The pancreas is an organ within the abdomen and serves many important functions. It creates hormones that are used within the body, such as insulin, and digestive enzymes used to help digest protein ingested. These digestive enzymes are held within the pancreas and are activated once they are secreted into the intestine. It has two separate limbs, one that extends along the stomach and the other that is close to the first part of the intestine, or duodenum.
With pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes that are supposed to be held within the pancreas and activated once released into the intestine are activated too early. The pancreas essentially starts to digest itself. This can cause an inflammatory response within the body that can cause varying degrees of clinical presentation.
Unfortunately, pancreatitis seems to be a disease in which there is not a singular cause but tends to be multifactorial and is still an area that veterinarians are researching today. Some breeds seem to be predisposed such as Miniature Schnauzers due to the high triglyceride content within their blood. High-fat diets or sudden diet changes also seem to be associated with episodes of acute pancreatitis. However, one definitive cause for pancreatitis in dogs has not been found. It also appears that some dogs that may have some underlying intestinal disease, seem to struggle with chronic pancreatitis and will have intermittent flare-ups.
Clinical Signs and Presentation
In dogs, there can be a wide degree of presentation depending on the severity of pancreatitis. Most dogs present with some form of abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. However, the dehydration and systemic inflammatory response can be so severe that some dogs present in hemodynamic shock and need immediate treatment.
Diagnosis of pancreatitis can be achieved by either testing the pancreatic enzyme levels or via abdominal ultrasound. When testing the pancreatic enzyme levels, these levels can be elevated in some other disease processes, so there can be false positives for this test. The enzymes can be tested with a bench top snap test, which essentially is a color change with elevated pancreatic enzyme levels. The second test for pancreatic enzyme levels goes to the laboratory and gives a quantitative number as to how high the pancreatic enzymes are.
The abdominal ultrasound looks at the pancreas itself and looks for characteristic changes that can be seen with pancreatitis. However, this is a very subjective test and can have false negatives.
Treatment for pancreatitis is often supportive and depending on the severity can either be treated on an outpatient or inpatient basis. Treatment often includes pain control, rehydration in the form of fluids, anti-nausea medications, supportive gastroprotective medications, and enticing them to eat.