If your pet likes to steal food from your plate, or is prone to dumpster diving, they are at higher risk for pancreatitis. This condition can have serious consequences for your pet, and can result in death. Our team at Belmont Animal Hospital would like to answer some frequently asked questions about this disease, to help ensure your pet gets the help they need should they be affected.

Question: What does my pet’s pancreas do?

Answer: The pancreas is a small organ located under your pet’s stomach, adjacent to the duodenum (i.e., a section of their small intestine), and has exocrine and endocrine components. Each part has a different job: 

  • Exocrine pancreas — The exocrine component comprises the majority of the pancreas. Pancreatic acinar cells synthesize and secrete digestive enzymes essential for digesting proteins, triglycerides, and complex carbohydrates. The exocrine pancreas also secretes other essential substances, such as bicarbonate, which buffers gastric acid. These secretions are transported by a duct system to the duodenum. Normally, the enzymes remain inactive until they reach the duodenum, where they are activated to begin breaking down nutrients.
  • Endocrine pancreas — Islets of Langerhans cells compose the endocrine component, and produce hormones including insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin. Insulin affects every organ in the body by controlling glucose transport from the extracellular space to the body tissues. Glucagon controls glucose release from the liver. Somatostatin affects several body functions by hindering hormonal secretion.

Q: What happens when my pet’s pancreas becomes inflamed?

A: Normally, the digestive enzymes produced in the exocrine pancreas remain inactive until they reach the duodenum, but if these enzymes are prematurely activated, they may begin to digest the pancreas and the surrounding tissue. This condition is called pancreatitis. 

Q: What causes pancreatitis in pets?

A: In many cases, the inflammation cause is unclear, but certain events are known to cause pancreatitis.

  • Obesity — Overweight pets are at higher risk for pancreatitis, because they have an altered fat metabolism.
  • High fat meal — A sudden high fat meal (e.g., table scraps, or food raided from the trash) stimulates enzyme release, to digest the fat.
  • Duodenal backflow — Duodenal cells make the activating enzymes that trigger the pancreatic digestive enzymes. Therefore, if duodenal fluids backflow up the pancreatic duct to the pancreas, the digestive enzymes are prematurely triggered.
  • Trauma — If a car accident, fall, or surgical manipulation causes trauma to the pancreas, inflammation can result.
  • Hormonal conditions — Conditions including diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and hypercalcemia predispose pets to pancreatitis.
  • Breed — Certain breeds, including miniature schnauzers and terriers, are predisposed to pancreatitis.
  • Drugs — Certain drugs, including sulfa-containing antibiotics, chemotherapy agents, and anti-seizure medications, can predispose a pet to pancreatitis.
  • Tumor — A pancreatic tumor can cause pancreatitis.

Q: Why is pancreatitis a concern for my pet?

A: As the digestive enzymes break down the pancreas and surrounding tissue, toxins are released and circulate through the bloodstream, causing an inflammatory response throughout the body. Particularly concerning conditions include:

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) — Pancreatitis is one of the chief risk factors for developing DIC. In DIC, the normal clotting mechanism is exaggerated, and antithrombin, the substance responsible for dissolving blood clots, is quickly depleted. Ultimately, inappropriate clotting and bleeding occur at the same time.
  • Weber-Christian syndrome — Circulating toxins destroy fats throughout the body.
  • Pancreatic encephalopathy — If the fats protecting the central nervous system are destroyed, brain tissue can be damaged.

Q: How is pancreatitis diagnosed in pets?

A: Signs indicating your pet is affected by pancreatitis include appetite loss, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fever. Blood tests, X-rays, and ultrasound typically are needed to diagnose pancreatitis. In some cases, a fine needle aspirate of the pancreas is required to obtain a definitive diagnosis.

Q: How is pancreatitis treated in pets?

A: Treatment for pancreatitis is supportive, since no therapy is curative. Intravenous fluid therapy is the most important component to restore circulation to the pancreas, and support the body’s natural healing mechanisms. Pain and nausea medications may also help alleviate your pet’s distress.

Q: If my pet recovers from pancreatitis, will they have ongoing complications?

A: Pets affected by pancreatitis are at higher risk for a recurrent episode, and can also develop other conditions, including:

  • Diabetes mellitus — If the endocrine pancreas is damaged, insulin production may be hindered. Insulin is needed to allow body tissues to absorb glucose, and if not enough is produced, the glucose remains in the bloodstream. Complications can include kidney failure, cataracts, and recurrent infections. If affected, your pet will need daily insulin injections.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) — If the exocrine pancreas is damaged, adequate digestive enzymes are not produced, and your pet cannot digest and absorb their food. Complications include diarrhea, ravenous appetite, and weight loss. If affected, your pet will need daily pancreatic enzyme supplements.

While not all pancreatitis cases are preventable, you can decrease your pet’s risk by keeping them at an ideal weight, not feeding them table scraps, and by ensuring they don’t raid the trash. If your pet is exhibiting signs that could indicate pancreatitis, contact our team at Belmont Animal Hospital, so we can alleviate their distress.