Protect Your Dog by Learning About Pancreatitis

Inflammation of the pancreas has subtle symptoms, and if left unchecked can cause damage to the intestines, gall bladder, liver and/or bile ducts. Know what to watch out for in your pup.

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One day during obedience class, I was sitting around in the waiting area with three little girls while the trainers worked one-on-one with our dogs. To pass the time, we started playing a silly made-up game called “Name the Best Part of Your Dog.” Ten-year-old Sophia appointed the nose because it was “good at finding lost things.” Eight-year-old Daisy identified the ears because they’re “fun and floppy.” When it was Emma’s turn, the seven-year-old turned to me with solemn conviction and intoned, “The pancreas … because it sounds like pancakes.”

I’m not sure where Emma gets her information, though it’s pretty tough to argue with her reasoning. The truth, however, is that the pancreas does have a powerful impact on your pup’s overall wellness. Situated on the right side of the abdomen, just next to the stomach, this crucial organ produces a host of enzymes that assist with efficient food digestion. The pancreas also secretes insulin, which regulates blood sugar. This is a vital mechanism most of us take entirely for granted — until something starts to go wrong.

We learned this the hard way with my amazing bichon, Sparky. His full given name was “Sir Lancelot,” and we originally adopted this valiant little guy after he’d endured months of cruel neglect and abuse. Overall, Sparky was an amazingly resilient and energetic pup who responded wonderfully to constant affection and a steady, nutritious diet. One thing that plagued him throughout his life, however, was chronic pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis can occur in humans, yet it also afflicts many canines. Essentially, it begins with inflammation of the pancreas. This may not in itself produce overt symptoms; but if left unchecked, pancreatic function can become severely impaired. When pancreatitis strikes, crucial digestive enzymes are often released prematurely and can even begin to corrode the organ itself.

According to my vet, these enzymes can also overflow into the abdominal cavity. This can cause secondary damage to the intestines, gall bladder, liver and/or bile ducts. Canines can recover from pancreatitis, but it can sometimes lead to lasting damage and a propensity toward developing the disorder. This was the case with Sparky, who suffered secondary organ impairment and struggled with compromised digestive enzyme imbalance for much of his life.

Pancreatitis by Shutterstock.
Pancreatitis by Shutterstock.

Perhaps the most exasperating thing about pancreatitis is the subtle way it can manifest. Early symptoms can be understated and somewhat vague, attributable to a range of less-serious ailments — so unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, they’re sometimes pretty easy to overlook. Meanwhile, a great deal of internal damage may be quietly occurring.

Initially, Sparky simply seemed a little bored with his toys. Then he began pausing to rest on his walks. We initially chalked this up to age and frigid winter temperatures. I now suspect that these were most likely initial warning signs, though I have the benefit of hindsight. What really rang the alarm bell was when Sparky stopped eating and abruptly began vomiting copious amounts of a viscous yellow substance. Abdominal tenderness and diarrhea followed almost immediately — but by then, we were already en route to the emergency vet.

Sparky was immediately placed on a potent combination of IV antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and fluids. The veterinary team explained that when the pancreas becomes overly inflamed, it’s usually necessary to rest it by withholding all food and liquid taken by mouth. Our Sparky was hospitalized for nearly five days while oral nourishment was re-introduced in extreme slow motion — liquids, then loose purees, then three or four tiny chopped morsels fed by hand every few hours.

In the end, Sparky graced our lives for many years. But according to our vet, there’s no truly significant age, gender, or breed-specific disposition for pancreatitis — any dog can theoretically be at risk. So in honor of noble Sir Lancelot, here are some potentially life-saving lessons we learned:

Watch for symptoms

Look for any combination of general lethargy, weakness, dehydration, abdominal tenderness, fever, weight loss, vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Know the risk factors

Our vet mentioned that certain medications may increase a dog’s susceptibility. These include anti-seizure drugs such as Potassium Bromide or Phenobarbital; catabolic steroids such as Prednisone; and diuretics like Lasix (Furosemide®). That does not mean your dog will automatically contract the ailment if these drugs are administered; simply be on guard.

Take preventive/recuperative measures

In my opinion, the guidelines our holistic vet provided helped preserve Sparky’s longevity and quality of life. For example, we were told to:

  • Minimize dietary fats to reduce overall pancreatic load.
  • Reduce carbohydrates to control insulin release, which can overtax the pancreas. We began feeding Sparky low-fat, species-appropriate recipes by Dr. Richard Pitcairn. These featured lean, free-range meats and were easy to freeze.
  • Reduce or eliminate highly processed foods. Many dried commercial kibbles, for instance, are processed at high temperatures that destroy nutrients and enzymes. This sort of carb-heavy diet can hold the pancreas in a chronic state of inflammation.
  • Supplement with daily digestive enzymes. We sprinkled Wholistics Pet Digest-All Plus powder on Sparky’s food. These gave his pancreas an extra boost to help him process meals.
  • Provide plenty of fresh water — consistent hydration is vital.
  • Encourage daily activity at a comfortable level. This helps boost metabolism, eliminate waste, and control cortisol secretion.

Sparky was living proof that by staying informed, aware, and vigilant, we pet parents can help protect our furry friends from this silent killer. When it comes to pancreatitis, it absolutely pays to pay attention.

Top photo: Woman with dog by Shutterstock.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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