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Spotlight on Pancreatitis: The Overlooked & Sometimes Fatal Disease Brought on by Overindulgence

By Dr. Laci Schaible

Pancreatitis spotlight

Just because we can binge during holiday meals does not mean it is safe for our pets. Set aside weight issues, bones that can become dislodged or puncture part of the gastrointestinal tract, and even deadly foods such as macadamia nuts, baking chocolate, and xylitol. Even if you take care to avoid all these dangerous situations, sharing holiday treats with your pet could prove to be the most costly meal he or she ever gets. Pancreatitis, the deadly disease that can result from your pet indulging in a fatty meal, is rarely mentioned until it may be too late.

Background info

The pancreas is a flat, thin organ located in the front of the abdomen near the stomach. Part of the pancreas produces hormones such as insulin that regulate blood sugar and the other part of the pancreas produces digestive enzymes that are released into the intestines to break down food.

Pancreatitis is simply inflammation of the pancreas. When the pancreas becomes inflamed, it becomes painful, swollen and may affect the stomach, releasing enzymes into the surrounding area of the abdomen, thereby irritating and inflaming nearby abdominal organs. This can cause life-threatening complications.

Dogs vs. Cats

Dogs most commonly develop acute pancreatitis, but chronic pancreatitis can occur, and is more common, in some breeds than in others (German Shepherds certainly are one of those breeds). In many cases, the cause of pancreatitis is unknown, but eating foods that are high in fat is known to increase the risk for acute pancreatitis. Other risk factors include obesity and the presence of diseases of the liver, small intestine, or endocrine diseases such as diabetes mellitus or Cushing’s disease.

Dogs usually present with vomiting, dehydration, painful abdomen, lethargy, and poor appetite. Pancreatitis can be mild or it can be severe.

Compared with dogs, cats are more likely to have the chronic form of the disease. Abdominal trauma and IBD have been associated with pancreatitis in cats; we are still learning a lot about pancreatitis in cats as it occurs less frequently.

Unlike dogs, most cats with pancreatitis don’t present with obvious abdominal signs; they usually show no vomiting or even abdominal discomfort. Cats with pancreatitis usually develop mild symptoms gradually, which contributes to the chronic nature of the disease in cats. The more common signs in cats are the typical vague ill-kitty symptoms: decreased energy, perhaps a decreased appetite, and a general “ain’t doing right,” known as A.D.R. in the veterinary community (you will impress your vet if your pet is a just a little off and you describe their symptoms as A.D.R. in the exam room).

Diagnosing This Vague Disease

Reaching a diagnosis of pancreatitis can be quite complicated as the clinical signs are so vague. Your veterinarian may recommend several types of blood tests and x-rays:

  • Routine blood tests are used to look for other diseases with similar signs.
  • There are also specialized blood test that look for an enzyme in the bloodstream that is increased with pancreatitis.

An abdominal ultrasound is commonly used to look for an enlarged, swollen pancreas. The pancreas can be difficult to see on ultrasound, so your veterinarian may refer your dog to a veterinary specialist for this examination.


Dogs with acute pancreatitis usually require hospitalization for fluid therapy, medications for pain and vomiting, and other supportive care. Food and water are initially withheld to allow the pancreas to heal but a feeding tube may be recommended in some dogs — it is decided on a case by case basis. Severe acute pancreatitis can be life threatening and the pet can rapidly deteriorate if not treated promptly.

If your vet suspects pancreatitis, the diet is changed to one with a lower fat content to help prevent recurrent bouts or flare-ups. If your pet does not respond to the new diet within 2-3 weeks, anti-inflammatory medications may be tried. These drugs must be used with care because they can have significant side effects.


Prognosis for pets with severe, acute pancreatitis requiring hospitalization and fluid therapy is often difficult to predict. Some dogs die of this disease, even with the best possible care, but these dogs usually present horribly ill. Prognosis for dogs and cats with milder acute or chronic pancreatitis is generally better, particularly if a change to a lower-fat diet is all that is necessary to control the inflammation and the clinical signs.

While you can't predict when your pet is going to get sick or injured, you can protect yourself from expensive veterinary bills. Embrace Pet Insurance gives you the freedom to do what’s best for your pet without stressing over the cost. Easily personalize your coverage to fit your budget and your pet’s needs, then visit any vet for nose-to-tail coverage. Check out what the Embrace plan covers or compare pet insurance providers to learn more.

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