Pets affected by pancreatitis can experience lifelong repercussions, and in some cases, the condition is fatal. Our team at Billings Animal Hospital wants to help you better understand this disturbing disease, to help lower your pet’s risk.

Understand the importance of your pet’s pancreas

The pancreas is essential to your pet’s well-being. The organ has two components that carry out necessary functions for everyday life.

  • Exocrine pancreas — Exocrine glands in the pancreas produce enzymes that are important to digestion. Trypsin and chymotrypsin digest proteins, amylase digests carbohydrates, and lipase breaks down fats. When food enters the stomach, these enzymes travel through the pancreatic duct, and are released inside the small intestine. In conjunction with bile, another digestive fluid, these enzymes digest nutrients.
  • Endocrine pancreas — Islet cells in the pancreas produce hormones to maintain proper blood sugar levels, which is crucial for normal organ functioning, including the brain, kidneys, and liver. The hormones produced include insulin, which acts to lower blood sugar, and glucagon, which acts to raise blood sugar.

Understand what happens when your pet’s pancreas is inflamed

Under normal circumstances, the digestive enzymes produced by the exocrine pancreas remain inactive until they are deposited in the small intestine. If they are triggered prematurely, they can start to break down the pancreas and its surrounding tissue, which can cause your pet extreme pain. This condition is called pancreatitis. Signs include appetite loss, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Affected pets may exhibit a hunched posture in response to their abdominal pain.

Understand what causes pancreatitis in pets

Frequently, what incites pancreatitis is unclear, but certain conditions can lead to the illness.

  • High-fat foods — When your pet ingests fatty foods, such as table scraps or leftovers in the trash can, their pancreas produces excess digestive enzymes to break down the large amount of fat. This can predispose them to pancreatitis.
  • Obesity — An overweight pet’s ability to metabolize fats is altered, putting them at higher risk.
  • Endocrine diseases — Pets affected by diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and hyperadrenocorticism are at increased risk.
  • Medications — Pets taking certain medications, including anti-seizure drugs, chemotherapy agents, and sulfa-containing antibiotics, are predisposed.
  • Trauma — Pets who experience abdominal area trauma, (e.g., a car accident or during surgery), are at increased risk.
  • Lineage — Particular breeds, including miniature schnauzers, miniature poodles, cocker spaniels, and certain terrier breeds, are predisposed.
  • Small intestinal reflux — The small intestine produces enzymes that activate the pancreatic digestive enzymes. If small intestinal fluid refluxes through the pancreatic duct to the pancreas, the digestive enzymes are prematurely activated.
  • Pancreatic tumor — Tumors affecting the pancreas can cause inflammation, and trigger pancreatitis.

Understand that pancreatitis can cause life-threatening issues for your pet

The inflammation and toxin release that occurs when the pancreas and its surrounding tissue are broken down can cause serious, sometimes fatal, issues for your pet.

  • Disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC) — DIC is a dangerous situation that occurs secondary to other conditions that cause inappropriate matter in the bloodstream, sluggish blood flow, or blood vessel wall damage. Excessive clotting begins to occur throughout the body, which quickly consumes the clotting factors responsible for controlling bleeding. Ultimately, inappropriate bleeding and clotting occurs throughout the body. Possible complications include clots forming in blood vessels that supply major organs, which can lead to a multi-organ shut down, and severe hemorrhaging.
  • Systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) — Inflammatory mediators travel to the pancreas in response to the inflammation, and can become depleted, leading to body-wide inflammation. This extreme inflammatory response can cause a multi-organ shut down. 
  • Necrotic pancreas — When inflamed, the pancreas loses blood supply, resulting in tissue death. This necrotic tissue is susceptible to infection, which can spread to other organs, andalso cause multi-organ failure.
  • Pancreatitis encephalopathy — This widespread inflammation can lead the fatty brain cell components and the fatty tissue covering nerves to break down. When this occurs, the brain can swell, resulting in disorientation, agitation, convulsions, and possibly death.

Understand that pancreatitis can have lifelong repercussions for your pet

If your pet survives the initial pancreatitis episode, the damage to the pancreas can lead to lifelong complications.

  • Diabetes mellitus — The pancreatic inflammation can damage the islet cells, causing inadequate insulin production. If not enough insulin is available to facilitate glucose transport inside cells, the glucose will build up in the bloodstream, damaging several organs, including the heart, kidneys, and eyes.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency — The pancreatic inflammation can damage the exocrine glands, causing inadequate digestive enzyme production. This leads to an inability to break down and absorb nutrients, resulting in greasy feces, voracious hunger, and weight loss.
  • Recurrent pancreatitis — Pets who have a pancreatitis bout are at higher risk for recurrent pancreatitis, which could further damage the tissue. 

Understand how to prevent pancreatitis in your pet

Not all pancreatitis episodes are preventable, but you can decrease your pet’s risk by taking a few precautions.

  • Never feed your pet table scraps.
  • Prevent your pet from raiding the trash.
  • Keep your pet at an ideal weight.
  • Monitor your pet closely if they are a high-risk breed.

Now that you understand more about pancreatitis, you can take steps to decrease your pet’s risk. If you are concerned your pet may be suffering from pancreatitis, contact our team at Billings Animal Hospital, so we can alleviate their pain, and provide the care they need.