What Is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a term we have started to hear about more often in the dog food world. It is essentially inflammation of the pancreas. The job of the pancreas is to release digestive enzymes to break down proteins and fats, as well as hormones to regulate glucose metabolization. When something goes wrong, the pancreas becomes inflamed, causing discomfort in the abdomen, and is often paired with lack of appetite, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
In a normal functioning pancreas, inactive enzymes are created and released into the small intestine. Once they arrive in the intestines, they are activated and get to work with the digestion process. Sometimes these enzymes are activated early before they are sent to the intestines. By starting the digestive process in the pancreas too early, these enzymes are essentially trying to digest the organ. This causes inflammation and pain.
Veterinarians have not been able to pinpoint the exact cause of this early activation. Some believe it is a result of an excessively fatty meal or steroid use, but most cases appear to be spontaneous.
Pancreatitis can either be acute or chronic. Chronic refers to permanent, long term damage to the pancreas and is often associated with diabetes. Acute will be short term and sudden, and often more severe, but won’t have lasting damage. Acute pancreatitis can be anywhere from mild discomfort to life threatening.
What Causes Pancreatitis?
While there isn’t one definitive cause, there are a few things that veterinarians believe contribute.
Diets high in fat
Injury, surgery or trauma to or around the pancreas
Prolonged corticosteroid use
Highly processed diets
High fat foods outside of their normal diet including scavenged items
For this article, we are going to focus on diet.
Highly Processed Diet
Modern pet diets (kibble) are highly processed and heavy in refined and starchy carbohydrates. This is problematic and stresses the pancreas in multiple ways.
1. Lack of digestive enzymes. Kibble has been cooked at such high temperatures that it lacks the natural enzymes that would normally assist with digestion. This makes it difficult to digest and puts extra stress on the pancreas to create more. Historically, canines have consumed very few carbohydrates so their body isn’t designed to manufacture enough digestive enzymes to handle this load.
2. Increased chance for insulin resistance. When the body processes carbohydrates, they are broken down into sugars. As the body further processes these sugars it triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas in order to regulate blood sugar.
The more frequently and heavily the pancreas needs to produce insulin the higher chance the dog has for developing insulin resistance, which is a precursor for diabetes. Studies have linked both insulin resistance with the onset of pancreatitis as well as chronic pancreatitis being a cause of insulin resistance.
Diets High In Fat
High fat diets are often considered a cause of pancreatitis so you may be inclined to eliminate fat. This would be a mistake as not all fats are created equal!
Acute pancreatitis caused by a fatty meal is usually from something outside of your dog’s normal diet. They may have gotten into the garbage, been given too many scraps of human food or maybe fed a large fatty chew when they normally eat nothing but kibble. The body isn’t used to the high fat content and it once again stresses the pancreas. These instances can cause severe discomfort but it’s no reason to eliminate fat from the diet. In fact, adequate fat in your dog’s diet is essential to good health, which we’ll touch on further in this article.
The symptoms of pancreatitis vary among each dog and can often be mistaken for something else. Symptoms include:
Abdominal tenderness (the pancreas is located on the upper right side, roughly at the center of the torso.)
Lack of appetite
Because many of the symptoms of pancreatitis are interchangeable with other digestive issues, it can easily be misdiagnosed. If symptoms are severe and you have concerns about your dog having pancreatitis, speak with your vet. They may run blood tests, perform ultrasounds or even do CT scans. Traditionally, testing for elevated pancreatic enzymes or white blood cells in the blood is how vets would diagnose. More research has shown these tests to not be reliable since by the time pet parents seek treatment, levels have dropped to normal range. This can make a definitive diagnosis difficult at times. Because of this, some vets will tentatively diagnose based on observation.
If your dog is experiencing acute pancreatitis it can often be dealt with at home. Fasting and monitoring your dog for 24-48 hours is often enough to get things back to normal. Some dogs will even fast themselves when they experience digestive upset. Keep an eye on your dog and make sure they are getting adequate water. If symptoms persist, seek veterinary care.
Once your dog has been diagnosed there are a few options and treatment will vary by severity. Since there is no cure, managing symptoms and preventing another flare up will be the general course of action. Here are a few things your vet might suggest:
Fasting - Your vet may recommend this if you haven’t fasted already. By withholding food for 24-48 hours you will give your dog’s system a chance to rest. Especially if they are vomiting. You don’t want to add more food to a stomach that at the moment can’t hold it.
Intravenous or subcutaneous fluid - Dogs will dehydrate quickly from prolonged vomiting/diarrhea. It is important to ensure they stay hydrated.
Tube feeding - After fasting 48 hours vets will administer food via a tube in severe cases.
Nausea and/or pain medications - You’ll want to keep your dog comfortable until the issue passes.
After the initial treatment you will likely need to make some changes to your dog’s diet. Once a dog has had pancreatitis they are more prone to repeat issues. Adjusting your dog’s diet and ensuring that they do not eat food unintended for them will help prevent future flare ups.
While there is no magic formula when it comes to creating a proper diet for a dog that has had pancreatitis, there are a few guidelines. But remember, it is vital that you recognize the dog in front of you and their specific needs. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
This is usually the first response to diet changes in regards to pancreatitis. Unfortunately, this is where many prescription diets become recommended. They may be a convenient solution, but as I’ll show you below, they are really not a healthy choice.
So how much fat should you feed? There are actually no published studies on the efficacy of a restricted fat diet and canine pancreatitis. Because of this, the recommendation will vary by vet. In general, a fat restricted diet is considered anything with 18% or less calories from fat although some vets will suggest lower.
Reducing the fat in your dog's diet can be as simple as limiting higher fat proteins like lamb and pork. Proteins like chicken and beef are generally leaner options.
Does this mean you can never feed fattier items? Not at all! What you feed will just need to be a more conscious decision. You will need to feed less of a fattier item than you normally would and balance the rest of the meal around it.
While it may be important to limit fat to some extent, it’s essential to remember, not all fat is bad! In fact, fat is a vital part of a healthy diet.
Fats are a powerhouse of energy, providing 9 calories per gram as opposed to carbohydrates and protein which each have 4. Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid dogs need for healthy skin and coats. Fats are also required by the body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
As we saw earlier, excessive carbohydrates put stress on the pancreas. This is the last thing you want for a dog that has already had pancreatitis. But some carbohydrates can be beneficial. Dark leafy greens, pumpkin and berries are all rich in antioxidants, low fat, and high in fiber! So if your dog enjoys them, you don’t have to eliminate them.
Remember, dogs have no nutritional need for carbohydrates. These are not a required part of the diet but if you choose to add them, try to choose the most nutritious options.
Is Raw Food Appropriate?
Some people will be concerned about feeding raw food to a dog that has had pancreatitis. They believe they need a special prescription diet to ensure their dog doesn’t have further issues. In addition, the visible fat on some meats may lead people to think it’s too fatty and will cause a flare up. Both points are untrue.
Prescription foods are not what they’re cracked up to be. Instead of providing your dog with species appropriate whole foods, they’re loaded with low quality processed ingredients. Take for example, Hill’s Prescription Diet low fat digestive care formula.
You don’t have to be a nutrition expert to know that fresh food is going to be a healthier choice for our dogs than corn starch. In fact, the first 4 ingredients are grains (carbohydrates) that we know stress the pancreas. The only real source of meat in this bag in chicken by-product meal, which is immediately followed by more grains and seeds. So while this food is technically going to be low in fat and high in fiber, the excessive carbohydrates will once again put stress on the pancreas, and this in no way reflects a dog’s natural diet.
A fresh food raw or lightly cooked diet is going to be gentler on the body. Unprocessed foods are more bioavailable and still contain the living enzymes to assist with digestion. Processed foods, like kibble, require more energy and effort to break down and absorb nutrients. As I mentioned earlier, this puts additional stress on the pancreas to release more digestive enzymes which can exacerbate the inflammation. By sticking to a simple and minimally processed diet you can give the pancreas a break.
Even with visible fat, a raw diet will also be high protein, moderate fat and low carb which is how their ancestors would eat. One study even suggests that the issue with diet and pancreatitis is that it is actually lacking in protein!
It’s always better to prevent an issue than trying to heal it later. Here are a few ways you can work with your dog’s body and not against it to help prevent pancreatitis.
Species appropriate diet - Feeding an appropriate diet will do wonders for your dog’s overall health. It will naturally be low in carbohydrates, easily digested and absorbed, and fully customizable.
Feed variety - In addition to keeping their diet fresh you’ll want to ensure your dog is getting plenty of variety. The more diverse your dog’s diet the easier they will be able to tolerate new items without digestive upset. Imagine if you ate only cereal your entire life and then one day had a steak. It would not go well. But since you eat a lot of different foods, a new item won’t ruin your day. The same goes for our dogs.
Maintaining a healthy weight - Obesity is unhealthy for multiple reasons, including the additional strain on all of the organs. In addition to that, obesity puts your dog at risk for diabetes which is considered by some to be a contributing factor and side effect of pancreatitis.
Slow introduction to new/higher fat foods - When introducing any new food it’s always best to err on the side of caution. If something is outside of your dog's normal diet, especially if it is higher in fat, always feed small amounts. Wait a few days between feedings to monitor for digestive upset and slowly increase the amount and frequency. A dog on a kibble diet fed an entire pig foot in one sitting is a recipe for digestive issues and in some dogs a bout of acute pancreatitis.
Incorporate digestive enzymes in your dog’s diet - By supplementing with digestive enzymes, it will take some of the strain off the pancreas.
Sometimes things happen beyond our control. A family member might feed your dog some Thanksgiving leftovers or your sneaky pup might raid the trash can and have some digestive problems later. By controlling what we can and feeding our dogs an appropriate diet, rich in fresh foods and plenty of variety, we can help prevent pancreatitis.