The pancreas is an organ involved in the digestion process. This organ produces enzymes that travel to the intestine to help break down food. Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed. The inflammation can lead to leakage of the digestive enzymes into the pancreas itself or surrounding organ tissue. These enzymes are very irritating to these tissues. There are two types of pancreatitis, acute and chronic. The acute form occurs mostly in dogs and tends to occur suddenly and is more severe. The chronic form occurs more frequently in cats and is typically milder and can linger for weeks, or even years.
Signs of pancreatitis may include vomiting, anorexia, painful abdomen (dogs often appear hunched), abnormally high or low body temperature, diarrhea, depression, dehydration. It is important to point out that these signs are not specific for pancreatitis, and may occur with many gastrointestinal diseases or afflictions.
Obtaining a definitive diagnosis of pancreatitis can be challenging. A definitive diagnosis requires a biopsy but taking a biopsy of this particular organ while it is inflamed would likely worsen the condition and typically is not done.
Instead we must rely on clinical signs, history, physical exam findings, bloodwork, and diagnostic imaging such as x-rays and when possible abdominal ultrasound as well as response to treatment.
In most cases we are unable to determine the exact cause of pancreatitis in our patients. There are certain factors, however, that are commonly associated with this disease. A high fat diet, fatty snack, or getting into the trash (especially in dogs) can be a trigger. Certain hormonal diseases such as Cushings or Diabetes can also contribute to a patient’s risk. In cats toxoplasmosis and bartonella infections may be related.
There is no cure for pancreatitis. The goal of therapy is to support the patient while allowing the pancreas time to rest and heal. This healing period often involves a 24-48 hour or longer fast. During this time food and water is withheld so the pancreas does not become stimulated to release additional enzymes. It is vital that the patient be given intravenous fluids to help maintain blood flow to the vital organs during this fast. When food is reintroduced it is done slowly and cautiously. It is very important for dogs to remain on a low fat, easily digestible diet after recovery. It is not as critical for cats to change their diet but hypoallergenic diets have proved helpful in minimizing the chance of relapse.
The prognosis for recovery from chronic pancreatitis is good but it takes time. The prognosis for acute pancreatitis depends on the severity of the case but chances for recovery improve with prompt, aggressive treatment. Your veterinarian will be happy to answer any further questions you may have so please don’t hesitate to contact us should you want additional information.