The pancreas is a thin, delicate, soft organ that lives right next to the top part of the digestive tract. It is responsible for producing digestive enzymes which are released into the gut in response to food that is eaten. Its other main job is to produce hormones such as insulin and glucagon that are very important for providing energy to the cells of the body and for the control of blood glucose levels.
The pancreas itself can be damaged by the digestive enzymes it produces, however there are mechanisms in place to prevent this from happening. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas due to breakdown of these mechanisms, thereby allowing those digestive enzymes to damage the pancreas itself.
Pancreatitis in dogs and cats is very painful and can cause a reduced appetite, vomiting, diarrhea and general lethargy. Having pancreatitis is like having a terrible stomach ache! Dogs especially can display a hunched or ‘praying’ posture with their front legs stretched out in response to the pain. In cats, the signs are more subtle and they may just display a lack of interest in food. Severe pancreatitis can have catastrophic effects such as widespread organ failure and death.
Although the causes of pancreatitis are poorly understood, factors such as a diet high in fat or a fatty meal, obesity, trauma and certain drugs such as steroids are thought to trigger the disease. So that piece of cake that you occasionally give your dog may have worse consequences than you think!
Treatment for pancreatitis includes preventing access to food for 24-48 hours, IV fluids, antibiotics and pain relief. Pets affected with this disease can suffer for days before they improve, and unfortunately some may not improve at all. All the more reason to keep your pet in shape and avoid giving him or her fatty foods, no matter how much they beg!