Canine Pancreatitis Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Sleeping schnauzer

When a dog suffers from inflammation of the pancreas, he has canine pancreatitis. This health condition is not uncommon for dogs. It is painful and can even be life-threatening. Some dogs are genetically predisposed to this condition. Other risk factors include diseases such as diabetes, Cushing's disease, or epilepsy, or injury to the pancreas.

The Canine Pancreas

The pancreas is a small organ that is tan or pink. It is located behind the stomach and rests next to the duodenum. It releases digestive enzymes into the first part of the small intestine to break down starches, proteins, and fats that have passed out of the stomach. The pancreas also secretes insulin and glucagon.

Causes of Canine Pancreatitis

The true cause of pancreatitis in dogs is unknown, but several risk factors for pancreatitis have been identified. Some of the most consistently reported risk factors include:

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Cushing's disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Being overweight
  • Previous gastrointestinal disease
  • Epilepsy

Other situations that are often associated with pancreatitis include:

  • Ingestion of rich, fatty foods
  • Abdominal trauma
  • Abdominal surgery
  • Medications:
    • Sulfa antibiotics
    • Tetracycline antibiotics
    • Certain diuretic medications
    • Some chemotherapy drugs
    • Some seizure medications

Canine pancreatitis is also reported more commonly in terrier and non-sporting breeds, including miniature schnauzers and Yorkshire terriers.

Inflammation of the Pancreas

In canine pancreatitis, the pancreas becomes inflamed and disrupts the normal functions of the organ. The digestive enzymes that are normally kept safely inside the pancreas are activated too soon and begin to digest the pancreas itself. The healthy tissues of the pancreas become inflamed, and this inflammation can spread to the liver and surrounding area. An inflammatory response can occur throughout the body which can trigger complications, a drop in blood pressure and organ failure.

Most of the time, inflammation of the pancreas only affects the pancreas, stomach, and intestines. Even if it does not progress, this is painful for the dog and can cause nausea.


Symptoms of canine pancreatitis include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Weakness or lethargy

Further Complications

Several of the disastrous health effects of canine pancreatitis include:

  • Diabetes mellitus can occur in cases of severe pancreatitis
  • Blood clots are often life-threatening
  • Obstruction of bile flow that can lead to jaundice
  • Fluid accumulation in the chest or abdomen

Diagnostic Tests

Diagnosis of pancreatitis is not always straight-forward. Normally, the blood is tested for elevated levels of lipase and amylase. If the levels of these enzymes are very high, pancreatitis is one consideration. These tests are not considered to be sensitive or specific enough by many veterinarians.

A newer test that is more specific (Spec cPL - canine pancreas-specific lipase) is now available and is often checked if your vet suspects pancreatitis. This test has better sensitivity and specificity than the other blood tests available at this time.

Radiographs are not very helpful in diagnosing canine pancreatitis. Ultrasound is often a useful test to diagnose canine pancreatitis and allows evaluation of the liver, gallbladder, bile duct, stomach, and intestines. Ultrasound can also be used to monitor the progression of the disease and to check for complications such as a pancreatic abscess.

Treatment for Pancreatitis

Cases of mild pancreatitis can be treated on an outpatient basis. Treatment usually includes fluids, medicines for vomiting and pain, and a bland diet. For dogs with more severe cases and continuous vomiting, food and water must be withheld initially. This means that intravenous fluids must be administered during this period. Potassium is often supplemented to offset the potassium depletion caused by vomiting and dehydration. An affected dog will have to be monitored around the clock to keep his condition stable.

Pain management is also part of treatment and helps immune function and reduces mortality. Pain is often managed with IV drips, injections, or patches. Dogs with severe pancreatitis can require antibiotics, steroid medications, plasma transfusions, feeding tubes, or even surgery.

Long Term Treatment Plan

Dogs that have had moderate to severe pancreatitis will need to be placed on a low-fat diet. Keeping pancreatic stimulation under control through diet can most easily be accomplished by feeding a prescription diet dog food.

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Canine Pancreatitis Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment