Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention

December 3rd, 2018. Last Updated June 23rd, 2020

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Every year, many dogs develop pancreatitis, a condition that’s best described as being “seldom-understood” even among vet professionals.

In late November, Yuna came down with a case of acute pancreatitis. Like many dog owners who have received this diagnosis, we were anxious and overwhelmed.

That’s why we wanted to make this post to help dog owners better understand this condition, and treatments that helped Yuna ultimately beat pancreatitis.

We’ll begin with a deep dive into everything there is to know about pancreatitis–what causes it, how to spot the symptoms, and what you should do to treat and prevent it in your dog.

If you think your dog may have pancreatitis, this article will help you diagnose it, determine how severe it is, and show you typical treatment steps.

Even if your dog has a healthy pancreas, this article should help you take preventative measures so it’s much less likely to occur in your dog.

What Is Pancreatitis In Dogs? (And What Is A Pancreas Anyway?)

In simple terms, pancreatitis means your dog’s pancreas is inflamed. So what is a pancreas and what does it do?

The pancreas is an integral part of the digestive system. Some of its main functions are to produce insulin and secrete digestive enzymes to help break down food.

Upon secretion, these enzymes are initially inactive. Once they reach the small intestine, they’re activated to begin digestion.

However, when a dog develops pancreatitis, these enzymes prematurely activate, causing damage to fats, proteins, and tissues in other organs, including the pancreas itself.

This essentially means that the body begins to digest itself. This can cause extreme pain in your dog.

A dog closing her eyes, looking slightly concerned.
Painful tummy = no fun.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis At Home - Typical Symptoms

How can you tell if your dog has pancreatitis?

Here are some more serious warning signs:

  • Distention (swelling) in abdomen
  • Arched back
  • Back pain

If your dog is experiencing any of the above symptoms, see the vet immediately. You can often test your dog by touching his abdomen, and if he shows pain, this could indicate severe pancreatitis.

Common symptoms of pancreatitis include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy
  • Restlessness
  • Fever, or low body temperature
  • Breathing difficulties

Sources say that normally, at least two or three symptoms are present in confirmed pancreatitis cases. Let’s go into more detail on some of these.

Vomiting

READ: What To Do If Your Dog Is Vomiting Or Regurgitating

Vomiting will usually occur in multiple waves. The color of the vomit is also important in the diagnosis, so snap a picture of it to show your vet later before cleaning it up.

Vomit that is a yellow-greenish tinge may just mean a single episode of bad food. However, if the vomit contains blood, or is dark brown or almost black in color, see a vet.

Diarrhea

Diarrhea usually comes on as more greasy and more yellow than the usual stool color.

Canine Journal has a handy list of poop colors and their associated meanings. Greasy-looking poop is characteristic of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI), or maldigestion.

EPI means the pancreas doesn’t produce the necessary enzymes to digest fats. This could either be the result of loss of pancreatic cells (since the pancreas digests itself).

Consistently soft stools could also be a sign, provided you haven’t changed your dog’s diet recently. Good poop is a good balance of soft and firm: you’re looking for a Play-Doh kind of texture.

Anorexia & Dehydration

When a dog has pancreatitis, eating and drinking become significantly more uncomfortable.

Noticing this lack of appetite and dehydration early can save your dog from an irreversible condition.

Lethargy & Restlessness

In almost any dog-related health condition, lethargy and restlessness are listed as symptoms. While seemingly contradictory, this simply means you should look out for when your dog isn’t acting themselves.

Many dogs are lethargic when they get pancreatitis, since movement can cause pain.

Conversely, your dog may also have trouble finding a comfortable place to lay down, causing restlessness.

Fever or Low Body Temperature

Another pair of seemingly contradictory symptoms. Take note of any drastic change in body temperature in your dog.

Both a fever or a lower body temperature can be signs of pancreatitis. The typical body temperature in dogs is 101ºF to 102.5ºF (38.3ºC to 39.2C).

Breathing Difficulties

The final symptom, breathing difficulties, could point to further problems in the circulatory or respiratory symptoms.

Be alert and notice symptoms early. Call your vet when in doubt. The earlier pancreatitis can be diagnosed, the more likely the condition is to be reversible.

Summary of the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs.

Mild vs. Severe Pancreatitis

Vets make the distinction between two levels of pancreatitis severity in dogs: mild and severe.

Both are the result of common symptoms above. Severe pancreatitis tends to develop if a mild case is left untreated, and results in the following conditions that could threaten your dog’s life:

  • Heart Arrhythmia
  • Sepsis
  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC)

Heart Arrhythmia

Pay attention to your dog’s heartbeat. If the beating is irregular, or is much faster or slower than normal, this may be a case of heart arrhythmia.

One official veterinary medicine journal notes that while arrhythmia is a potential sequel of pancreatitis, there is a lack of clinical case reports to match this. Still good to be aware of.

Sepsis

Sepsis is blood poisoning. This results from the fact that organs often break themselves down in pancreatitis.

This tissue death (necrosis) can cause bacterial infection to spread in the bloodstream and affect the whole body.

Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation (DIC)

DIC is a condition in which a patient experiences severe hemorrhages along with abnormal blood clotting. It can sometimes follow a more serious case of pancreatitis.

In any case, severe pancreatitis results in digestion of a part of the pancreas itself. Damage to organs is irreversible, so learn to identify the warning signs before it’s too late!

What Causes Pancreatitis In Dogs? Acute vs. Chronic Cases

Vets also make the distinction in the length of time in which pancreatitis attacks occur.

Acute Pancreatitis & Causes

A singular episode is known as acute pancreatitis. This comes along suddenly, with no prior history of pancreatitis.

The most commonly suggested cause of acute pancreatitis is a high-fat diet. Often, this is simply the result of too many table scraps.

A dog sniffing around on a table, looking for food scraps.

Any drastic change in your dog’s diet could also be the culprit for acute cases. Vets commonly cite holiday seasons (Thanksgiving, Christmas especially!) for causing many digestive issues in dogs, since they’re more likely to be treated to a large amount of fatty human food!

In addition, dogs that are thrown off their usual schedule are especially vulnerable.

While this usually applies to feeding schedule, unexpected visits to daycare, or a change in living conditions can also trigger acute attacks.

Chronic Pancreatitis & Causes

Chronic pancreatitis develops over time. It is difficult to pin down the exact causes for chronic pancreatitis–for this reason it’s also difficult to diagnose or catch the warning signs early.

Your best bet is to carefully reconsider your dog’s diet and general eating habits. We’ll cover dietary changes later in the article.

And all the more reason to make sure your dog is on a consistent schedule!

READ: Putting Your Dog On A Schedule: A Typical Day for Yuna

Chronic pancreatitis can be the result of repeated acute episodes.

Unfortunately, once an acute episode occurs, the chance of recurrence is high.

This article will largely focus on acute pancreatitis–that is, your dog has not been diagnosed with pancreatitis before.

Clinical Diagnosis

If your vet suspects pancreatitis, they’ll run a blood test. Specifically, they’re looking for the presence of Canine Pancreas-Specific Lipase, or spec cPL in the bloodstream.

According to the results from Yuna’s own blood test, the healthy range of spec cPL in dogs should range from 0 µg/L to 200 µg/L (micrograms per Liter).

Any amount above 200 µg/L is unhealthy. A reading of 400 µg/L and above confirms pancreatitis; between 200 µg/L and 400 µg/L, pancreatitis can still be diagnosed, and your dog may need special dietary attention.

Typical Treatment For Pancreatitis In Dogs

Disclaimer: Pancreatitis can be a very serious condition. Do not attempt to self-administer the medicines and treatments I outline here. Always seek guidance from a professional. My intent in sharing the treatments we received from our vet is merely to help give you an idea of what to expect.

Dietary Changes

While at the hospital, your vet may recommend that your dog stay a night in order to monitor them for additional vomiting/other symptoms. During this time, they are fasted so the digestive system can rest.

After being cleared to go home, your vet may immediately put your dog on a new diet.

For Yuna, this was Hill’s Prescription Diet i/D Low Fat kibble. As the name suggests, you must have vet approval to buy this food for your dog.

We can attest that Hill’s Prescription Diet really did wonders in easing Yuna’s pancreatitis.

Your vet may prescribe the same food, or another that specifically supports digestive health. You likely will be asked to maintain this diet at least for a few months.

In addition to this complete food substitution, we were also prescribed Entero probiotic supplement powder. About one spoonful (~1 teaspoon) was to be sprinkled on one meal every day.

We also completely cut off all human food. Yuna also got no treats for a few weeks.

Typical Medications

Carprofen. The painkiller medicine for dogs. For pancreatitis, the carprofen was to ease pain and inflammation of the pancreas and other organs in the digestive system.

We were given 100mg of carprofen, and Yuna took this for 5 days.

MetronidazoleThis is an antibiotic used to treat protozoal infections (parasites) and have anti-inflammatory effects in the bowel. Probably one of the yuckier medicines, unfortunately–Yuna really didn’t like it.

We were given 500mg of metronidazole, and Yuna took this for 7 days.

Famotidine. This is a medication that reduces the production of excessive stomach acid.

Not sure about volume, but we were given 21 days worth.

To give a quick idea of the overall hospital costs we incurred: the total cost of all the medicines, two rounds of IVs, one night of boarding at the hospital, and related office fees came out to be ~$1,000. We live in Seattle.

Preventing Pancreatitis In Your Dogs

As mentioned previously, if your dog comes down with pancreatitis, it’s likely that it will strike again. There are key preventative measures you can take to curb this possibility.

Watch The Fat!

The most obvious thing to do is to carefully watch your dog’s diet. Trim down on all excess fat that can be removed from your dog’s food intake.

It’s not just the fat that goes in your dog’s regular diet: one of the main causes of pancreatitis is a sudden large serving of fat in one sitting.

Be consistent with your dog’s diet and avoid feeding table scraps.

Make sure you don’t overfeed your dog, and continue to provide regular exercise. Obesity has been linked to pancreatitis.

A dog running down a sidewalk on a brilliant summer day.

Many Unknowns

Our vet provided me with a staggering statistic. According to him, about 60% of cases of pancreatitis can be linked to issues with diet, but the other 40& of cases are relatively mysterious with no known cause.

Many sources have suggested that genetics do play a role in pancreatitis.

However, all this means that we should focus on the 60% we can control, and make sure our dogs are eating healthy.

Conclusion

Pancreatitis is no casual matter. It can, in extreme cases, cause death. Learning to read the signs early could save your pup’s life!

Always maintain that healthy diet for your dog. Straying from that and justifying cheat days (especially during Thanksgiving!) could throw days, weeks, and months of consistency down the drain.

It doesn’t matter if your dog has a history of pancreatitis or is still young and healthy. Pancreatitis has the ability to strike any dog and you must be well-equipped to face it.

I hope this article provided some insight. I’d love to hear about your related experiences (although hopefully, your dog hasn’t had to suffer through this).

A dog examining a heart-shaped stone.

I keep these articles up to date with anything new that I learn, so check back frequently. I want to provide dog parents with the most updated and comprehensive information.

Check out Yuna’s Instagram and Pinterest for more daily updates! Her tail is still wagging strong, so we’re confident your pup can make it through pancreatitis as well.

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