The pancreas is an organ that fulfils two very important roles in dogs - firstly, it secretes hormones like insulin and glucagon to help control blood sugar level and, secondly, it produces enzymes to help in the breakdown of starches, proteins and, especially, fats.
Any time the pancreas becomes inflamed, it is called pancreatitis and when that occurs, the flow of enzymes into the digestive tract can become disrupted, forcing the enzymes out of the pancreas and into the abdominal area. These enzymes can then begin to break down the fat and proteins in the other organs, as well as in the pancreas itself and the results can be very severe.
Acute vs Chronic
Pancreatitis is generally described as being either acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis is an isolated episode of usually severe pancreatic inflammation while chronic pancreatitis is a longer standing inflammation which can continue for months or even years.
It's important to note, though, that acute and chronic pancreatitis are not mutually exclusive - acute pancreatitis, for example, may lead to chronic pancreatitis and it is possible for dogs with chronic pancreatitis to experience episodes of acute pancreatitis.
In both cases, the most common signs of pancreatitis are fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, weight loss, dehydration, lethargy and abdominal pain (especially after eating).
If you suspect your dog is suffering from pancreatitis, it is very important that you first seek the advice of your vet in order to confirm the diagnosis and ensure that all necessary medical steps are taken before moving on to the dietary measures suggested below.
There are several possible causes of inflammation to the pancreas. High levels of fat in the blood (lipemia) is the most common cause but trauma to the pancreas, hypercalcemia (excessive calcium in the blood), and some drugs and toxins can also result in pancreatitis.
Acute pancreatitis is most common around the christmas break as millions of dogs are treated to large amounts of very fatty leftovers which their bodies simply can't handle.
Although pancreatitis can occur in any dog, it is more common in females than males and older, overweight and relatively inactive dogs are particularly at risk. Some breeds are also more prone to pancreatitis than others with Miniature Schnauzers, Miniature Poodles and Cocker Spaniels having the highest incidence.
Whether your dog is suffering from a bout of acute pancreatitis or a long-running chronic episode, your first step should always be to consult your vet. For acute cases, vets will usually withhold food and fluids for a day or two to give the pancreas time to rest and to slow the production of digestive enzymes. Your vet may administer drugs for pain and/or to help ease nausea and vomiting. In some cases, IV fluids may also have to be given.
Once back home, it is important to follow your vet's instructions until your dog is back on his feet.
Following an acute episode, your vet will likely recommend a prescription diet specifically designed for dogs recovering from pancreatitis. Although we at All About Dog Food are not the biggest fans of prescription diets (find out why here), we would recommend sticking with their recommended food at least until the episode has subsided, after which we can start to look at a more nutritious, long term solution.
Don't forget to provide plenty of fresh, clean water to avoid dehydration.
Dietary management and prevention
Getting the diet right is absolutely crucial for managing chronic pancreatitis and preventing future acute episodes. Please note that these guidelines are meant for adult maintenance only, not for puppies or females who are pregnant or nursing, as their requirements are different.
The aim should be to reduce the workload on the pancreas as much as possible so you should aim for a diet that is...
Low in fat (between 5% and 10% dry matter)
Highly digestible (good quality and free from any potentially problematic ingredients)
And, as an added precaution, we also recommend looking for...
Moderate protein (between 20% and 30% dry matter)
Not too starchy (avoid foods with large amounts of starchy ingredients like maize, white potato, white rice, tapioca, pea starch etc)
No added sugars
Commercial dog foods
That's all well and good, I hear you cry, but how on earth am I going to find a food matching those criteria? Well, you can either ask your favourite dog food manufacturer if they have something suitable or you can use the filters in our Dog Food Directory to get a list of all the foods that might fit the bill. As well as entering your dog's details and your budget, we would recommend using the filters shown in the picture for dogs that are prone to pancreatitis.
All of the foods and treats listed on this site have their dry matter nutrient levels provided on their product profile pages (look for the blue dials) or you can find out how to make the calculations yourself here.
Our product ratings are designed to indicate how healthy a food is likely to be for the majority of dogs and encompasses factors like the suitability and quality of ingredients so once you have the list of suitable foods, it is always best to first look at the ones with the best ratings.
Do remember to introduce the new food into the diet slowly. This will help the system to adjust gradually and will make it easier for you to spot and rectify any potential issues early on. You can find our guide to changing diets here.
A suitable home prepared diet, be it cooked or raw, can work wonders for dogs with digestive problems like pancreatitis but careful planning is crucial. The points above are a good place to start but to fully cover recipe formulation for pancreatitic dogs is, frankly, an article in itself which will have to go on to the to-do list for now. In the meantime, though, this page provides a fairly comprehensive guide on the subject.
Treats, leftovers and tidbits
Be sure to avoid any treats, tidbits and table scraps that are high in fat or of a low quality - the Treat Directory will help you to find suitable alternatives. Make sure other family members and friends are also onboard with this as even a slight indiscretion cold result in another bout of pancreatitis.
It is also important to make sure your bins and pet food storage containers are well and truly dog-proof.
Certain supplements may also help reduce the risk of acute pancreatitis or control the effects of chronic pancreatitis. You might be able to find them included in complete foods or you can add them to your dog's diet yourself.
Pancreatic digestive enzyme supplements have been reported to help some dogs with pancreatitis while fish body oils (such as salmon oil or EPA oil but not cod liver oil), can help to lower blood lipid levels which may reduce the workload on the pancreas.
If your dog has suffered with pancreatitis, we would love to hear from you either in the comments section below or on The Pancreatitis Thread on the forum. What worked and what didn't? How would you do things differently in the future? Please do let us know as your tips could make all the difference to other dog owners out there.