Pancreatitis in Dogs: Know The Signs Before It’s Too Late!

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / March 19, 2018
Pancreatitis in dogs

Pancreatitis in dogs is a common disease that affects the exocrine pancreas of a dog. This condition seems to be most prevalent in older to middle-aged dogs, and it can fall into two classes— acute or chronic. Because canine pancreatitis can be relatively hard to comprehend, we’ve created the ultimate article that will explain all you need to know about pancreatitis in dogs.

Where is the Pancreas Location?

location of dog's pancreas

The pancreas is a small gland located on the dorsal (upper) part of the abdominal wall. In respect to the other organs, the pancreas is quite close to the first part of the small intestine—the duodenum, which is located towards the right side of a dog’s abdomen. But, in veterinary medicine, the location of the pancreas is craniodorsal in the abdomen.

Anatomically, the pancreas has two lobes (left and right) and a body. Together, this creates a V-shaped organ, that sits comfortably in the cranial flexure of the duodenum. The pancreas also contains a very complex system of lymphatics and ducts. The key point to remember is that there are two ducts—a pancreatic duct which merges with the common bile duct of the liver, and the accessory pancreatic duct.

What is the Function of the Pancreas?

Now that we’ve had a quick anatomy lesson, let’s try and use this information to figure out what’s the function of the pancreas.

The pancreas has two major functions — an exocrine and an endocrine function! Let’s break this down to make it easier to understand.

In Latin, exo- refers to “external” or “outer”, while endo- refers to “internally”. Therefore, the exocrine function of the pancreas is to secrete digestive enzymes into the small intestine of the dog via the pancreatic ducts. As such, the purpose of these pancreatic juices is to aid in the breakdown and digestion of fats, carbohydrates, and protein.

Now, in contrast, the endocrine part of the pancreas consists of these tiny cells called the islets of Langerhans. The endocrine function of the pancreas is to secrete important hormones such as insulin, glucagon, and other hormones.

What is Pancreatitis in Dogs?

The pancreas is an important organ whose main function is to help with digestion and regulate blood glucose levels. When we talk about pancreatitis in dogs, we are referring to the inflammation of the pancreas, and this can either be acute (short-lived), chronic (long-lived), or acute on chronic.

diarrhea in dogs with pancreatitis

Dogs with pancreatitis will often face minor symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and anything related to the gastrointestinal tract. In severe cases of canine pancreatitis, a dog may face systemic inflammatory response syndrome and multiple organ dysfunction syndrome. Systemic inflammatory response syndrome simply means that the body may go into septic shock. While organ dysfunction implies “complete organ failure”.

What Dog Can Get Pancreatitis?

Canine pancreatitis can affect any dog of any sex and age. However, you’ll most commonly see pancreatitis in dogs in breeds such as the Schnauzers, Miniature Schnauzers, Boxer, Collies, and Spaniels. Additionally, pancreatitis tends to affect middle-aged to senior dogs.

Pancreatitis in Dogs—Key Terms To Understand

Pancreatic insufficiency is as its name suggests—the lack of synthesis of digestive enzymes which ultimately leads to a syndrome known as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), this refers to the condition where the pancreas is not able to produce the necessary pancreatic enzymes that aid in digestion. This condition is very different from pancreatitis in dogs, but the symptoms of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is a lot similar to those seen in pancreatitis.

A lipase is a class of digestive enzyme that’s main function is to break down fat. So, pancreatic lipase refers to the lipase produced by the pancreas. It’s perhaps the most important digestive enzyme as it aids in the digestion and break down fat (such as medium-chain triglycerides) into two-mono-glycerides and free-fatty acids.

Pathophysiology of Canine Pancreatits—How Does The Pancreas  Inflammation Occur?

inflammation of dog's pancreas

The pancreas is responsible for secreting digestive enzymes and pancreatic juices into the duodenum. The main pancreatic enzymes secreted include trypsin, chymotrypsin, carboxypeptidase, lipase, alpha-amylase, and cholesterol ester hydrolase. The pancreas will also secrete a bicarbonate ions into the duodenum of the small intestine.

Now, we know that these enzymes are actually responsible for the breakdown of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. While the bicarbonate ion is responsible for neutralizing stomach acid that may enter the duodenum during digestion. The key point to understanding pancreatitis is that all these enzymes (scientifically called proteolytic enzymes) are actually made and stored in the pancreas as inactive precursors.

Since they’re inactive in the pancreas, they cannot hurt the pancreas in any way! Only once these pancreatic enzymes enter the small intestine, they will then become active and do their job!

Now, pancreatitis in dogs occurs when these digestive enzymes somehow activate in the pancreas. So, think about it like this—what happens when you activate digestive enzymes in a place they’re not supposed to be? They will eat up the pancreas!  This means that the pancreas will begin the process of autodigestion.

The bodies response to autodigestion would thus involve activating the inflammatory action. So, this is how inflammation of the pancreas occurs.

Pancreatitis Causes

Unfortunately, there is no definitive cause for pancreatitis in dogs. Rather, veterinarians believe that various risk factors play an important role in causing canine pancreatitis.

obese dog

One of the most significant risk factors associated with canine pancreatitis is obesity in dogs. This is because many studies have found that dogs with hyperlipidemia are at risk of developing pancreatitis.

Hyperlipidemia refers to the excess concentration of fat (lipids) in the bloodstream of a dog. Now, if you’ve got a Minature Schnauzer then pay close attention! Miniature Schnauzers are perhaps the main dog breeds that have a genetic link to developing pancreatitis as a result of hyperlipidemia.

The use of medicinal drugs can also cause pancreatitis in dogs. Now, some dog’s may have other diseases such as Cushing’s disease or diabetes mellitus. So, these pups may be placed on various different drugs such as glucocorticoids, cytotoxic drugs, antimicrobials, and diuretics Though there is no concrete evidence, vets do believe that drugs may induce pancreatitis in dogs.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis in Dogs

dog with fever

The symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs can be quite variable, however, the upon physical examination the most common symptoms associated with pancreatitis in dogs include:

  • Anorexia
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting and/or regurgitation
  • Lethargy
  • Ptyalism: this means that your dog will constantly be licking its lips
  • Fever
  • Hypovolemic: this means your dog will suffer fluid loss and low blood volume
  • Jaundice
  • changes in abdominal and gut sounds

How Will Your Vet Diagnose Pancreatitis in Dogs

The diagnosis of pancreatitis in dogs is fairly difficult understand, making it difficult for pet owners like yourself to know what’s going on! So, we’ve broken down how your veterinarian may go about diagnosing your pet for canine pancreatitis. Apart from a full physical examination, your veterinarian will use diagnostic tools such as blood tests, imaging, and histopathology.

When it comes to blood tests, the first type of test your vet may consider is looking at serologic markers. This means the serum of your dog’s blood will be analyzed to determine important pancreatic enzyme markers such as pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity and trypsin-like immunoactivity.

The second component your vet will evaluate is the level of amylase and lipase present in your dog’s blood. This is because dogs with pancreatitis will often face hyperamylasemia and hyperlipasemia. Hyperamylasemia simply means that your dog’s pancreas is producing a lot of amylase. Similarly, hyperlipasemia refers to the pancreas producing excessive amounts of lipase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down fat.

Your veterinarian may also choose to use imaging tools such as radiography and ultrasonography in order to rule out any other potential causes of the presented clinical signs.

Lastly, the most important and perhaps the most recommended diagnostic tool is histopathology. Now, if you don’t know what histopathology means, don’t worry! This simply means that your veterinarian will excise a small portion of the pancreas surgically in order to view it under a microscope. This is what vets refer to as a biopsy!

Pancreatitis Treatment

When it comes to treating pancreatitis in dogs, it’s vital to keep in mind that no treatment is perfect, and so treatment for pancreatitis in dogs will vary from patient-to-patient. Nevertheless, here I will discuss the conventional protocol for the treatment of canine pancreatitis.

The conventional method used to treat pancreatitis in dogs involves the administration of intravenous fluid in order to restore electrolyte and acid-base balance. Should your dog be vomiting profusely, then your vet may choose to administer anti-emetics (anti-vomiting) drugs.

Controlling your dog’s diet and nutritional needs is vital to treating pancreatitis. The first option is parenteral nutrition which simply means your vet will provide nutrition to your dog intravenously, thereby bypassing normal digestive processes. Similarly, partial parenteral nutrition implies that the dog would get some of his nutrition from an IV source, and the other via another source such as food.

Since pancreatitis can be relatively painful, your veterinarian may also use drugs such as morphine, buprenorphine. and other opioids to control pain.

Famotidine for Dogs

Famotidine is a medication that essentially works to reduce the production of excessive stomach acid.  While generally used to treat pancreatitis in dogs, Famotidine can also treat conditions such as gastritis and esophagitis. The dosage for Famotidine is 0.25mg to 0.5mg per pound of body weight. You can buy this medication over-the-counter and can give it to your dog twice a day.

Metronidazole for Dogs

Metronidazole is a type of antibiotics administered to both dogs and cats. It is very rare, for a veterinarian to prescribe antibiotics to a patient with pancreatitis as canine pancreatitis is not associated with infections.

Dog Pancreatitis Treatment Cost?

Treating pancreatitis in dogs can be quite expensive! So, prepare to keep your wallets open for business. The cost of canine pancreatitis can range anywhere from $800 to $6000, where the average cost of treatment may cost up to $2,200.

Natural Remedies for Pancreatitis in Dogs

Natural remedy for dog's with pancreatitis

Choosing natural remedies for canine pancreatitis can have its ups and downs! Because this is a condition that can take your pets life, we highly recommend that you speak to your veterinarian about alternative treatments available for your dog.

Nevertheless, the most natural remedy for canine pancreatitis is changing your dog’s diet and adding supplements that support your dog’s immune health. Since canine pancreatitis is most prevalent in obese dogs, the first step you as a pet owner can take is to make sure your dog is in tip-top shape.

Secondly, choose a diet that’s low in fat and highly digestible. Canine nutritionist recommends that diets should be less than 18% fat. Additionally, owners should provide a mix of highly digestible carbohydrates, such as rice. Therefore, a sample diet for canine pancreatitis can include cottage cheese, rice, and boiled skinless chicken breast. Yum!

The Dosage of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy

Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy is perhaps the most commonly used “natural” remedy for pet owners who have a dog suffering from exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.

Widely accepted by vets as a plausible method of treatment. A pancreatic enzyme is most effective when given in a powered enzyme form. However, you can find pancreatic enzyme replacers in the form of tablets, and powder.

Alternatively, as these enzyme replacers are derived from pigs. Pet owners can also choose to provide raw bovine or porcine pancreas as a source of enzyme replacement—just be cautious about where the raw meat comes from!

The recommended dosage rate for pancreatic enzyme replacers are listed below:

  • Powder enzyme—provide 3/4 to 3 1/2 tsp per meal
  • Enzyme tablet—provide 2 to 3 tablets
  • Raw bovine or porcine pancreas meat as an enzyme replacer—provide 50 to 100 g per meal

Worst Comes To Worst: Can You Live Without a Pancreas?

healthy dog

The answer to this question is pretty much yes…and no!

Total pancreatectomy refers to the surgical removal of the entire pancreas. Now, this has been done on humans before! But, supposedly, the last study on total pancreatectomy in dogs was conducted in 1984. In theory, this procedure can be easily conducted by a trained vet but it would make a dog’s life very difficult. Think about it! No pancreas would mean your dog’s blood glucose can’t be controlled! So, yes a dog can live without a pancreas, but their mortality rate would unfortunately skyrocket!

In hindsight, partial pancreatectomy is a more commonly practiced procedure in veterinary medicine. Partial pancreatectomy is more usually used to treat diabetes mellitus and other pancreatic disorders.

Prognosis for Canine Pancreatitis

Wheather your dog has acute pancreatitis or chronic pancreatitis, you will be glad to know that with time and hard work, the prognosis for canine pancreatitis is good. However, the prognosis for canine pancreatitis is variable depending on the individual dog’s case and the recurrence of the disease.

Unfortunately, if the condition is severe or recurrent, owners or veterinarians may choose to euthanize the dog. This may be particularly true for older dogs who may not be able to undergo aggressive therapy.

Pancreatitis in Dogs— 12 Facts You Need To Know!

1. Dogs who have Cushing’s disease, diabetes mellitus, and Addison’s disease face a high-risk of developing pancreatitis.

2. You can potentially reverse Acute pancreatitis. Chronic pancreatitis implies that the disease cannot be reversed and so the dog will be affected by this disease throughout their life.

3. One-third of Miniature Schnauzers face idiopathic hyperlipidaemia. This means that the Miniature Schnauzer breed is most at risk of developing pancreatitis.

4. One of the major complications associated with pancreatitis in dogs is the development of systemic inflammatory response syndrome. This is a syndrome that causes the body to go into a phase of acute inflammation.

5. Pancreatic trauma may also cause acute pancreatitis in dogs. When we talk about trauma, we are referring to situations where the organ is damaged as a result of external forces. For example, pancreatic biopsies or the removal of pancreatic masses can cause trauma to the organ.

6. Canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity is the most commonly used test that’s used to determine canine pancreatitis. Canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity can be fairly accurate when determining pancreatitis in dogs as it has a sensitivity rate of 82%.

7. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiently is a polygenetic disease that affects the German Shepherd dog breed. In German Shepherds, Exocrine pancreatic insufficiently often occurs as a result of the destruction of acinar cells. Acinar cells are responsible for the secretion and production of digestive enzymes that comprise of the pancreatic juices.

8. Acute pancreatitis in dogs may be caused by obesity and toxin ingestion. However, the most common cause of acute pancreatitis occurs when dogs consume a high-fat diet!

Just a few more…

9. Acute pancreatitis in dogs is often more severe and may have a lot obvious clinical signs. Chronic pancreatitis in dogs is often a lot more difficult to diagnosis as clinical signs may be very mild.

10. Canine pancreatitis often leads to a dog obtaining diabetes mellitus. This is because inflammation leads to the damage of the exocrine and endocrine pancreas which means the body cannot produce insulin and glucagon.

11. During pancreatitis, a dog’s pancreas may not produce sufficient amounts of pancreatic enzymes. This will lead to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. As a result, vets may choose to prescribe pancreatic enzymes to dogs who are not able to produce sufficient levels of digestive enzymes.

12. Pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy is actually created from the pancreas of a pig. These pancreatic enzyme replacers often contain three key enzymes—lipase, amylase, and protease that aid in the digestion of protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

Pancreatitis In Dogs—It Can Be Scary But Manageable

Pancreatitis in dogs is perhaps one of the scariest diseases that can affect all kinds of dogs. As pet owners who love our fur babies, we may be concerned about how this disease will affect our pet’s life. So, it’s important to read all you can and inform yourself about how pancreatitis actually occurs in dogs, and what you can do to help your pooch live a long, healthy life.

 Got a question about pancreatitis in dogs? Let us know in the comments below!


What is the definition of Pancreatitis in dogs?

What are the signs of Pancreatitis in dogs?

Are there any natural approaches to Pancreatitis in dogs?

What is the prognosis for Pancreatitis in dogs?

Are there any breeds that are high risk for Pancreatitis?


Textbooks Used:

Budras Anatomy of the Dog 5th revised edition

Dyce textbook of veterinary anatomy p.139

About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for