtons Advanced Science Diet – will explain how a common condition, pancreatitis, can affect our four-legged friends. The disease is searched for more than 11,000 times every month and can be life-threatening to our dogs.  

There are two forms of pancreatitis – acute and chronic – that affect dogs with varying levels of severity. Our treasured vet has experienced both many times in his years of veterinary practice and shares his advice for identifying symptoms and treating a dog suffering from pancreatitis. 

What is pancreatitis in dogs, and what causes it?  

Vets commonly see dogs with a horrible condition called pancreatitis. There are two forms of the disease; the acute form, which can be life-threatening, and the chronic form. We see the chronic form far less commonly, and in most cases, the dogs that suffer from chronic pancreatitis appear slightly under the weather, are lethargic and vomit occasionally. Other than that, it isn’t particularly obvious they are poorly.  

The pancreas produces digestive enzymes – amylase and lipase – which remain inactive in the pancreas until they leave the gland and enter the small intestine, where they play a key role in digesting dogs’ food. However, when a dog suffers from pancreatitis, the enzymes activate before leaving the pancreas and begin to digest the gland itself, causing very severe tummy pain. 

Historically, pancreatitis was considered to occur from middle age onwards in dogs that are obese or have just eaten a large fatty meal. In other words, they had been cheeky and stolen some human food or raided the rubbish bin in most cases! We now know that this isn't the case. In the medical world, we have a fancy word – idiopathic – which describes pancreatitis perfectly and means that we don’t often know what triggers it. 

What we do know, however, is that it is most commonly seen from middle age onwards in slightly overweight dogs - and it’s particularly common in the spaniel and the schnauzer.  

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs?  

Dogs suffering from acute pancreatitis tend to be severely ill, often vomiting profusely, which can, in many cases, contain blood too. Sufferers are usually visibly in pain, appearing miserable and depressed as a result. 

One of the key identifiable symptoms of pancreatitis is that we see dogs adopt what we call a ‘dog praying position’. They crouch down on their front legs and raise their back end off the ground, typical of pain in the front part of the tummy (where the pancreas sits). 

If your dog is sick and vomiting, a trip to the vet is vital as the illness can progress quickly; dogs become dehydrated, can go into shock, and in severe cases, can die. This is a condition that vets, therefore, take very seriously. 

How is pancreatitis in dogs treated? 

Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for pancreatitis, so vets will administer very rigorous supportive treatment. Your vet will probably admit your dog and put them straight on to intravenous fluids and give them antibiotic cover, painkillers and antiemetic drugs with nil by mouth until these symptoms settle down.  

Sometimes acute pancreatitis is fatal, but in most cases, dogs will end up fully recovering through very rigorous supportive treatment from your vet.  

How can my dog’s diet support their recovery? 

Once symptoms subside and they start to look a little brighter, food can be introduced again, but it needs to be specific, as dogs will still have sensitive stomachs. They will need a carbohydrate that’s easy to digest (like rice) and a simple protein that’s very easy to break down, like white fish or chicken, with very little fat in the diet. Often, vets will guide pet parents so they can create their own meals for recovering dogs, but more commonly, vets will supply owners with the correct diet to aid ongoing recovery.  

I must point out, however, that once a dog has suffered an attack of pancreatitis, they can be susceptible to further attacks in future – so this is where the importance of diet comes in. If we, as dog owners, carefully select the right specialist dog food, there’s a good chance your dog won’t encounter another bout of pancreatitis.

With the right guidance and support from veterinary professionals and a science diet dog food, your dog needn’t suffer long-term with the symptoms of pancreatitis. For more guidance on commonly Googled dog diseases, our expert vet Peter also explains what Cushing’s disease is and how to spot it in your pooch.