Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Stuff the Turkey, Not Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of November 10, 2000

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Carrie Gustavson
Information Specialist

As you and your entire family sit around the dinner table this Thanksgiving, you may be tempted to invite the dog or cat to join you as you indulge in the mountain of goodies. Thanksgiving is all about sharing, but if you think Max and Paws might like just a taste of turkey or a few giblets, think again! That high-fat treat could land your pet in the hospital with a potentially life-threatening condition called pancreatitis.

It's hard to say no to those big brown eyes, but you should. "It just isn't worth it when you think about the possibility for an extended hospital stay that could easily cost $1,000," says Dr. Jana Gordon, a resident in small animal medicine formerly at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can occur in dogs and in cats for several reasons, including obesity, some types of drugs, trauma, or infection. Often the cause of pancreatitis is unknown, but the role of fatty foods in causing this problem is suspected, especially in dogs.

"The job of the pancreas is to pour out enzymes that digest fats, starches, and proteins," says Dr. Gordon. "Normally those digestive enzymes are stored in little packets, and eating triggers their release into the small intestines. But when something sets off inflammation, digestive enzymes are released within the pancreas itself, so that the pancreas starts to digest itself. That starts a vicious cycle of more enzyme release and more autodigestion."

The problem doesn't end there. As the digestive enzymes wreak havoc on the pancreas, they break down barriers to the bloodstream. Having digestive enzymes in the bloodstream quickly leads to the destruction of cells and tissues everywhere. "The enzymes start chewing up cells and tissues all over the body," says Dr. Gordon.

Still thinking about ladling a little gravy on Max's Thanksgiving dog chow? Dr. Gordon recommends that pet owners completely abstain from feeding any table foods to pets. But things that typically cause problems for pets this time of year include the giblets, bones, skin, dark meat, pie and dessert, potatoes and butter-coated vegetables, gravy, and stuffing.

"Any high-fat food is going to cause increased demand on the pancreas," says Dr. Gordon. "They shouldn't have any of it, not anything. Not just because of pancreatitis, but also because strange food and sudden diet changes can change the bacterial flora of a dog or cat's gut, which can lead to diarrhea and vomiting."

Signs of pancreatitis in dogs are vomiting, diarrhea, depression, and not eating after recent ingestion of high-fat foods. To diagnose the problem, a veterinarian will need to take blood and may do an abdominal ultrasound and other tests.

Treatment means trying to rest the pancreas -- hospitalization, intravenous fluids, no food, and lots of supportive care. So give thanks for great pets and give them your time instead of your turkey feast. If Max runs off with the Butterball, be on the lookout for of signs of pancreatitis, and call your local veterinarian.