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When The Breaking-Down Process Is Broken Down (Pancreatitis In Dogs And Cats)

An inflamed pancreas (pancreatitis) is the most common exocrine pancreatic disease in cats and dogs. In animals with this condition, the digestive enzymes leave the pancreas –where they break down proteins and fat in foods – and move out into the rest of the body where the enzymes begin to digest proteins and fats in other organs. In effect, their body begins to digest its own organs.

pancreatitis-in-dogsPancreatitis usually progresses quickly. When found early, it’s often successfully treated without any permanent organ damage. If treatment is delayed, it’s possible that severe permanent organ damage can occur. Changing a dog’s or cat’s diet is the most effective way to prevent and manage pancreatitis, so working with a knowledgeable veterinarian is an important part of the treatment plan.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

The most common pancreatitis symptoms in dogs and cats are:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting (more common in dogs)
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite (anorexia)
  • Weight loss (more common in cats)
  • Dehydration
  • Fatigue, sluggishness, and lethargy
  • Depression
  • Abdominal pain (may become worse after eating)
  • Increased heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing

What are the causes and risk factors of pancreatitis?

There are a bunch of known causes for pancreatitis in cats and dogs. The most common cause is an improper diet. (See more about this under “How do diet and feeding affect pancreatitis” below.) Nutritional influences include:

  • High levels of fat in the blood (lipemia).
  • Diets that are high-fat, low-carbohydrate, and low-fiber and that are fed over long periods. In animals who normally eat low-fat meals, it’s possible that just eating one high-fat meal may cause pancreatitis.

Other common causes are hormonal imbalances, trauma to the pancreas (accidental or during surgery), medications, and toxins. Scorpion stings, common in some regions, are also a known cause. In cats, pancreatitis can also be caused by two diseases: toxoplasma gondii and amphimerus pseudofelineus.

Pancreatitis can also be brought on by a handful of medications. These include antibiotics containing sulpha, some anesthetics, estrogens, thiazide diuretics, chemotherapy drugs, and vinca alkaloids. (Corticosteroids used to be on this list, but they’re no longer believed to cause pancreatitis.)

Below are some of the factors that increase our companions’ risk of pancreatitis.

  • Obesity is a common risk factor.
  • Middle-aged or older pets are more likely than younger ones to develop it.
  • Pancreatitis is more common in dogs than cats.
  • Females are diagnosed more often than males.
  • Animals with high levels of calcium in the blood (hypercalcemia) are also more likely to get it.
  • An overproduction of corticosteroids (hyperadrenocorticism) makes pets more susceptible.
  • Certain breeds are predisposed. Siamese cats are more likely to develop pancreatitis than other cat breeds. In dogs, it occurs more frequently in Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles, and Cocker Spaniels.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

Usually veterinarians diagnose pancreatitis by looking at blood test results, reviewing the symptoms we observe in our companions, and ruling out other causes of the symptoms. The tests alone don’t lead to diagnosis because none of the changes in blood chemistry are unique to pancreatitis. Two enzymes found in the blood (serum amylase and serum lipase) can help diagnose canine pancreatitis, but they’re not helpful for diagnosing feline pancreatitis.

Some veterinarians also use x-rays or ultrasounds to help support the diagnosis, but neither is definitive.

In the past, a pancreatic biopsy was considered to be the best test for pancreatitis, but we now know that biopsies don’t have a good track record.

Few veterinarians use the most accurate blood test for pancreatitis, the pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (PLI) test, because it’s only available through a laboratory at Texas A&M University.

How is pancreatitis managed and treated?

Obviously, if the pancreatitis was caused by a medication, that drug should be stopped. (Never stop a medication without first consulting your veterinarian. It can be dangerous – even fatal – to stop giving your dog or cat their medication cold turkey.) When pancreatitis is caused by a toxin, infection, or another health condition, treating that underlying condition is critical.

The four goals of pancreatitis treatment are to:

  • Provide fluid therapy if the pet is dehydrated.
  • Provide pain relief. (Vets assume that pets with pancreatitis have abdominal pain which they prescribe medication for.)
  • Provide nutritional support. (More about diet below.)
  • Prevent complications. Animals with pancreatitis should be closely monitored in order to prevent or detect secondary health conditions. Certainly if there are contributing or concurrent illnesses, those need to be treated, too.

For cats with pancreatitis who are deficient in Vitamin B12, periodic B12 injections are very beneficial. However, supplementing B12 in other ways, such as in pills, isn’t very effective for feline pancreatitis. (This is a relatively new therapy that in described in Williams and Steiner’s Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine.)

How do diet and feeding affect pancreatitis?

Nutritional therapy is by far the most effective way to manage and treat pancreatitis in dogs and cats. When looking for a good diet for animals with pancreatitis, it’s best to consult with a veterinary nutritionist or veterinarian who has experience creating successful dietary plans for these animals. Locally, the best option I’ve found is Dr. Kim Martin of the Holistic Veterinary Center.

In this situation, most veterinarians recommend feeding mostly wet or raw food diets and feeding only limited amounts of dry kibble. It’s also best to feed them frequent, small meals throughout the day.

For dogs with pancreatitis, the ideal diet is lower in fat, has moderate levels of fiber, and maintains proper amounts and ratios of nutrients.

For cats with pancreatitis, more research needs to be done to definitively identify the ideal diet. Most veterinarians generally recommend feeding them diets low in carbohydrates, with moderate to low levels of fiber, and that have proper amounts and ratios of nutrients. (So far, there’s no scientific evidence that low-fat diets are important for treating feline pancreatitis.)

(Note: Nonexclusive use of this article has been granted to other pet industry organizations but Kari Kells retains copyright.)

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