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Pancreatitis: The Other Stomachache

Pet Column for the week of September 29, 2003

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Most cat and dog owners become alarmed when their pet vomits or experiences diarrhea. Yes, it may be from that stick Fido ate in the backyard, or the hairball Fluffy is trying to cough up, but the attention focuses on the stomach. However, the stomach is not always the organ that produces classic "stomachache" signs. The pancreas may be the culprit!

"The pancreas is a digestive organ responsible for producing enzymes that break up food. These enzymes are delivered to the intestine, where they are activated and become able digest food," explains Dr. Eric Linnetz, an internal medicine resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Pancreatitis results when there is a problem with the transport of enzymes to the intestine. Enzymes either get activated in the pancreas itself or are activated before they get to the intestines. This leads to irritation of the pancreas or surrounding tissues.

There are two forms of pancreatitis. The acute form springs up all of a sudden and can be more severe. The chronic form is a mild irritation that may go on for weeks, months, or even years. Dogs are more likely to experience acute pancreatitis and cats the chronic form.

Animals with pancreatitis behave as though they have a stomachache, refusing to eat and acting droopy or lethargic. Vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and abdominal pain can be seen too.

"Many predisposing factors can trigger a bout of pancreatitis. Diet is a main cause, especially in dogs. Pancreatitis is a common consequence of a sudden change in your dog's diet, eating a high-fat meal, or eating garbage," advises Dr. Linnetz.

Other potential causes of pancreatitis include hormonal diseases, such as Cushing's disease. Pancreatitis can be a side of effect of certain drug therapies. Any disease or condition that decreases blood flow can lead to pancreatitis; examples are shock and prolonged anesthesia.

With cats the causes are less well-known. Toxoplasmosis and irritable bowel syndrome can lead to pancreatitis. Often with both cats and dogs we don't know what triggered the episode.

Diagnosis of pancreatitis is challenging. Taking a biopsy-taking a sample of the pancreatic tissue and examining it-is the only way to be certain of pancreatitis. Generally a biopsy is not done as this requires surgery and can often worsen the condition. The preferred diagnostic approach is to rely on clinical signs, blood work, diagnostic imaging (radiographs and especially ultrasound), and response to treatment.

There is no single cure for pancreatitis. Treatment involves helping the pancreas function correctly or possibly rest. At the same time any complications need to be controlled and underlying causes need to be resolved. Fasting the animal helps avoid stimulation of the pancreas and allows it time to heal. Other supportive care is vital. Fluid therapy to maintain hydration and blood flow and medication to calm the inflammation are often used. Pancreatitis heals with time.

The prognosis for chronic pancreatitis is good; it is a disease that can be controlled effectively with diet. It is rarely life threatening.

Acute pancreatitis has a variable prognosis and depends on the severity of the case. "Some dogs experience only one day of sickness. Other dogs progress to kidney failure and even death. Pancreatitis is an unpredictable disease that is easier to prevent than to treat. That's why we caution owners not to give fatty treats like ham and sausage to the dog, even if he's handled it for years. It can cause a sudden and sometimes severe problem," states Dr. Linnetz.

For more information about this disease, please contact your local veterinarian.