Nutritional Management of Pancreatitis in Dogs
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Nutritional Management of Pancreatitis in Dogs

by Rae Sires, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition)
Jun 5, 2023

What is the pancreas?

The pancreas is a small organ in the abdomen of all mammals that is positioned near the stomach and small intestine. It is composed of different cell types that perform specialized functions including producing and secreting enzymes and hormones. A healthy pancreas is critical for normal protein, fat, and carbohydrate digestion.

What is pancreatitis and how does it develop?

Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can occur for many reasons. Several dog breeds are genetically predisposed to pancreatitis, with Miniature Schnauzers being a primary example. Certain diseases may also make a pet more likely to develop pancreatitis, including obesity, diabetes mellitus, or low thyroid function. Dogs also can develop pancreatitis if they eat foods or materials they shouldn’t eat, or if they eat high-fat or very high-protein foods. Pancreatitis can begin very quickly (acute pancreatitis), or it can be an ongoing problem for a dog that occurs for weeks or months (chronic pancreatitis).

What tests are required to diagnose pancreatitis?

Unfortunately, there is not one specific test to diagnosis pancreatitis with 100% confidence. A diagnosis of pancreatitis therefore relies on a combination of factors including recent history, diet history including foods and supplements, and the presence of clinical signs such as abdominal pain, decreased appetite, or vomiting. Blood tests or imaging (x-rays, ultrasound, computed tomography (CT scan) may also be recommended to support a diagnosis of pancreatitis. These tests will also help your veterinarian rule out other possible causes of your dog’s signs including toxins, parasites, or intestinal blockage.

What are the treatment options?

Treatment of pancreatitis focuses on supportive care and managing clinical signs. Supportive care may include medications to treat pain or nausea. Dogs can become dehydrated in severe cases and may need to be hospitalized for IV fluids and more intensive supportive care.

Nutritional management of pancreatitis can be started as soon as the dog’s pain and nausea are controlled. Nutritional goals include providing food that is complete and balanced (including all essential vitamins and minerals), low in fat, and easy to digest. Low fat and moderate protein are recommended to meet the dog’s nutritional needs without contributing to excessive pancreas stimulation, which could worsen pancreatitis. Feeding multiple, smaller meals (rather than 1 or 2 larger meals), may also help prevent nausea or vomiting and can help owners evaluate if the new food is acceptable and tolerated (good appetite, no vomiting or diarrhea) by the dog.

What is the outcome after treatment?

Treatment outcome and nutritional needs after recovery of pancreatitis is extremely individualized. There is no single feeding recommendation for fat or protein for dogs with a history of pancreatitis, and some dogs will tolerate higher amounts of fat or protein than others. In cases of acute pancreatitis in which a cause of pancreatitis is found, such as history of eating a very high fat meal, the dog may eventually be able to be transitioned back to their previous food with no further issues. In cases of chronic pancreatitis, a lower fat diet may need to be fed for weeks, months, or even the remainder of the pet’s life dependent on the presence of other disease(s) and pancreatitis severity.

Treats should also be low in fat to help prevent triggering or worsening pancreatitis. Treats should not provide more than 10% of the daily calorie intake. There are several commercially available low-fat treats available. Alternatively, non-toxic fruits and vegetables may provide low fat and moderate protein amounts and could also be considered after a discussion with your veterinarian. 

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