The Pancreas: Small but mighty!
The pancreas is a very important organ with specialized functions that is part of both the digestive and the endocrine system. It is located next to the stomach, on the right side of the abdomen. It is responsible for producing special proteins called digestive enzymes, which help break down the food in the small intestine. The pancreas also produces hormones called glucagon and insulin, that regulate blood sugar.
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis refers to a condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. You might be wondering; how does my pet’s pancreas become inflamed? Unfortunately, the answer is not always very clear, and a lot of our understanding of the disease process comes from human and experimental models. In dogs, research has demonstrated that genetics, conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypothyroidism, and diet factors including dietary indiscretion and high dietary fat intake, may play a role in the development of pancreatitis.
In a healthy dog, the pancreas will release enzymes in an inactivated form until they reach their target organ. This means that the enzymes will not be able to start digesting anything while the pancreatic juice travels through the pancreas via ducts and reaches its intended destination, the small intestine. However, in a dog diagnosed with pancreatitis, the enzymes will become activated too early and begin digestion before the enzymes reach the digestive tract. There is no food to be digested in the pancreas, so the enzymes will cause the breakdown of the pancreatic tissue instead, and inflammation ensues. The severity of the pancreatitis will largely depend on how many enzymes have been inappropriately released and activated. This can have detrimental effects on the pancreas and other parts of the body.
Acute vs. Chronic
If your dog is diagnosed with pancreatitis, you may hear your veterinarian label it as acute or chronic. Acute and chronic refer to the form of the pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis typically presents rapidly and is usually associated with clinical signs such as lethargy, anorexia, and vomiting. Among other causes, it can be triggered by an incident of dietary indiscretion. In contrast, chronic pancreatitis takes a longer period of time to develop and may or may not be associated with clinical signs.
How is pancreatitis diagnosed?
Common clinical signs associated with pancreatitis may vary, but often include non-specific signs such as lethargy, inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and abdominal pain. Your veterinarian will gather a full history and complete a physical examination to aid in their diagnosis or exclusion of pancreatitis. Some procedures such as bloodwork or a urinalysis may also be requested to gather further information. Values such as white blood cell counts, and pancreatic enzymes such as lipase and amylase, are assessed as indicators of pancreatitis. Lipase is a pancreatic enzyme that breaks down fat, and amylase is a pancreatic enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. Both are normal in blood at low levels, but high levels could mean that the pancreas is inflamed and leaking enzymes into the blood. Other diagnostic procedures include radiographs or ultrasounds to detect inflammation of the pancreas. However, it is important to remember that pancreatitis may present itself in different ways depending on the dog, and no diagnostic test is completely indicative of pancreatitis. Your veterinarian will use a combination of a history, physical exam findings, and diagnostic results to make a diagnosis.
Risk factors for pancreatitis
All dogs of any age and breed can develop pancreatitis. However, studies have shown that some breeds such as miniature schnauzers, miniature poodles, and terrier breeds may be at an increased risk. Additionally, pancreatitis is typically diagnosed in dogs over the age of 5, but it is important to remember it can still affect a dog of any age.
Diseases such as diabetes and hypothyroidism are also commonly associated with pancreatitis. Studies have found that obesity is also linked to a higher incidence of developing pancreatitis. It is important to maintain a healthy body condition and to visit your veterinarian regularly to ensure any new conditions are caught early and appropriate treatment is started to reduce the risk of your dog developing pancreatitis as a secondary medical condition.
Nutrition can play a crucial role in the prevention of pancreatitis. Dogs with a history of unusual food ingestion (i.e., ingestion of garbage, high-fat human foods, novel foods), have a higher incidence of developing pancreatitis. Avoid feeding your dog table scraps; it may seem like a harmless treat, but pancreatitis can be triggered by any sudden dietary change.
Choosing a highly digestible diet that does not have an excessively high fat content is a common recommendation for dogs diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis. Digestibility refers to how efficiently a dog can absorb nutrients from its diet, a highly digestible diet is one that is easy to digest. However, it is important to remember that fat is a required component of a dog’s diet, and it is an important source of fuel during rest and light exercise. Fat has many other responsibilities including aiding in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, coat and skin quality, insulation, and organ protection. Eliminating all fat from a dog’s diet would result in fatty acid and vitamin deficiencies. It is important to remember that although the fat content in commercial pet foods may vary, a healthy dog can tolerate these varying levels well. Always speak with your veterinarian if you have questions about your dog’s dietary fat content.
A diet change is not always indicated after an episode of pancreatitis. Prior to a diet change, your veterinarian will collect a full diet history to determine if a new diet is necessary. Some factors your veterinarian will consider is the fat content of the current diet, what treats are given, and how many meals are provided each day. Your veterinarian may want to run diagnostics such as bloodwork to check pancreatic markers, plus cholesterol and triglyceride values. Other factors your veterinarian will consider are breed and your dog’s current weight and body condition before making a diet recommendation. Although low-fat diets are often needed, reaching for these diets is not always ideal, for example when appetite is reduced in the hospitalized pancreatitis patient or when small breed dogs are not able to eat enough to meet their calorie needs. It is important to assess each situation based on the factors listed above and monitor your dog’s food intake, body weight and body condition over time and make individual adjustment in consultation with your veterinarian.
Always ensure your dog is on a complete (contains all essential nutrients) and balanced (in the correct proportions) diet. If you suspect your dog is overweight, speak with your veterinary team about a weight loss plan. Your veterinarian can help you calculate your dog’s ideal body weight and select an appropriate weight loss diet and strategies to help your pet succeed.
It is also important to remember that all diet changes should undergo a transition period to avoid a pancreatitis flare-up and gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting or diarrhea. An example diet transition might look like this:
Day 1-3: feed 75% of current diet + 25% of new diet
Day 4-6: feed 50% of current diet + 50% of new diet
Day 7-9: feed 25% of current diet + 75% of new diet
Day 10: feed 100% of new diet
The treatment and prognosis of pancreatitis depends on the severity and the timing of intervention. Remember that regardless of the above factors, some dogs may still develop pancreatitis for an unknown reason. It is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of pancreatitis, as it can be a potentially life-threatening disease.
Our team advises that you always consult with your veterinary healthcare team prior to making any changes to your pet’s feeding plan!
Written by: Sarah Lokaisingh, BSc, DVM student
Emily Fowler, BScH, DVM student
Reviewed by: Dr. Caitlin Grant, BSc, DVM, DVSc
Dr. Adronie Verbrugghe, DVM, PhD, Dip ECVCN
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