Pancreatitis — treatment and prevention for dogs

Find out what causes Pancreatitis in dogs and how it can be treated and prevented.

I first became aware of the pancreas when I was working as a technician during my college days. While assisting with exploratory surgery in a canine patient, the veterinary surgeon took me on a visual tour of the abdominal organs.

“Don’t even look at the pancreas,” she chuckled. “You’ll make it angry and cause pancreatitis.”

Her words got me wondering what it means to have an “angry pancreas”. My interest was piqued, and I wanted to better understand the common canine and feline condition known as pancreatitis.

Pathology and causes

The pancreas plays many important roles in the body. It produces insulin for lowering blood sugar, as well as a variety of digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Because the pancreas is so inherently relevant to digestion, it sits in the left upper abdominal quadrant, and connects to the small intestine through a series of ducts.

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas. When this organ becomes inflamed, it actually appears swollen and red (hence the “angry” connotation), and is less able to perform its normal functions.

Clinical signs of pancreatitis include:

• Vomiting

• Diarrhea

• Anorexia (decreased appetite)

• Abdominal discomfort

• Lethargy and exercise intolerance

• Behavior changes, difficulty resting/sleeping, pacing, drooling, etc.

Pancreatitis occurs for a variety of reasons. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to determine one singular cause of pancreatitis, so all the following (and others) must be considered in establishing a diagnosis and determining treatment.

1. Dietary indiscretion – Also known as pica, the inappropriate eating of environmental substances or unusual foods can negatively impact the digestive tract, pancreas, and other organ systems.

2. Consumption of high protein and high fat meals – Pet foods and treats that are high in protein and fats stress the pancreas by requiring an increased volume of digestive enzymes to break down nutrients.

3. Infection with microorganisms – Bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungal organisms can move out of the digestive tract into the blood and pancreas, and cause damage.

4. Toxin exposure – Environmental and infectious organism-produced toxins are absorbed from the intestines and damage the pancreas.

5. Trauma – Blunt trauma from being hit by a car, animal fights, falls, and other sources can bruise the pancreas and affect its function.

6. Metabolic disease – Ailments affecting other glands, including the kidneys, liver and adrenal glands, can have a trickle-down effect that also harms the pancreas.

7. Cancer – Pancreatic cancer or disease that metastasizes (spreads) from other parts of the body can damage the normal cells of the pancreas.

Pancreatitis is diagnosed through a veterinarian’s physical exam paired with blood and urine testing, radiographs (x-rays), ultrasound, and others investigative tools.

Obese dogs and cats are more prone to diseases associated with inflammation.

Integrative treatment offers most options

When treating pancreatitis, both allopathic and alternative therapies are available, although emphasis should be on the latter. An integrative approach focusing on both management and prevention provides a broad-spectrum means of resolving current disease and preventing future episodes. In my practice, I use both Eastern and Western medicine, including the following.

Fluid therapy – Hydration is a key component to the treatment of pancreatitis, since animals suffering from the condition tend not to want/be able to eat or drink, and can become dehydrated. Fluid therapy also helps with the elimination of by-products produced by the inflammatory process. Fluid administration may be oral, intravenous (IV), or subcutaneous (SC or SQ), pending the discretion of the overseeing veterinarian and the animal’s ability to keep down (i.e. not vomit) orally ingested fluids.

Conventional medications – Since dogs and cats suffering from pancreatitis often feel nauseated, anti-nausea medication can relieve some of the urge to vomit. Antacids reduce stomach acids, which also often helps with nausea. Pain management medications alleviate discomfort associated with an inflamed pancreas, and permit the animal to rest more comfortably. Antibiotics may be used to treat suspected bacterial infections that typically have their origins in the digestive tract.

Nutrition – Animals experiencing nausea from pancreatitis should have their food removed until vomiting subsides. Once the appetite is re-established, I recommend that both canine and feline patients eat fresh, moist, human grade, whole food diets with cooked, highly bio-available proteins and fats.

Nutraceuticals – The digestive tract and immune system suffer during pancreatitis and can benefit from probiotics, Omega-3 fatty acids, digestive enzymes, and vitamin and mineral supplements.

Herbs – Extracts from plants can promote the clearance of toxins, soothe the stomach and intestines, offer an anti-inflammatory effect, and support immune system function, provided the patient will accept them in food or tolerate syringe administration.

What’s the prognosis?

The prognosis for pancreatitis depends on the severity of the condition. Patients suffering from mild pancreatitis may improve quickly if the primary causes are identified and eliminated, and appropriate treatment is quickly provided.

Patients suffering from moderate to severe pancreatitis may need prolonged or more intensive treatment, including hospitalization, feeding-tube placement, intravenous fluids and medications, or even open abdominal drainage to prevent inflammation-promoting enzymes from accumulating in the abdominal cavity.

4 ways to help prevent pancreatitis

1. Avoid dietary indiscretion. If your animal does not consume inappropriate environmental materials or unhealthy foods, then it’s more likely his pancreas will not become inflamed.

2. Maintain a healthy weight. Fat produces hormones that promote inflammation in the body. Therefore, obese dogs and cats are more prone to diseases associated with inflammation (including cancer). Additionally, as body mass increases, the pancreas’ ability to produce sufficient levels of insulin to support more tissue is lessened.

3. Promote normal digestion. Keep his digestive tract functioning properly by feeding foods with a species-appropriate ratio of fats, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber, etc. This will reduce inflammation in the stomach and intestines, and maintain normal levels of gut bacteria.

4. See the veterinarian regularly. Dogs and cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, so that physical abnormalities that may be mild and less obvious to the untrained eye can be diagnosed and resolved.

Pancreatitis has potential to kill an animal, or cause such severe illness that you may be required to spend thousands of dollars on treatment. Therefore, the best medicine is prevention. A healthy lifestyle that includes quality food, a lean body mass, a strong immune system, and minimal exposure to toxins, along with regular veterinary care, will help ensure your beloved dog or cat doesn’t develop this disease.


Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is a certified veterinary acupuncturist from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. His practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness, offers integrative medicine. Dr. Mahaney writes a veterinary blog for and is working on his first book, The Uncomfortable Vet.