A few weeks ago, my dog Cami and my friend’s dog Lucy both picked a slushy Saturday morning to get sick. A dreary weekend with a vomiting dog and emergency trip to the vet is not a good weekend. As it turned out, Lucy had pancreatitis, but Cami’s problem was something else (we’re still not sure exactly what).
Pancreatitis is a serious but not uncommon problem in dogs. Basically, when the pancreas becomes inflamed and essentially starts digesting itself, that disorder is called pancreatitis. As most veterinarians will tell you, they see a lot of pancreatitis cases around the holidays because it often flares up after the dog has consumed an extremely rich, fatty meal. The classic problem is that the dog gets into the Thanksgiving turkey, gorges on it, and then gets very sick. However, sometimes pancreatitis comes on for no apparent reason.
The symptoms of pancreatitis are varied. It depends on the dog. Some dogs become depressed and lethargic. Generally, they vomit, have diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain. In really severe attacks, the dog may actually go into shock and die. The side effects also can be worse than pancreatitis itself, including blood clotting, heart, liver, or kidney problems.
Because the only way to "rest" the pancreas is to avoid food, if they suspect pancreatitis, most vets will suggest that you avoid giving your dog food or water for 24 hours. Sometimes owners can actually contribute to the problem. Rover stops eating one night, so the solicitous owner gives the dog a little something "special" in his food, like tasty table scraps. Rover then starts vomiting everywhere and an emergency vet trip ensues.
Unfortunately a diagnosis of pancreatitis can be difficult to determine. Sometimes the diagnosis comes simply from ruling out other possibilities. Usually the vet will do a blood test. If the levels that show kidney and liver function or white blood cell count are elevated, they may indicate pancreatitis. Sometimes the vet may do x-rays or ultrasound tests to rule out other possible problems that cause abdominal pain, such as intestinal obstructions.
A severe bout of pancreatitis may require hospitalization because the dog can become seriously dehydrated. So the vet will put the dog on fluids and often provide pain-relief drugs as well. Some dogs only have one bout of pancreatitis over their entire lifetime. In fact, a dog we had when I was growing up was hospitalized for pancreatitis and never had another problem.
However, for some dogs the problem can become chronic and pancreatitis returns repeatedly. You can help prevent reoccurrence to some degree by keeping your dog’s weight down and avoiding table scraps. Your vet may also be able to recommend special foods that may help. Because it can vary from essentially a mild stomachache to a fatal illness, pancreatitis is not something to be taken lightly.