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How Does a Dog Get Pancreatitis: 12 Causes and Risk Factors Explained - PawSafe
Dog Healthcare

How Does a Dog Get Pancreatitis: 12 Causes and Risk Factors Explained

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

dog pancreatitis

Few pet parents ever think of pancreatitis, until their dog actually gets pancreatitis. This will leave most of us stumped, wondering; how does a dog get pancreatitis in the first place? 

The digestive system is an incredibly sensitive part of our dog that can lead to many issues including an inflamed pancreas, so it’s always vital to maintain good gut health in our dogs with a good diet and balanced doggy probiotics. As we’ll see, diet is one of the primary causes of pancreatitis in dogs.

To really get into why our dogs may develop pancreatitis, we’ve looked at the work of Dr. Watson from the University of Cambridge and other expert medical sources to give you a breakdown on risk factors and causes of canine pancreatitis.

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Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas, an important organ in the digestive system, becomes inflamed. This inflammation can cause a range of symptoms, from mild discomfort to life-threatening complications. While the exact cause of pancreatitis in dogs is not fully understood, there are several factors that are believed to contribute to the development of this condition.

Overall, it’s important for dog owners to be aware of the potential risk factors for pancreatitis and take steps to minimize their dog’s risk. This may include feeding a low-fat diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and working closely with a veterinarian to manage any underlying health conditions.

Before we discuss the individual most common causes or risk factor for an inflamed pancreas, let’s first go over what pancreatitis actually is.

Related: 

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What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?

Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, an organ located near the stomach that plays a crucial role in digestion and hormone production. Specifically, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes to help break down food and insulin to regulate blood sugar levels. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it can lead to a range of health problems and complications.

Acute vs. Chronic Pancreatitis

The terms “acute” and “chronic” refer to how suddenly the symptoms appear and how long they last.

  1. Acute Pancreatitis: This form occurs suddenly and is usually severe. Dogs with acute pancreatitis may experience symptoms like vomiting, abdominal pain, and lethargy. Immediate veterinary care is essential, as the condition can be life-threatening if left untreated.
  2. Chronic Pancreatitis: This is a long-term condition that can develop over time, sometimes following episodes of acute pancreatitis. In chronic cases, the pancreas may undergo permanent damage, affecting its ability to function properly. Symptoms may be less severe than in acute cases but can be more persistent and harder to manage.

Understanding the difference between acute and chronic pancreatitis is crucial for proper diagnosis and management. Both forms can have serious implications and may lead to complications like diabetes or Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI), particularly in specific breeds like German Shepherds.

12 Causes of Pancreatitis in Dogs (and risk factors)

When it comes to understanding pancreatitis in dogs, diet plays a significant role. Several studies and articles shed light on dietary risk factors that can contribute to the onset or exacerbation of this condition.

1. Unusual Food Ingestion

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, unusual food ingestion, such as eating human treats or scavenging from the trash, was strongly associated with pancreatitis in dogs. In particular, dogs who got into the trash the week before admission had the highest relative odds of developing pancreatitis. 

The study suggests that the types of items dogs are likely to find in the trash, such as lower-quality foodstuffs, fat trimmings, and expired or spoiled food, could be important in the pathogenesis (how the disease starts) of pancreatitis.

2. High-Fat Diet

Another study highlights the role of a high-fat diet in the development of pancreatitis in dogs. It mentions that a diet comprising more than 60% energy as fat can provoke or exacerbate pancreatitis. The study also discusses the biochemical mechanisms by which high-fat diets could lead to pancreatitis, emphasizing the role of fat in triggering excessive activation of digestive enzymes and local inflammatory reactions.

3. Specific Ingredients in food

Finally, some specific food items, such as pork or pork products, have been cited as potential causes of pancreatitis in dogs. Michael Lenley writes that pork products like ham, sausage, and pepperoni could strain the pancreas due to their high-fat content. 

However, it’s worth noting Tufts Nutrition argues that there is no definitive proof that pork specifically causes pancreatitis. Still, it might be prudent to limit such foods, especially for dogs at higher risk for the disease.

Understanding these dietary risk factors can help dog owners make more informed decisions about their pet’s nutrition, potentially avoiding the onset or worsening of pancreatitis.

4. Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s Syndrome/Disease)

According to research, the prevalence of pancreatic hyperechogenicity (an echo test that usually means there are fatty deposits in the organ) was significantly higher in dogs with Cushing’s Disease (40%) compared to healthy dogs (7%). This means that Cushing’s Syndrome could be linked to changes in the pancreas that may predispose dogs to conditions like chronic pancreatitis and is very much a risk factor.

In other words, if your dog has Cushing’s disease, they are probably more at risk of also getting pancreatitis.

5. Canine Hyperlipidemia

Hyperlipidemia in dogs refers to an increased concentration of lipids in the blood (higher levels of fats in the blood). Sometimes this comes from diet, other disorders, or perhaps just genetics. 

According to the study, secondary hyperlipidemia is the most common form in dogs and is often a result of other conditions such as endocrine disorders, pancreatitis, cholestasis, etc. It also noted that hyperlipidemia could potentially cause pancreatitis

Given that hyperlipidemia can lead to pancreatitis, managing elevated lipid levels through diet and medication may be an important preventive strategy.

Dogs like Miniature Schnauzers are most prone to hyperlipidemia, which could be why they are so prone to pancreatitis.

6. Obesity

Excess fat tissues can release proinflammatory cytokines and fatty acids, leading to inflammation of the pancreas. Several studies have highlighted the strong correlation between obesity and pancreatitis in dogs. Overweight or obese dogs are 1.9 times as likely to develop pancreatitis as underweight or normal weight dogs.

7. Specific Breeds

Breeds like Miniature Schnauzers and Yorkshire Terriers are known to have a higher incidence, although the genetic component is still not completely understood.

8. Surgery

Pancreatic hypoperfusion (when enzymes are accidentally activated because of a lack of blood flow) during anesthesia is believed to contribute to postsurgical cases of pancreatitis. Clinical studies have found an increased incidence of pancreatitis in dogs undergoing surgical procedures, particularly urgent surgeries.

9. Body Trauma

Direct trauma to the abdomen can damage the pancreas and lead to inflammation. Traumatic injuries, such as those from car accidents, can result in pancreatitis if the blunt force damages the organ, although such cases are relatively rare.

10. Specific Drugs

Some drugs can induce pancreatitis through various pathways, including direct poisoning of pancreatic cells. Drugs such as phenobarbital, azathioprine, and thiazide diuretics have been implicated in some cases of canine pancreatitis. But other important ones include:

  • cholinesterase inhibitors; 
  • calcium; 
  • potassium bromide; 
  • L-asparaginase;
  • estrogen; 
  • salicylates; 
  • azathioprine; and 
  • vinca alkaloids.

So if your dog is on medication and develops pancreatitis, it’s a good idea to discuss it with your vet.

11. Infectious Diseases

Sometimes pancreatitis can happen because a dog or cat has another illness caused by a parasite or a bug. In dogs, two such illnesses are called Babesia and Leishmania. These illnesses can mess with the dog or cat’s immune system and lead to inflammation in the pancreas. So, if your pet has one of these conditions, it might also be at risk for getting pancreatitis.

This isn’t the most common way for pets to get pancreatitis, but it’s something vets keep an eye out for, especially if a pet has been in an area where these parasites or bugs are common.

12. Diabetes & Pancreatitis In Dogs (Common Comorbidities)

One vital study by Dr Davison suggests that the relationship between diabetes mellitus (DM) and pancreatitis in dogs is complicated, and either condition could potentially cause the other. However, the study leans slightly towards the idea that pancreatitis may precede and possibly trigger diabetes in dogs, rather than the other way around.

Key Points for Owners With Diabetic Dogs To Understand:

  1. Coexistence is Common: The two conditions often occur together, and having one can make the other more difficult to manage.
  2. Insulin Production: The pancreas is responsible for producing insulin, which is crucial for managing blood sugar levels. When the pancreas is inflamed due to pancreatitis, the cells that produce insulin can be damaged, potentially leading to diabetes.
  3. Digestive Enzymes: Similarly, the pancreas also produces enzymes that are essential for digestion. Inflammation of the pancreas can damage these enzyme-producing cells, which could lead to a condition called Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). This is particularly common in certain breeds like German Shepherds.
  4. Diagnostic Challenges: If your dog has diabetes, there’s a good chance it might also have pancreatitis, even if the symptoms for pancreatitis aren’t immediately obvious. Therefore, it’s important for veterinarians to also evaluate dogs with diabetes for pancreatitis.
  5. Management Complexity: If both conditions are present, managing your dog’s health can be more complicated. For instance, flare-ups of pancreatitis can disrupt the management of diabetes.
  6. Quality of Life: Knowing whether your diabetic dog also has pancreatitis can help you and your vet make better-informed decisions, potentially improving your dog’s quality of life.
  7. Long-Term Risks: The study also points out that dogs with both conditions are at risk for developing further complications, like exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, which could make management even more challenging.
  8. Insulin Resistance and DKA: Pancreatitis increases insulin resistance and is significantly correlated with the risk of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), a serious complication of diabetes.
  9. Monitor Both: Given the complexity and interaction between the two conditions, it’s crucial to keep an eye on both if your dog has been diagnosed with either.

What Foods Can Give Dogs Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis in dogs can be caused by various factors, including genetics, obesity, and certain medications. However, one of the most common causes is a diet that is high in fat. When dogs consume too much fat, their pancreas can become inflamed, leading to pancreatitis.

Some of the foods that are high in fat and can trigger pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • Fatty meats: Dogs that consume large amounts of fatty meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs are at a higher risk of developing pancreatitis.
  • Dairy products: Cheese, butter, and other dairy products are also high in fat and can be problematic for dogs.
  • Table scraps: Feeding dogs table scraps is not recommended, as many human foods are high in fat and can lead to pancreatitis.
  • Greasy or fried foods: Foods that are cooked in oil or grease, such as french fries, onion rings, and fried chicken, are high in fat and can trigger pancreatitis in dogs.

It is important for dog owners to be aware of the fat content in their pet’s food and to avoid feeding them foods that are high in fat. Instead, they should opt for high-quality, low-fat dog food that is specifically formulated for their pet’s needs. By doing so, they can help prevent pancreatitis and other health issues in their dog.

What Dog Breeds are Prone to Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis can affect any dog breed, but some breeds are more prone to developing this condition than others. Here are some dog breeds that are at higher risk of developing pancreatitis:

These breeds are more prone to developing pancreatitis due to their genetics, which can lead to abnormalities in the pancreas. However, other factors such as diet, obesity, and age can also increase the risk of pancreatitis in dogs.

It is important to note that while these breeds are more prone to developing pancreatitis, any dog can develop this condition. Therefore, it is crucial for pet owners to be aware of the signs and symptoms of pancreatitis and take preventative measures to reduce their dog’s risk of developing this condition.

Symptoms of Dog Pancreatitis

When a dog has pancreatitis, it can show a variety of symptoms. Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Vomiting: Dogs with pancreatitis often vomit frequently, and it may be difficult for them to keep any food or water down. See our article on dogs vomiting after eating.
  • Diarrhea: The dog may have diarrhea or loose stools that are greasy and foul-smelling. See: why is my dog’s poop soft?
  • Loss of appetite: Dogs with pancreatitis may not want to eat or drink anything, and they may become dehydrated quickly. See: How to hydrate a dog?
  • Abdominal pain: The dog may show signs of discomfort or pain in the abdominal area. The dog may also have a distended abdomen.
  • Fever: Dogs with pancreatitis may have a fever, which is usually a sign of infection.
  • Lethargy: The dog may be lethargic, weak, and unwilling to move around much.
  • Stretching: another common symptom is your dog stretching in the “prayer position” to try to relieve the pain in their abdomen.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your dog, it is important to take them to the vet as soon as possible. Pancreatitis can be a serious condition, and early treatment is crucial for the best outcome.

Complications From Pancreatitis: What Happens Inside When Pets Get Pancreatitis

When a dog or cat gets pancreatitis, the pancreas stops doing one of its main jobs: making juices that help digest food. Because of this, certain digestive enzymes get activated too early and start to harm the pancreas itself.

Here’s the chain reaction in simpler terms:

  1. Pancreatic Juice Decrease: First, the pancreas slows down the production of digestive juices.
  2. Bad Mix: Certain elements inside the pancreas mix together in a way they shouldn’t, and this activates an enzyme called “trypsin.”
  3. Domino Effect: The trypsin goes on to activate even more of itself and other harmful enzymes.
  4. Local Damage: These activated enzymes start damaging the pancreas, causing swelling, bleeding, and even tissue death.
  5. Body-wide Inflammation: The inflammation spreads, and white blood cells rush in, causing a cycle of more inflammation.
  6. Distant Complications: Harmful substances, including other enzymes and inflammation-triggering molecules, get into the bloodstream. This can cause serious issues like blood clotting disorders, brain effects, low blood pressure, and failure of organs like the kidneys and lungs.

In really bad cases, this can escalate to multiple organs failing at once.

So yes, pancreatitis can start with something as simple as an inflamed pancreas, but it has the potential to lead to far more serious and widespread issues.

Diagnosis of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Physical Examination

The first step in diagnosing pancreatitis in dogs is a physical examination. A veterinarian will look for signs of pain in the abdomen, dehydration, and fever. They may also check for vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite. The presence of jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) may also indicate pancreatitis.

Laboratory Tests

Blood tests are commonly used to diagnose pancreatitis in dogs. Elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes such as amylase and lipase can indicate pancreatitis. However, these enzymes may also be elevated in other conditions, so additional tests may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

Imaging Techniques

Imaging techniques such as ultrasound and X-rays can provide a more detailed view of the pancreas and surrounding organs. An ultrasound can show inflammation and swelling of the pancreas, while X-rays can help rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms.

In some cases, a biopsy of the pancreas may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis of pancreatitis. However, this is usually only done in severe cases or if other tests are inconclusive.

Overall, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial for the successful management of pancreatitis in dogs.

Treatment of Dog Pancreatitis

Hospitalization and Fluid Therapy

In severe cases of dog pancreatitis, hospitalization may be necessary. During hospitalization, the dog will receive fluid therapy to help combat dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This therapy may also include medications to manage pain and nausea.

Dietary Management

Dietary management is an important aspect of treating dog pancreatitis. The dog will need to be fed a low-fat, easily digestible diet to allow the pancreas to rest and recover. A veterinarian may recommend a prescription diet or a homemade diet that meets specific nutritional requirements.

Medication

In addition to fluid therapy and dietary management, medication may be prescribed to manage pain and inflammation. This may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, or other medications as deemed appropriate by the veterinarian.

It is important to note that the treatment plan for dog pancreatitis may vary depending on the severity of the condition and the individual needs of the dog. Close monitoring and follow-up with a veterinarian is necessary to ensure proper management and recovery.

Prevention of Pancreatitis in Dogs

Prevention of pancreatitis in dogs involves a combination of proper diet, exercise, and regular veterinary check-ups. Here are some ways to help prevent pancreatitis in dogs:

  1. Diet

    Diet plays a crucial role in the prevention of pancreatitis in dogs. Feeding a high-quality, low-fat diet is essential. Avoid feeding table scraps, as they can be high in fat and cause inflammation of the pancreas. It is also important to avoid feeding your dog foods that are high in sugar, as they can lead to obesity and diabetes, which are risk factors for pancreatitis.

  2. Exercise

    Regular exercise can help prevent obesity, which is a risk factor for pancreatitis. It is important to ensure that your dog gets enough exercise every day. Walking, running, and playing are all great ways to keep your dog active and healthy.

  3. Regular Veterinary Check-ups

    Regular veterinary check-ups can help detect and treat pancreatitis early. Your veterinarian can perform blood tests and other diagnostic tests to detect pancreatitis early. Early detection can help prevent serious complications and improve your dog’s chances of recovery.

  4. Avoid Certain Medications

    Certain medications can increase the risk of pancreatitis in dogs. It is important to avoid giving your dog medications that can cause pancreatitis, such as corticosteroids and some antibiotics. Always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any medications.

In conclusion, pancreatitis can be a serious and life-threatening condition in dogs. However, by following these simple steps, you can help prevent pancreatitis and keep your dog healthy and happy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs?

The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, lethargy, abdominal pain, and fever. In severe cases, dogs may also experience shock, collapse, and organ failure.

What are the early signs of pancreatitis in dogs?

The early signs of pancreatitis in dogs include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and lethargy. These symptoms may be mild at first but can quickly progress to more severe symptoms.

How can you treat pancreatitis in dogs at home?

It is not recommended to treat pancreatitis in dogs at home without consulting a veterinarian first. Treatment typically involves hospitalization, intravenous fluids, pain management, and antibiotics. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

What are the survival rates for dogs with pancreatitis?

The survival rates for dogs with pancreatitis depend on the severity of the disease and how quickly it is diagnosed and treated. Mild cases have a good prognosis, while severe cases can be life-threatening.

What are the causes of pancreatitis in dogs?

The causes of pancreatitis in dogs are not fully understood, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of factors, including genetics, diet, obesity, and certain medications.

How long can a dog live with pancreatitis?

The prognosis for dogs with pancreatitis varies depending on the severity of the disease and how quickly it is diagnosed and treated. Mild cases have a good prognosis, while severe cases can be life-threatening. With prompt and appropriate treatment, most dogs can recover from pancreatitis.

Conclusion

Pancreatitis is a serious condition that can affect dogs of all ages and breeds. While the exact cause of pancreatitis is not always clear, there are several factors that can increase a dog’s risk of developing the condition.

Diet plays a significant role in the development of pancreatitis in dogs. Feeding a high-fat diet or giving table scraps and treats can increase a dog’s risk of developing the condition. Additionally, certain medications and medical conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, can also increase the risk of pancreatitis.

It is important for dog owners to be aware of the signs and symptoms of pancreatitis, which include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and loss of appetite. If a dog exhibits any of these symptoms, they should be taken to a veterinarian immediately for diagnosis and treatment.

Preventing pancreatitis in dogs involves feeding a healthy, balanced diet and avoiding high-fat foods and table scraps. It is also important to keep dogs at a healthy weight and to monitor them for any signs of illness or discomfort.

Overall, while the exact cause of pancreatitis in dogs is not always clear, there are several factors that can increase a dog’s risk of developing the condition. By being aware of these risk factors and taking steps to prevent pancreatitis, dog owners can help ensure their pets live long, healthy lives.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.