Pancreatitis in Dogs

The pancreas is a gland in the abdomen located along the stomach and intestine. It performs both endocrine (production of insulin) and exocrine (secretion of digestive enzymes and bicarbonate) functions, which helps to regulate blood sugar and aids in the breakdown of foodstuffs. In a normally functioning pancreas, these enzymes become active only when they reach the small intestine; in a dog with pancreatitis these enzymes become active immediately after they are released.

Pancreatitis by definition is the inflammation of the pancreas. This inflammation is caused by the digestive enzymes becoming activated within the pancreas, resulting in pancreatic auto-digestion and damage to pancreatic and surrounding tissues, causing extreme pain in your dog. Pancreatitis can be categorized as acute (reversible) or chronic (permanent.). Acute symptoms are generally more severe and come about much faster than chronic pancreatitis which can commonly manifest as diabetes mellitus (30-40% of dogs with diabetes has pancreatitis.)


Although the specific cause of pancreatitis is generally unknown, there are multiple factors that are known to contribute to the diagnosis.

  • Diet, particularly high fat diets
  • Hereditary disorders associated with fat metabolism
  • Medications
  • Prior surgery
  • Obesity
  • Trauma
  • Cancer
  • Obstruction of pancreatic outflow tract because of biliary stones
  • Inflammation
  • Masses

The most common cause is the consumption of human food, especially around the holidays. The day after Thanksgiving is not only Black Friday, but it is also one of the busiest days of the year for pancreatic-related vet emergencies.


Clinical signs of pancreatitis in dogs usually include some or all of the following:

  • Vomiting
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • Abdominal pain/hunched back
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Fever

In severe cases, dogs may be recumbent and in shock.

A multitude of diagnostic tests may be used to achieve an accurate diagnosis. Such tests your veterinarian may choose to perform can include:

  • Radiographs
  • Ultrasound
  • Bloodwork
  • Urinalysis
  • Urine culture
  • Canine pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity (cPLI) test

Currently, the only definitive way to diagnose pancreatitis is to obtain a biopsy.


Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms. Severe cases generally require hospitalization to restore hydration, control pain and vomiting, as well as nutritional support and possibly a course of antibiotics. A very low-fat diet is used to decrease the workload on the pancreas.

Prognosis is also dependent on severity of clinical signs as well as overall duration of illness. In uncomplicated cases, a low-fat diet may prevent any future recurrences. Conversely, some dogs will experience repeated bouts, which can lead to chronic pancreatitis and persistent disease. As with most illness, early detection and treatment is key to a good prognosis.

If your dog is showing symptoms of pancreatitis, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible so that your dog may begin appropriate treatment.

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