Dogs and Pancreatitis: A Dog Mom Shares Her Story

Pancreatitis affects 64% of dogs. Learn about vital veterinary care and a dog mom's five-year journey managing it before and after.

Published November 17, 2023
Sad Bernese Mountain Dog

If you've been in the dog world for a while, you've probably heard about pancreatitis. After all, it's incredibly common — and can be extremely serious. You may have even heard that a pancreatitis diagnosis usually means there needs to be a change in the dog's diet. But what about before they're diagnosed? I spoke with LovetoKnow Pets' Editor, Jane Harrell, to get the story of her dog, who has been living with the condition for several years, and share what every dog owner needs to know before your dog is diagnosed.

Need to Know

Recent veterinary studies found that anywhere between 21-64% of dogs had signs of pancreatitis. While this doesn't mean pancreatitis was a factor in the studied dogs getting sick, it shows how many dogs are impacted by the condition.

What is Pancreatitis?

If your dog's pancreas becomes inflamed, the veterinarian will tell you it's pancreatitis. The pancreas, an important organ in both the digestive and endocrine systems, helps with digestion and regulates blood sugar. When it's inflamed, it overproduces the enzymes that digest food, and this can be super painful for your dog. 

Need to Know

Left untreated, pancreatitis is life-threatening. Your veterinarian is your best guide in helping your dog avoid and recover from this potentially fatal condition. 

Acute vs. Chronic

There are two kinds of pancreatitis. One kind starts suddenly and is called acute. The other kind lasts for a long time, keeps coming back, and is called chronic. It ranges in severity from mild to life-threatening. The mild-acute kind may have little lasting damage, but some other forms can be very dangerous. Early treatment is important to reduce the damage to internal organs.

What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?

The holiday season is a blast, but sadly, it's also a time when more dogs get pancreatitis. It's often because they eat human food that they're not used to instead of their regular diet. All those rich and fatty foods that we love during the holidays? They're usually the main troublemakers. Dogs can sneak bites from plates left out or get some table scraps, and their bodies just can't handle it well.

All those fatty foods can overwhelm a dog's pancreas, causing it to panic and swell. The stress of altered routines and the hustle and bustle that accompany the season can also contribute to the onset of pancreatitis, as can breed and genetics.

If your pup hasn't been eating any fatty foods, it could be caused by something else. Other causes of pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • Trauma
  • Injury
  • Underlying conditions, like diabetes

Signs of Pancreatitis

Beagle dog lying down

Like many other conditions in our pups, the early signs of pancreatitis can look like a stomach bug. So whenever your dog isn't feeling well, keep an eye on them, and if the signs last more than 12 or so hours, it's wise to call the veterinarian and ask for advice. The signs of pancreatitis vary, but can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Discomfort
  • Sensitivity to touch
  • Abdominal pain
  • Aggressiveness or irritability
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fatigue
Need to Know

Early treatment for pancreatitis is important to avoid serious and even life-threatening consequences. If you have any concerns or suspicion, call your veterinarian and get your dog seen.

A Personal Story

Our Editor here at LoveToKnowPets, Jane Harrell, has an 18-pound terrier mix (pictured below) who was diagnosed with pancreatitis about 5 or 6 years ago. She was around 11 years old at the time of the diagnosis. I was fortunate to interview her to ask what the experience was like, from noticing signs to diagnosis and prevention. 

What Early Signs Did You See?

small black dog enjoying the beach after battle with pancreatitis

Jane said, "At first, I didn’t pay too much attention. I noticed Liza was having diarrhea (which she does from time to time), but then she was suddenly throwing up and having diarrhea often." She continued, "We knew something was really wrong when she woke us up several times throughout the night with watery stool and throwing up bile."

What Did You Do?

"We brought Liza to the emergency veterinary practice near our home. They did bloodwork and, I think, an ultrasound to confirm pancreatitis. I understand that some cases require hospitalization, but luckily, our veterinarian felt Liza's case could be managed at home with antinausea medicine, something for the pain and fasting. The idea was to give her system a break and give the inflammation time to calm."

As both a pet parent and professional in the pet space, Jane emphasized, "This wouldn’t have worked with truly severe pancreatitis, which can be deadly, but it worked for Liza. Plus, the vet’s office is only 30 minutes from our home and open 24/7, so we made an emergency plan to come back in case Liza took a turn for the worse." Jane laughed, "We were already going to be up with her." 

Quick Tip

If you want a second opinion — don't be afraid to ask. Some veterinarians lean toward traditional medications, whereas others will lean more toward natural options. 

What Happened Once the Inflammation Went Down?

Jane notes that it took a while before she and their veterinarian could get Liza comfortable. "The pain meds and antinausea meds helped, but every time we tried introducing food again, Liza got sicker. Even the diets specifically for pancreatitis didn't work." Eventually, they discovered that Liza has a secondary condition — an allergy to the proteins used in the prescription foods. Once they figured that out, they were able to get Liza comfortable

Changing your dog's diet is an extremely important part of preventing this ailment. Jane explained, "We’ve worked with the veterinarian to have a special low-fat, high-fiber home-cooked diet we can use for short periods of time when it flares again. We tried some other supplements and a fancy diet for pancreatitis, and it actually made her diarrhea worse. It turns out she’s allergic to chicken and beef, so that was causing a secondary reaction. Now we have found her a low-fat diet without those proteins and a home-cooked diet for flares." Liza's been living with the condition for years now, but Jane still keeps an eye out for any flares and coordinates with her veterinarian when it does.

As a canine nutritionist, I've helped many dogs that need a special diet to avoid allergies and pancreatitis. This is something you should consider, even if your dog appears to be completely healthy. Choosing the right diet for your unique dog can boost their health and lower their risk of getting sick.

Treating Pancreatitis Is a Team Effort

With pancreatitis, the pancreas is working overtime. It's like it's stuck in overdrive, pumping out digestive enzymes like there's no tomorrow. By working with your veterinarian and cutting down on the fat in your dog's meals, you're helping calm things down in there, preventing that overstimulation.

It's kind of like putting your dog's pancreas on a much-needed vacation so it can recover and get back to doing its job without all the extra stress.

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Dogs and Pancreatitis: A Dog Mom Shares Her Story