Pancreatitis in Dogs

pancreatitis in dogsThe pancreas is a thin, elongated organ that is shaped a bit like a pounded piece of chicken tenderloin. The pancreas lies along the initial portion of the small intestine called the duodenum. As the bile duct leaves the gall bladder, it traverses the pancreas before it enters the duodenum. The pancreas is probably best known for producing insulin, the hormone deficient in patients with diabetes. The pancreas also produces digestive enzymes essential for breakdown of food into its nutrient component parts.

-itis = inflammation
When a body part is inflamed, the suffix “-itis” modifies the root word to indicate the disease process of inflammation. Tennis elbow is really inflammation of the elbow bone and in doctor speak is epicondylitis. Inflammation of the appendix is appendicitis. Inflammation of the pancreas is pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is the most common condition of the dog and cat pancreas.

Causes of pancreatitis in dogs
The exact trigger for pancreatic inflammation in dogs is elusive. High fat meals, such as one obtained illicitly from the kitchen trash can are often blamed. Miniature Schnauzers are a dog breed with an increased risk of pancreatitis. Some diseases, like diabetes, hyperadrenocorticism and hypothyroidism increase a dog’s risk for pancreatitis. Blunt force trauma, like an automobile accident or a fall from a height can injure the pancreas and set off the inflammatory cascade. Whatever the cause of the inflammation, it promotes release of the digestive enzymes from the pancreatic cells. The enzyme release worsens the inflammation and also the clinical signs.

Clinical signs of pancreatitis
Pancreatitis can be either an acute fulminant illness or a more insidious, chronic problem. The list of clinical signs attributed to pancreatitis is quite long: vomiting, anorexia, weakness, dehydration, abdominal pain and fever. Dogs may assume a “praying” position with their elbows on the floor and their rump held high. Veterinarians interpret this as a response of the dog to abdominal pain. Since the major signs of pancreatitis are nonspecific, vomiting and anorexia, a battery of blood tests, x-rays, and an abdominal ultrasound may be necessary to establish a diagnosis of pancreatitis.

Treatment of pancreatitis
There is no specific treatment for pancreatitis like there are antibiotics for bacterial infection. Veterinarians treat dehydration with fluids, control vomiting with anti-nausea medications, and manage pain with pain medications. We also rest the gastrointestinal tract of patients with pancreatitis by withholding food and water until the vomiting ceases, followed by a low fat, bland diet. Dogs may take several days to recover from a serious case of pancreatitis.

To help prevent pancreatitis, restrict your dog’s intake of human foods, especially fatty ones. There will be less dieting for him in the new year and hopefully no pancreatitis to spoil his fun.

Willa: A Dog Helping Dogs and Humans Through Research

I lost one of my favorite patients last week. She was a fifteen pound willful Wire Fox Terrier aptly named Willa. Because she was a terrier, she defined the word tenacity. She nearly died several summers ago when her pancreas failed and a severe infection caused her skin and footpads to peel and crust. Despite the simultaneous occurrence of two serious diseases, she persevered, recovered and continued to patrol the woods for doggie delicacies such as goose poop. But maybe what I admired the most about this dog was her commitment to scientific research.

Contributing to kidney research

As part of Willa’s annual examination early last year, a blood test known as a senior profile was submitted to the laboratory. Although her physical examination was normal and her family reported she was doing well, we found mild changes in her kidney tests. Additional testing revealed protein loss in her urine and high blood pressure. Home blood pressure monitoring, blood pressure medications and a kidney-friendly diet kept these problems in check.

Dogs with kidney disease tend to develop blood clots, often in their lungs. Veterinarians do not have a quick, easy test to determine which dogs will develop this catastrophic complication, and veterinary clinician researchers at The AMC received a grant from the Morris Animal Foundation to identify dogs at risk for developing blood clots using a special machine called a thromboelastograph. If we can identify dogs at risk for blood clots, then we can target those dogs for treatment with blood thinners. The thromboelastograph tests blood clotting differently than traditional tests and the hypothesis was that this test would identify dogs with an increased risk to form blood clots. Though a process called “informed consent” Willa’s family agreed to the use of a half teaspoon of her blood to be tested using thromboelastography. Willa’s test was normal, and results of this study’s data are still undergoing analysis prior to publication.

Investigating infectious disease

Willa’s next research project was in the area of infectious disease. She became acutely ill after spending part of the Christmas holiday in the country. Leptospirosis is an infectious disease carried in the urine of wildlife and often found in puddles of water. Because she had been in the country and because her illness affected her liver, her family again agreed to allow additional testing of her blood for another ongoing AMC study. First described in 1886 and a frequent cause of death during both world wars, leptospirosis is not a new disease. But because this disease can infect humans as well as dogs, any improvements we can make in diagnosis and treatment benefits both dogs and humans. Testing confirmed the diagnosis of leptospirosis in Willa. We alerted her owners and checked out the other dog in the family. Sadly, the combination pancreatic failure, kidney disease and now a liver problem was too much for Willa and she crossed the Rainbow Bridge, restored to health and vigor.

What Willa taught me

  • Annual examinations and screening blood tests are critical to early identification and management of chronic diseases like kidney disease.
  • More research is needed in all areas of veterinary medicine, including kidney disease and infectious disease.
  • Even a small, willful terrier can make a meaningful contribution to research benefiting both dogs and humans.