If your dog has ever been diagnosed with pancreatitis, you would know that it is a painful and serious disease that can make your pet quite unwell. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to manage and is something we see quite commonly in the veterinary world, in fact just this week I have had three patients hospitalized with it in my clinic. Diet is a major part of treatment of the disease so I thought it might be helpful to highlight the best ways to care for and feed your dog if they are suffering from pancreatitis. In addition, understanding what avoidable risk factors increase your dog’s susceptibility can help to reduce the incidence of the disease.
Let’s begin with understanding pancreatitis in our dogs.
Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, a vital organ tasked with regulating digestion and blood sugar levels. When the pancreas becomes inflamed the area that produces the digestive enzymes, the exocrine tissue, is most affected. The digestive enzymes, which are usually inactive until they reach the small intestine, are prematurely activated within the pancreas itself leading to tissue damage and further inflammation. As the inflammatory process continues to damage cells and blood vessels in the organ, blood flow can be disrupted and lead to tissue death. If this inflammatory cascade is not halted the consequences can be severe and, in some cases, fatal. Signs your dog may be suffering from pancreatitis can include inappetence and nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, fever, and abdominal pain.
If you suspect your dog has pancreatitis, it is critical to visit your veterinary clinic promptly.
A thorough physical exam and blood test can be performed to confirm the diagnosis, and in some cases, an abdominal ultrasound may also be necessary. Usually, hospitalization is required to administer intravenous fluids for dehydration and to correct any electrolyte imbalances, pain relief, and other medications to alleviate symptoms. Once patients are stable, they are typically sent home to be managed as an outpatient with ongoing treatment.
As an owner looking after a dog recently diagnosed with pancreatitis, the most important thing is to understand how and what to feed them.
Along with their prescribed medications, diet plays a critical role in the treatment of the disease. The cornerstone of this is feeding a low-fat diet that is highly digestible with a low-fat content to help reduce the workload on the pancreas as it heals. In addition, your dog should be fed smaller more regular meals throughout the day rather than one or two large ones. It is imperative that no dietary indiscretions occur during this time as this can precipitate another flare-up, meaning table scraps, treats, fatty meat, and possibly even their regular food should be strictly avoided. Depending on the underlying cause of your dog’s pancreatitis, once recovered, they may be able to go back to their regular diet. However, this should be guided by your veterinarian and done over a very slow transition period to enable careful evaluation of their response. In other cases, a specifically formulated low-fat diet may be required ongoing to prevent future recurrence of the disease.
So, how can you prevent pancreatitis in your dog?
Unfortunately, it is a complex and multifactorial condition whereby the exact cause is not always identified. However, there are several known potential risk factors that may contribute to the development of the disease. A dietary indiscretion of low-quality high-fat foods is one of the most well-established risk factors for pancreatitis in dogs. In fact, in the vet world, it is cheekily referred to as ‘Christmas Disease’ due to the increase in cases after dogs gobble up the high-fat table scraps of a long Christmas lunch! Obese dogs are also at a higher risk of the disease as well as those with other underlying conditions such as diabetes mellitus or hyperlipidemia (high blood fat levels). Genetics can also play a part, with certain breeds such as Miniature Schnauzers appearing more susceptible. Particular medications and certain toxins can also increase the risk of developing pancreatitis.
While pancreatitis can be a scary and serious condition, managing your dog’s recovery with a specific low-fat, highly digestible diet is a critical step in getting them back to feeling themselves. Unfortunately, prevention cannot always be achieved but the best thing you can do is be conscious of what you put in your dog’s bowl. Feeding high-quality, calorie-appropriate food to maintain a healthy weight and avoiding feeding table scraps is the best way to avoid this disease. And, don’t forget to keep an eye out for what they are helping themselves to… easier said than done I know!
Written by Veterinarian, Dr. Josie Gollan.