Canine Pancreatitis:
Symptoms & Treatment

Canine Pancreatitis is common in middle-aged, overweight dogs. The best "cure" for this condition is prevention through a nutritional diet and regular exercise.

Snapshot: Pancreatitis
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.

  • Symptoms: Dogs with this condition have a loss in appetite, fever, crying and restlessness, vomiting, diarrhea and painful abdomen.
  • Causes: While no specific cause is known, Canine Pancreatitis, or inflamation of the pancreas, most commonly occurs in middle-age, overweight dogs. The condition usually appears suddenly, with an attack of Pancreatitis ranging from mild to severe, possibly leading to death.
  • Diagnosis: Depending on the severity of the pancreatic attack, and whether or not it is life-threatening, a veterinarian may use one of the following for diagnosing this condition: Exploratory surgery, ultrasound, radiograph, Spec cPL (specific canine pancreatic lipase) test or PLI (pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity) test. Spec cPL is the most often used because is is very accurate and test results are available withing 24 hours.
  • Treatment: In order to give the pancreas a rest, your vet will likely withhold food and water for two or three days while providing intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. A dog with a severe condition will need to be hospitalized for at least 24 hours. Pain medication will be used, as Pancreatitis is a painful condition.

Symptoms of Canine Pancreatitis

If your best friend is suffering from Canine Pancreatitis, he or she will show one or a combination of symptoms that include loss of appetite, fever, crying and restlessness, depression vomiting, diarrhea and painful abdomen. In critical cases a dog may collapse or appear to be in shock. A dog with acute Pancreatitis will demonstrate extreme symptoms while a dog with chronic, ongoing Pancreatitis will show many of these symptoms, but less severe.


The dog's pancreas secretes enzymes to help digest food. It also secretes insulin and glucagon to regulate sugar levels. In the case of Canine Pancreatitis, the pancreas is malfunctioning. Enzymes digest the body instead of food.

This causes inflamation of the pancreas and the nearby liver. This condition most commonly occurs in middle-age, overweight dogs. However, it also occurs in dogs not fitting that category.

The condition usually appears suddenly, with an attack of Pancreatitis ranging from mild to severe, sometimes leading to death. The Pancreatic attack may occur as a result of the dog raiding the garbage can or a sudden change in food. A dog that normally has a moderate amount of fat in his/her diet may have a Pancreatitis attack after just one high-fat meal.

When a significant amount of the pancreas tissue is damaged, it cannot produce insulin. This causes the dog to become diabetic, which may be a temporary or permanent condition, depending on the ability of the dog's pancreas to recover.

Certain health conditions can predispose a dog to Canine Pancreatitis, including diabetes, hypothyroidism and hypercalcemia (elevated calcium levels).


The Spec cPL (Specific Canine Pancreatic Lipase) test is usually the testing method of choice with vets because of its high level of accuracy and fast processing time. The test can be run overnight at a lab with the required technology.

Your vet will gather a blood sample from your dog and send it to the lab; his/her clinic will not have the equipment to process the test.

Prior to the recent introduction of Spec cPL, the Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity test (PLI) was widely used but it had a huge drawback. Test results could only be run at Texas A & M University, which patented the technology. This meant an often slow turnaround on a test for a dog that may be suffering a life-threatening Pancreatitis attack. In some cases, test results were not availble for two weeks!

Other methods for diagnosing Canine Pancreatitis include ultrasound and radiograph. Neither of these, however, offer the accuracy of the Spec cPL test. While exploratory surgery is also an option, it is invasive (although offering a definitive diagnosis) and a veterinarin is not likely to choose this method now that the Spec cPL test is available.

However, if test results are inconclusive, which happens in a small percentage of cases, your vet may feel exploratory surgery is necessary in order to make a diagnosis.

Conventional Treatment

In order to give the pancreas a rest, your vet will likely withhold food and water form your dog for two or three days while providing intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. A potassium supplement will also be given, since Canine Pancreatitis results in low potassium levels. A dog with severe Pancreatitis will need to be hospitalized for at least 24 hours. Your dog will also be given pain medication, as Pancreatitis is a painful condition.

In some cases an antibiotic may be given if there are signs of a secondary infection, such as very high or very low white blood cell count and high body temperature. Critically ill dogs may also be given plasma to prevent shock.

Once the dog is eating again, a low-fat diet will be prescribed. To reduce the possibility of another pancreatic attack, the dog should be fed this type of diet for the rest of his or her life.

Holistic Treatment

Holistic vets, who tend to look at the "whole picture" of a dog's health, will focus on a number of areas after the crisis has passed. During a Canine Pancreatitis attack, they will administer treatment in the same vein as a conventional vet.

Once the patient is in recovery and eating a low-fat diet, supplements of vitamins A and E may be added, since a low-fat diet can cause a deficiency in these vitamins. Vitamin C may also be added as well as herbs like Yarrow to strengthen the pancreas and improve its efficiency. Homeopathic remedies are available for both the crisis and recovery stages. To consult with a holistic veterinarian, contact the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association

Nutritional Support

Both conventional and holistic veterinarians advise using a special low-fat diet for patients with Canine Pancreatitis.

Dr. Donald Strombeck, DVM, has written Home-Prepared Dog & Cat Diets: The Healthful Alternative. This book includes recipes for dogs with Canine Pancreatitis as well as other health conditions. Click on the link to read a review of the book and view sample recipes. Dr. Strombeck specializes in internal veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.

A number of manufacturers with a reputation for quality offer low-fat food for Canine Pancreatitis sufferers. These include Wellness, Canidae, Avoderm and Innova.

It is preferable to feed a number of small meals throughout the day rather than one big meal. Food should always be served at room temperature to aid the digestive tract in doing its job.


While some holistic vets (and others) advocate giving "people-grade food" for optimal health, you should always refrain from giving high-fat table scraps, such as chicken skin. High-fat food items, even if given only once, can trigger Canine Pancreatitis.

And since this health issue is frequently found in overweight dogs, it is yet another reason to behave like a best friend and ensure your dog does not overeat, and is fed high-quality food. Choosing a high-quality food is one of the best things you can do for your dog.

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