Pancreatitis In Dogs - Symptoms, Causes, Treatment and Diet

Pancreatitis commonly occurs among canines and it has a reputation for being frustratingly hard to pinpoint. Its symptoms can be broad and vague, and it may take time for the veterinarian to identify it definitively.

Nonetheless, we have compiled a list of symptoms which you can watch out for so that you can inform your vet to expedite the diagnosis process. We also answer questions about what causes it, how it is treated, what you can do, and how you can reduce the risk of it happening to your dog.

What is pancreatitis?

The pancreas is the organ next to a dog’s stomach, on the right side of the abdomen. It produces enzymes to aid food digestion as well as hormones such as insulin. These enzymes are secreted into the small intestine while the hormones enter the bloodstream.

Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas is inflamed. Inflammation is caused by the inappropriate, early activation of an enzyme within the pancreas, which causes the organ to digest itself.

The condition can be mild or become a severe, hemorrhagic form. It can be recurrent, which then becomes chronic or relapsing pancreatitis. When it occurs suddenly, it is called acute pancreatitis.

Hemorrhagic pancreatitis in dogs

The hemorrhagic form occurs when digestive enzymes in the organ spill into the abdominal cavity. Consequently, this results in secondary damage to the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder and intestines.

Dog pancreatitis death rate

Dogs usually recover from mild cases, but in severe cases, it can sometimes lead to death. A study on some dogs with severe acute pancreatitis showed a mortality rate of 40%. It indicated that their breed, age, gender, neutering and body condition had no significant association with the outcome.

Symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs

Symptoms of pancreatitis in dogs

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Clinical signs of acute pancreatitis:

  • Fever or low body temperature
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe lethargy
  • Abdominal pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Severe dehydration
  • Collapse and shock (sometimes)

Clinical signs of chronic pancreatitis:

  • Lethargy
  • Abdominal pain, causing the dog to take a 'praying position' with its rear end up in the air while its front legs and head are lowered onto the floor
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased or total loss of appetite

In general, chronic pancreatitis is not as common in dogs as acute pancreatitis. However, dogs with chronic pancreatitis can suddenly develop worsening pancreatitis.

What causes pancreatitis?

About 90% of the time, the cause is hard to be determined or difficult to pin down. In many cases, it seems to occur spontaneously.

Some studies have identified obesity as a risk factor of canine pancreatitis. Older dogs are also more likely to get it.

There seems to be a general agreement among some experts that certain breeds are more predisposed to developing pancreatitis. For example, Miniature Schnauzers, English Cocker Spaniels.

A fatty meal for dog
Photo by Bianca Ackermann on Unsplash

Other triggers include:

  • A fatty meal
  • High-fat diet
  • Dietary indiscretion
  • Corticosteroid administration
  • Certain medications
  • Hypothyroidism (or other endocrine diseases)
  • Severe blunt trauma
  • Diabetes mellitus

What toxins cause pancreatitis in dogs

  • Certain medications can trigger it – Examples are cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, estrogen, salicylates, azathioprine, thiazide diuretics and vinca alkaloids.
  • Zinc – Excess of this can cause severe and life-threatening intravascular hemolysis, which can be complicated by the development of potentially severe pancreatitis.
  • Organophosphates – Examples are disulfoton and diazinon. Cases of life-threatening, severe necrotizing pancreatitis caused by organophosphates have been seen.

What foods can cause pancreatitis in dogs

A study involving three dog experiments were carried out. Healthy dogs were given a high-fat, protein deficient diet.

Fat constituted more than 60% of dietary energy in the meals. By the end of the experiments, this type of diet caused macroscopic and microscopic abnormalities of the pancreas, pointing to pancreatitis.

These experiments suggest that such high-fat diets with low-quality protein cause a degeneration of the pancreas and increase the risk of the dogs developing pancreatitis.

How is pancreatitis diagnosed?

First, your veterinarian will use a process of elimination. For instance, if a reaction to a drug is suspected, he may put your dog off the medication. If it is diet-related, he may put it on prescription food.

If these steps are ineffective, blood testing and abdominal ultrasound will be carried out. These are better for diagnosing acute and severe forms. 

However, routine blood tests are often not helpful. Pancreatic-specific blood tests are more accurate for detecting elevated pancreatic enzymes in the blood. Some dogs with pancreatitis will have normal enzyme levels.

That is why the test is often followed by an ultrasound or radiograph. X-rays are not very helpful in diagnosing pancreatitis, but it may be carried out first if vomiting is a symptom. This to rule out the potential of foreign-body obstruction in the abdomen.

Nonetheless, your vet will be able to give a more accurate diagnosis if pet owners can give precise descriptions of symptoms and the dog’s medical history.

How to comfort a dog with pancreatitis

Treatment may vary according to the severity of the condition. One habit which pet owners must stop immediately is giving table scraps.

Mild to moderate pancreatitis in dogs

For mild pancreatitis, the treatment is often supportive, i.e. by letting the pancreas ‘rest’ and allowing the body to heal itself. Dogs which are vomiting are put on a fast for a few days until the vomiting subsides. Those that are not vomiting may be fed a low fat, highly digestible diet during recovery.

These patients are usually also treated with:

  • IV fluid therapy to correct dehydration
  • Antinausea medication
  • A stomach protectant(s)
  • Pain-reliever medication
  • A bland, low-fat diet during recovery (this may be a home-cooked and/or home-prepared diet) but a permanent diet change may be recommended if the dog has a history of pancreatitis

Mild to moderate pancreatitis patients generally recover in one to two weeks although the treatment can vary.

Severe pancreatitis in dogs

More extensive medical intervention and treatment are often recommended for these cases. Treatment is often required for several days to weeks. They include:

  • Intensive intravenous (IV) fluid and electrolyte support
  • Pain-control measures
  • Antinausea medication(s)
  • Stomach-protectant medications
  • Nutritional support in the form of a feeding tube
  • Antibiotics (sometimes)

Severe pancreatitis patients are often critical and best treated by a clinic with specialist practice and intensive care facility.

Diet for dogs with pancreatitis

Most veterinarians recommend a highly digestible, low-fat food for dogs recovering from pancreatitis. This is to reduce the stimulus for the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes, which may worsen pancreatic inflammation.

With regards to dietary treatment for recurring cases, there are no published clinical studies on the efficacy of fat restriction. The principle for prescribing this diet is to avoid over-stimulation of the pancreas.

Prescription dog foods (dry and wet) for pancreatitis contains 15 to 30 energy percent fat. Note that some pancreatic diets may have higher fat content than regular low-fat kibble.

Regular dry dog foods generally contain 20 to 45 energy percent from fat. Wet canned foods have 35 to 65%, deep-frozen foods have 50 to 70% while freeze-dried foods have 35 to 75%. Some commercial pet foods even contain more than 60 energy% fat.

The types of food with the lowest energy percent from fat are raw diets and gently cooked meals. These foods do not have additional fat aside from the meat ingredient. Highly processed foods are often added with chicken fat to make them palatable.

Different types of meat also contain varying levels of fat. Kangaroo meat and venison have the lowest levels.


Kangaroo meat gently cooked


For example, Pet Cubes’ Gently Cooked Wild KangarooGently Cooked Venison, Raw Wild Kangaroo and Raw Venison have only 4% of fat.

Venison - Gently Cooked

A bulk of these meals is moisture which make up at least 65% of each meal. This ensures the dog is automatically hydrated when it eats. Hydration is essential for dogs with pancreatitis especially if they have experienced diarrhea and vomiting.

The ingredients of raw and gently cooked foods are also unprocessed and are made from high quality human-grade meat. Therefore, these foods are highly digestible and most of the nutrients are intact.

If you really must give your dog a treat, opt for zero-fat, high quality real stuff like dry treats. Choose those that are purely dehydrated without any additives. This type of unprocessed treat is foul-smelling to humans but it is delectable for canines, perfect for whetting the appetite of sickly dogs.

How to prevent pancreatitis in dogs

Prevention is definitely better than cure, as the disease can cause permanent scarring of tissue in the pancreas. As suggested by the studies mentioned in the earlier section, dog foods that are high in fat and low in quality protein are very bad for a dog’s pancreas.

It is not just the type of dog food which can contribute to pancreatitis but the type of snacks and food scraps given to a dog over time. Vets have reported more incidents of pancreatitis during holidays when people are eating plenty of fatty foods, which are also given to pets because owners feel guilty for not sharing the ‘joy’.

Since dietary indiscretion has been sighted as one of the potential causes for pancreatitis, what you can do as the owner is to keep your trash cans secure. Make sure Fido has no way to access it and accidentally eat something toxic.


The prognosis for dogs with pancreatitis depends on the severity of the disease when diagnosed and the response to initial therapy. Those with mild forms have a better prognosis with aggressive treatment.

Dogs which are not treated quickly enough may progress to the hemorrhagic form. In such cases, they may suffer from shock, depression, organ failure, whole-body inflammation and sudden death.

A single episode of pancreatitis or repeated episodes may cause extensive scarring within the pancreatic tissue. The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the more positive the outcome.