Pancreatitis in Dogs

Last Updated WED 15 APRIL 2020

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski, BVSc

1. What Is Pancreatitis?

2. What Causes Pancreatitis?

3. The Symptoms

4. How to Diagnose Pancreatitis

5. Treatment

6. The Best Food for Pancreatitis

7. The Best Treats for Pancreatitis

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is a common issue seen in our canine friends. The medical definition of pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas. One of the functions of the pancreas is to secrete enzymes for digestion, but when it becomes inflamed these enzymes may not reach the gastrointestinal tract and can cause the pancreas to 'digest itself'. This is extremely painful and can cause serious illness for your pup.

Pancreatitis in dogs is a condition that all pet parents should be informed about, due to its common occurrence in dogs and the potential for it to become life-threatening. As a dog parent, it is vital you make yourself aware of the symptoms - as they may not be obvious at first.

What causes pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is often caused by eating an overly fatty meal. This is most commonly seen after a well-meaning owner feeds their dog leftovers, however some dogs may find their way to a fatty meal after getting into garbage.

Which foods can cause pancreatitis? The usual culprits include barbeque meat, cheese, leftover fatty offcuts, or marrow bones. The high fat content of these foods is simply too much for the pancreas to handle and causes it to go into overdrive. The pancreas starts to produce excessive digestive enzymes and becomes painfully inflamed.

Unsurprisngly, pancreatitis is often associated with family events or 'feast' holidays. For instance, every year on Christmas Day, veterinarians see huge spikes in pancreatitis patients. Just because your body can handle a collosal mountain of ham and retire into a food coma, doesn't mean your dog's can!

However, some dogs can still develop pancreatitis in the abscence of a fatty meal. Risk factors that can make your dog more likely to develop pancreatitis include obesity, endocrine disorders such as hypothyroidism, and some medications. Many breeds are also prone to pancreatitis, including schnauzers, poodles, and cocker spaniels. Females and overweight dogs are also at a higher risk.

At large family events, it's important that all family members know not to feed your dog tidbits. Even 'just a little bite of sausage roll' is enough to set off pancreatitis in some dogs.
TIP: It can help to remind your family members that hospitalisation for pancreatitis can cost literally thousands of dollars; and if they don't want to pay for your dog's treatment, perhaps they shouldn't be feeding your dog scraps!

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

  • 1. Hunched posture
  • 2. Sore abdomen
  • 3. Loss of appetite
  • 4. Vomiting
  • 5. Lethargy
  • 6. Restlessness
  • 7. Diarrhoea

Did you know: Pancreatitis can cause issues for life. Acute (sudden) pancreatitis doesn't always clear up once the initial insult has been treated. Unfortunately most dogs will suffer from a sensitive pancreas for the rest of their lives, and may need lifelong maintenance on a low-fat diet (free from any leftovers or treats!).

How to Diagnose Pancreatitis

Your vet will be suspicious of pancreatitis after hearing your dog's history ('yes, we did feed him leftover sausages the day before he started vomiting - how did you know?!') combined with the symptoms and the presence of pain in the anterior abdomen. A blood test is needed to confirm elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes in your pet's blood. Other diagnostic tests that may be indicated include an abdominal ultrasound or xrays, to rule out conditions such as digestive obstruction.

How to Treat Pancreatitis

If you're looking for 'DIY' tips or home treatments for pancreatitis in order to avoid a vet visit, you're out of luck. Pancreatitis always requires medical treatment at your vet due to the potential for it to become life-threatening. And due to the severe pain endured during pancreatitis, withholding medical care can be seen as a welfare issue.

At a minimum, treatment usually involves a hospital stay with pain relief, anti-nausea medication and an intravenous drip. Most vets also choose to administer antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection in the inflamed pancreatic tissue. While your pet will likely have no food for a day or so, a prescription diet will probably be dispensed for ongoing nutritional management.

Nutrition for Pancreatitis

Usually, dogs in an acute pancreatitis event will have food withheld. Once they are able to stomach food again, they must be fed a bland, fat-restricted diet. This may be something home-made such as white rice and boiled chicken breast (no skin or fat), or a ready-made therapeutic diet such as Hills Prescription Diet i/d Low Fat, or Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal.

Top Therapeutic Diets for Pancreatitis

Both of the below diets are prescription / veterinary diets, which means you will need to check with your vet prior to ordering.

Hill's Prescription Diet i/d Low Fat

This prescription diet is formulated with a very low fat content and highly digestible protein. It is ideal for feeding during acute pancreatitis.

Hill's Prescription Diet i/d Low Fat Cans

The canned version of i/d low fat, this tasty wet food is also formulated with a very low fat content and highly digestible protein.

Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Sensitive Control

Royal Canin Sensitive Control is highly digestible and low in fat. It is suitable for acute flare ups or long term maintenance.

Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Sensitive Control

Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Low Fat is very low in fat and made from digestible ingredients. It is suitable for acute flare ups or long term maintenance.

After recovering from pancreatitis, a fat-restricted diet is usually required long term for your dog. Acute pancreatitis can cause damage to the pancreas and create a lifelong sensitivity to fat in the food. So you must be diligent and ensure that no family members give into those puppy dog eyes and sneak them meaty leftovers at home.

Many dogs are able to eventually transition off a 'therapeutic' veterinary diet and onto a 'non-prescription' or 'general' low fat diet. This can save you money in the long run, as non-prescription diets tend to be a little cheaper than therapeutic diets. However, if you think your dog is ready to come off a therapeutic diet, it's important not to rush this transition. We recommend trialing it gently it over a couple of weeks.

Shop All Low Fat Diets

Top Non-Prescription Low Fat Diets for Dogs

Which dog treats are safe for pancreatitis?

We've discussed food, but what about treats that are safe for pancreatitis? While most commercially available treats are considered too rich for a sensitive tummy, fortunately there are some options available. Your dog certainly doesn't have to miss out on tasty treats just because of their history of pancreatitis.

The trick is to source a vegetarian treat. Vegetarian treats are often low in fat, particularly animal fats (which commonly set off the pancreas). See our top suggestions below.

  • Whimzees - this great brand produces Dutch-made, potato-based treats including vegetarian 'ears'.
  • Greenies - these Aussie-made treats are vegetarian and come in a variety of sizes and flavours.
  • Fruit such as apple or strawberries
  • Vegetables such as carrots, peas, or corn

Always check with your veterinarian before choosing a suitable treat.

Tips to help prevent pancreatitis

While you can't always prevent pancreatitis in particularly prone dogs, you can do a few things to help reduce your dog's risk.

  • 1. Don't let your dog become overweight
  • 2. Never feed high-fat leftovers such as sausages or offcuts
  • 3. Avoid high-fat diets
  • 4. Limit your dog's access to garbage. Keep all bins out of reach!
  • 5. Educate all family members about the dangers of pancreatitis to prevent extra sneaky treats!