The prognosis and survival rate for dogs with mild to moderate pancreatitis is good. Dogs with severe pancreatitis have somewhere around a 33% death rate within 30 days of being admitted to a referral hospital...
I’ve seen my fair share of pancreatitis in dogs over the last 20 years. There’s one memory that stands out from the others.
Two sweet blonde cocker spaniels came into our vet clinic the day after Thanksgiving one year. They had both started vomiting the day before. Now, neither dog had any appetite at all.
The man who brought them in was concerned but assumed it was just a little tummy upset after eating some turkey from the holiday table.
I’ll never forget those two dogs because it was shocking how sick they both were. In addition to vomiting, they had abdominal pain, major changes on blood tests and one had pancreatic swelling visible on x-ray films. These dogs were in big trouble with severe acute pancreatitis.
Their guardian was in disbelief, “We only gave them a little turkey! How can they be so sick? Will my dog survive pancreatitis?” We immediately hospitalized the sickest dog and started him on IV fluids, anti-nausea meds, and pain meds. The other dog was treated as an outpatient.
Acute pancreatitis is a common diagnosis in dogs. What causes this painful condition and how is it treated?
What Is Pancreatitis in Dogs?
The pancreas is a glandular organ in the abdomen that secretes enzymes to help break down food. The other function of the pancreas is to produce insulin to help glucose from food enter the body’s cells.
Pancreatitis is the term used when a dog has an inflamed pancreas. The inflamed pancreas can leak digestive enzymes onto the tissues nearby. Severe pain ensues when a dog’s own tissues are partially digested by pancreatic enzymes. In the worst cases of pancreatitis in dogs, a snowball effect occurs. Inflammation spreads from the pancreas to the lungs, kidneys, and all throughout the entire body.
Acute pancreatitis in dogs happens when symptoms come on suddenly, rather than being present for many days or weeks. The spectrum of severity of the disease varies from a couple of days of vomiting to illness so severe it can lead to death.
Acute pancreatitis is more likely to occur in obese dogs over the age of five years. Certain breeds like miniature Schnauzers are predisposed due to their tendency to have abnormal fat metabolism.
What Causes Pancreatitis in Dogs?
In most cases, no cause is identified. However, it’s not uncommon to find out that dogs with acute pancreatitis have recently consumed a large, high-fat meal. Dogs who are unaccustomed to eating rich foods are the worst victims. The common thread in many cases is dietary fat and abnormal fat metabolism.
Certain drugs and diseases may trigger pancreatitis…
Trauma to the area of the pancreas
- Vomiting (not always present)
- Decreased appetite
- Abdominal discomfort
- Diarrhea (sometimes with blood)
- Standing in “prayer position” with bottom up in the air and chest on the floor
- Severe cases: weakness, rapid breathing, bruised skin, very pale gums, unresponsiveness
Diagnosis of Pancreatitis in Dogs
- Physical examination by a veterinarian
- Abdominal x-rays
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Basic blood panel (CBC/chemistry)
- Pancreatitis blood test (canine pancreas-specific lipase, or cPL) most sensitive test
Dog Pancreatitis Recovery Time
Most dogs with mild to moderate pancreatitis recover with appropriate treatment. These dogs usually recover within a few days.
Dogs with severe acute pancreatitis may get over their symptoms within a week or two with appropriate treatment. Keep in mind that even when the symptoms are gone, changes to the pancreas are usually permanent. If significant scarring has occurred, the dog may become a diabetic.
Will My Dog Survive Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a common disease in dogs seen in veterinary clinical practice. Most dogs have a mild to moderate case of pancreatitis. The prognosis for full recovery in these cases is good.
A minority of dogs will develop severe pancreatitis. Those more at risk include miniature Schnauzers and dogs with diabetes. Once a dog is diagnosed with severe pancreatitis, the outcome depends on the treatment, severity of inflammation related to the disease, and whether the dog has other diseases.
One study of 136 dogs admitted to a hospital with acute pancreatitis showed that 33% of them died within 30 days (Fabres, 2016). Keep in mind that these were likely dogs with severe pancreatitis presenting at a referral veterinary hospital. The mortality rate for dogs with mild to moderate pancreatitis is expected to be much lower.
Another study showed that a low blood sodium and high blood creatinine in dogs with pancreatitis were associated with a higher risk of death (Marchetti, 2017). Low platelets, high white blood cell count, low body temperature, decreased urine production and jaundice are all associated with severe pancreatitis and worse expected outcome.
Dog Pancreatitis Treatment
Mild cases of pancreatitis are treated by fasting the affected dog for 24–48 hours. If vomiting is not severe, the dog should be encouraged to take small sips of water frequently.
Dogs who are reluctant to drink benefit from the administration of fluids subcutaneously to offset continuing losses. Veterinarians may give your dog anti-nausea and/or antacid medications. These are available in pill and injectable form.
Medications include maropitant, ondansetron, and famotidine. Maropitant has an anti-nausea effect but may also have anti-inflammatory on the pancreas (Tsukamoto, 2018).
Experts in veterinary internal medicine recommend that care is used in giving antibiotics for pancreatitis in dogs. The disease is not caused by bacteria, but dogs with severe cases may develop secondary infections. Antibiotic therapy is reserved for use in specific cases.
Once vomiting has stopped for 24 hours, bland food is introduced in small, frequent meals. Bland food for dogs consists of cooked, lean meats and overcooked (mushy) rice. Your vet may sell prescription-only foods that work well for dogs recovering from GI upset.
In severe cases of pancreatitis in dogs, they will be hospitalized for IV fluids, pain control medications, anti-nausea meds, antibiotics and frequent monitoring. Your veterinarian will base this decision on the physical exam, abdominal x-rays, and blood tests.
Things can change quickly in dogs with acute pancreatitis, and hospitalization allows the doctor and technical staff to intervene when new problems arise. It’s tough to leave your buddy in a hospital while you wait and worry, but it could literally save your dog’s life.
Dog Pancreatitis Treatment Cost
Cost of treatment will depend on the severity of the disease and whether the dog has concurrent health issues. Cases of mild pancreatitis may be treated on an outpatient basis with anti-nausea and pain control medications. The low end of costs for treating mild pancreatitis is about $200.
When a dog has moderate to severe pancreatitis, hospitalization becomes necessary to save his life. A realistic ballpark idea of costs for treating a moderate case of pancreatitis is $1,500 to $3,500. Prolonged hospitalization and the occurrence of secondary problems will add significantly to this figure.
I practice in a large city with a moderate cost of living. In our local emergency pet hospitals, one day of hospitalization with a medium level of care runs about $1000 per day. You can see how the bill can grow quite large in less than a week’s time!
Alternative/Holistic/Home Treatments for Mild Pancreatitis
In mild cases, alternative treatments alone may be able to control symptoms. The approach to treating a dog with a mild case of acute pancreatitis is similar to the treatment for a simple case of vomiting. All these treatments may be used in addition to conventional treatments listed above.
Withhold Food for 12–24 Hours
Withhold food and let your dog’s GI tract rest for at least 12 hours. There is no need to restrict access to water, but don’t let him drink a lot all at once since that can cause reflexive vomiting.
Gently stroke the lower abdomen from the back of the rib cage to the front of the pelvis 10 or so times 3 or 4 times a day. You may also lightly rub in a clockwise, circular motion.
Acupressure at Pericardium 6 for Pancreatitis
Use your finger or thumb to gently, but firmly massage this spot in a circular motion for about a minute several times a day. It’s found on the inside of the front leg, about 1/4 of the way between the wrist and elbow, over the prominent tendons in that area. This is a well-known anti-nausea point.
There are many that might be useful, but an easy way to start is to use a combination product made especially for animals such as AnimalEO’s GI Joe blend. You can learn more about essential oils on the AnimalEO website.
I’ve seen animals experience significant relief through the judicious use of essential oils. Remember to always dilute essential oils and use less than you think you should! Just because you can’t smell it doesn’t mean your dog can’t.
Buy fresh ginger root and slice it into quarter-inch-thick pieces. Boil a cup of purified water then steep a couple slices of ginger in it for about 5 minutes.
Remove the ginger slices from the water and allow the tea to cool to a lukewarm temperature. Give 1–3 teaspoons of the liquid by mouth 2 or 3 times a day for nausea.
Slippery elm is an herbal compound made from the inner bark of a specific type of elm tree. When the powder is mixed with liquid, it forms a sort of gelatinous goo. Hydrated slippery elm powder has a coating effect on the tissues it contacts.
The coating effect of slippery elm can be very soothing to the irritated stomachs and intestines of dogs with pancreatitis. It has a wide margin of safety when taken orally by dogs.
This herb comes in capsule, tablet, powder, and liquid form. My patients do well when their owners give them 1/4 teaspoon of slippery elm powder per 10 pounds of body weight. Using capsules, a 400 mg capsule is the right amount to give a medium-sized dog of about 40 pounds.
It’s OK to mix the powder in food, but best giving it on an empty stomach will allow more contact with tissue. Slippery elm is given three times a day to soothe the GI tract.
What Should a Dog with Pancreatitis Eat?
There is no hard evidence that any one food is better than another for dogs prone to pancreatitis. Experts usually recommend a food that is lower in fat than average.
So, what should your dog with pancreatitis eat? It depends on what the dog was eating at the time he got sick. Aim for a food that has a lower fat content than the food he was eating before he developed pancreatitis.
Best Food for a Dog with Pancreatitis
To evaluate two or more foods, you need to do a quick calculation to get the caloric basis value of the fat content. You can’t accurately compare fat levels from different foods based on the guaranteed analysis label.
Don’t worry, no math is required this time! You can use this helpful calculator and plug in the numbers from the guaranteed analysis label on the dog food container. If there is no ash content on your food label, use 3% for canned food and 6% for dry food.
This calculator works for dry food, raw food, wet food, canned food, etc. Use the fat percentage you get from the calculator to compare two or more foods.
If you want to pick a new food altogether, a food with a caloric basis fat content of 20% or less is a good starting place. The lowest fat foods available come in at around 7%. Don’t forget to use the calculator to convert the guaranteed analysis numbers from the label to a caloric basis.
Find the best food for your dog in my article Best Commercial Dog Food for Pancreatitis.
Preventing Recurrence of Pancreatitis
Weight Loss for Obese Dogs
If you’re not sure if your dog needs to lose weight, ask your vet for her opinion. Losing excess weight is the number one thing that will help your dog avoid future bouts of pancreatitis.
There are different approaches to weight loss diets for dogs and you’ll have to do some research to see what will work for you. In the meantime, cut food rations by 25% and cut treat rations by 50%. When your dog is feeling up to it, start walking him every day. If he’s out of shape, start with five minutes a day and work up to 45 minutes a day over a couple of months.
The pancreas is closely related to the gastrointestinal tract. We know that there are many bacteria and yeast that inhabit a normal dog’s gut. Pancreatitis can cause major changes in the gastrointestinal environment. When this happens, the population of beneficial bacteria becomes overwhelmed by harmful bacteria.
Probiotic supplements are aimed at re-populating a dog’s GI tract with beneficial/normal bacteria. A high-quality probiotic supplement can be given daily to dogs recovering from pancreatitis. The goal would be to discontinue the supplement after a few months, but it’s also OK to give a probiotic supplement to dogs long-term.
For help choosing a good product, check out my article on probiotics. Just to make a general suggestion here, I always recommend either (click to view on Amazon.com) Proviable DC or Vetri Mega Probiotic. Both are readily available, not too expensive and meet the criteria for a good probiotic.
Discover the ins and outs of helping your dog with a probiotic supplement.
Omega–3 Fatty Acids
Omega–3 fatty acids (OFAs) can help normalize fat homeostasis in the body. For this reason, some veterinarians believe OFAs may help prevent pancreatitis in dogs. If your dog has had significant bouts of pancreatitis, consult your vet before giving this supplement to your dog.
For cases of mild pancreatitis in dogs, a daily dose of 13 mg per pound of bodyweight of the EPA fraction of OFA (check the label). If you want the simple answer, I recommend people use (click to view on Amazon.com) Nordic Naturals Omega–3 for Pets and give it according to the label dose. To learn more about fish oil and omega–3 fatty acids, read the article I wrote on the topic.
Since intestinal parasites are rampant in some areas of the country, dogs with recurrent gastrointestinal troubles should be dewormed. This is true even if fecal tests come back negative. Fecal tests can miss some worms, especially whipworms. The presence of parasites may not cause pancreatitis, but they certainly don’t aid in fast recovery.
You can ask your vet for a prescription of a broad-spectrum dewormer like Panacur/fenbendazole. It works very well against most canine intestinal parasites and has been used safely in dogs for many years.
Food Trials (Hypoallergenic Food, Homemade Diet)
Some vets suspect that food sensitivities may be correlated to pancreatitis in dogs. It may be worthwhile to try a hypoallergenic diet for a few months. Your vet can recommend a prescription hypoallergenic dog food.
Another option is to make the food yourself using ingredients from the grocery store. If you take the homemade option, you must get help making sure it’s complete and balanced for long-term use. Most of the time, you’ll need to add vitamin and mineral supplements to the recipe. Ask your vet for help or visit BalanceIT.com to consult with a veterinary nutritionist.
- Pancreatitis in dogs is common but not normal.
- No research has determined a single cause of acute pancreatitis in dogs.
- Acute pancreatitis can be mild, moderate or severe with variable symptoms but vomiting and abdominal pain are common.
- Mild cases may be treated on an outpatient basis with dietary modification, fluids, and home remedies. Severe cases require hospitalization for supportive care and pain management.
- Holistically healthy dogs with strong digestive organs should be able to handle a variety of natural foods, including fattier selections, without developing pancreatitis. Read my articles on whole foods, probiotics, and digestive enzymes for more information.
Fabres, V. (2016). Identification of Factors Associated with Short-Term Mortality in Canine Acute Pancreatitis, 6th ECVIM-CA Congress, 2016, Goteburg, Sweden. Gothenburg, Sweden: ECVIM.
Marchetti, V., Gori, E., Lippi, I., Luchetti, E., Manca, M., & Pierini, A. (2017). Elevated serum creatinine and hyponatraemia as prognostic factors in canine acute pancreatitis. Australian Veterinary Journal,95(11), 444–447.
Tsukamoto, A., Ohgoda, M., Haruki, N., Hori, M., & Inomata, T. (2018). The anti-inflammatory action of maropitant in a mouse model of acute pancreatitis. Journal of Veterinary Medical Science,80(3), 492–498.