Pancreatitis is a painful, inflammatory condition that occurs when the pancreas prematurely releases enzymes and fluids meant to aid in digestion. The pancreatic cells can become damaged, leading to a variety of clinical signs and potential secondary conditions. Why pancreatitis develops in some pets is not fully understood, but certain factors, such as high-fat foods, recent blunt trauma, and comorbidities (e.g., Cushing’s disease [hyperadrenocorticism]) are correlated with the disease. Recognizing pancreatitis signs in pets early on, and seeking timely treatment, remain positive prognostic indicators for recovery. Following are common associated signs, along with what you can expect after a pancreatitis diagnosis. We’ll also discuss prevention in pets prone to pancreatitis flare-ups. Here are six common signs:

  • Inappetence — Anorexia, (i.e., the refusal to eat) is one of the most frequent pancreatitis signs in both dogs and cats. Anorexia may be rooted in pain, nausea, or the body’s innate need to rest the pancreas, which plays a vital role in food digestion.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea — Vomiting is classically seen with pancreatitis in dogs, but may or may not occur in cats. Contrary to regurgitation, which manifests as passive food upheaval, vomiting requires abdominal contractions, or retching that may or may not produce material from the mouth. Often, pets will produce a yellow, foamy substance with vomiting.
  • Nausea — Nausea can be difficult to diagnose in pets, because they cannot verbalize their symptoms, but pets who have concurrent vomiting, excessive drooling, or inappetence are often assumed to have pancreatitis.
  • Recent fatty meal — A hallmark event in many canine pancreatitis cases is dietary indiscretion. Whether you offer your pet a rich, tasty, human treat, or they sneak one themselves, ingesting high-fat foods can trigger pancreatitis in pets. Pancreatic enzymes play an important role in fat digestion, and a fatty meal is a major stimulus for secretion of these powerful enzymes.
  • Fever — An elevated core body temperature can be a sign of inflammation, infection, or both. With pancreatitis, the inflammatory response produces substances that cause the body temperature to rise. And, when pancreatitis occurs, the organ becomes stressed and vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections, which can have the same effect on their temperature. You will need a rectal thermometer to ascertain whether your pet has a fever, since their body temperatures are naturally warmer than ours.
  • Abdominal pain — While your furry friend cannot verbalize where they feel pain, you can look for abdominal discomfort signs. Pets may pace or become restless, trying to get comfortable. They may lie or sit in abnormal positions, such as with the forelimbs on the ground and their hind end raised in the air, known as the “praying” position in dogs. They may also wince or snap when you touch a tender area. 

Diagnosing your pet with pancreatitis

Once you’ve decided to seek treatment for your pet, our team at University Veterinary Hospital will triage them, and determine the best course of action. Typically, we will recommend a series of blood tests, including a complete blood count, biochemistry panel, and a pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity test. Whenever signs of abdominal distress, such as vomiting and diarrhea, are present, X-rays or ultrasound imaging can offer valuable information. While none of these tests are diagnostic for pancreatitis, together they provide an overall picture of your pet’s condition, helping us create an individualized treatment plan. 

Treating your pet with pancreatitis

Treating pancreatitis involves a combination of therapies to relieve pain and nausea, and to allow the pancreas to rest. This is typically achieved through hospitalization with cage rest, intravenous fluids, medications, and, restricting food for a period of time. Each pet with pancreatitis presents differently—some have mild gastrointestinal signs, while others are admitted with severe depression and shock-like signs. Therefore, treatment and prognosis will vary depending on case severity. Generally, pets will remain hospitalized for at least a couple of days. 

Genetic and health factors can contribute to pancreatitis, so preventing the disease is not always feasible. But, pet owners can take steps like offering healthy treats, instead of rich, fat-laden foods—occasionally is not allowed—to minimize the chances of occurrence. Pets who are prone to pancreatitis will need to follow our veterinarian’s guidance closely, which will likely include a prescription, low-fat diet, and close monitoring for flare-ups.

At University Veterinary Hospital, we know pancreatitis. If your pet develops signs of this condition, don’t ignore them. Rather, contact us for guidance, or to set up an appointment.