Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) is a serious, life-threatening illness that also happens to be a frustrating nut for vets to crack. It just refuses to play by the rules! About 90% of the time, veterinarians can’t definitively say what causes it, and it affects cats and dogs differently. Thankfully, there is plenty we do know about pancreatitis, and ways we can help afflicted furry friends.
your pet’s pancreas 101
The pancreas is a delicate, lacy-looking organ that lives next to your pet’s stomach and small intestine.
It has two jobs: secreting digestive enzymes that help break down your pet’s food and secreting insulin to control blood sugar levels. When it becomes inflamed, its normal structure is compromised and the digestive enzymes are released, damaging the pancreas and surrounding organs.
That damage signals the body to mount a widespread inflammatory response, and if it’s severe enough, insulin production can be affected, leading to diabetes. Pancreatitis can also spark several other medical fires, including brain damage, blood clotting issues and respiratory failure.
In cats, pancreatitis is typically caused by trauma, inflammatory bowel disease, a viral or bacterial infection (such as feline distemper) or exposure to certain insecticides. More than 50% of cats who develop pancreatitis have other conditions that can make it worse, including hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), inflammatory liver disease and diabetes.
In dogs, pancreatitis may result from trauma, obesity, a high-fat diet, pancreatic tumors or metabolic diseases such as diabetes, Cushing’s disease or hypercalcemia.
Pets with pancreatitis feel awful, though cat parents may have a harder time realizing their feline friends are suffering. The signs of pancreatitis in cats are generally vague and non-specific — only about a third of cats experience vomiting or diarrhea. Dogs typically present with vomiting and diarrhea, as well as possible fever and abdominal pain. Both may experience decreased appetite and lethargy.
Diagnosis can be tricky, but routine blood work can help to rule out other diseases in pets with non-specific signs. For dogs, there is a specific blood test that can be run in many clinics, but cats generally aren’t so lucky — their blood work often needs to be sent to a lab, which may take several days to return results. That’s time that a very sick cat just doesn’t have. Ultrasound examination of the abdomen can help, but often, a diagnosis of feline pancreatitis is a presumptive one.
Most pets will require hospitalization for treatment, which centers on controlling symptoms while inflammation resolves. IV fluids will be given to combat dehydration, and nutritional support is especially important to prevent complications in cats. Medications to control nausea and pain help keep furry friends comfortable during their illness.
The prognosis for pancreatitis is as varied as its symptoms, and sadly, some pets lose the battle. Others may develop chronic problems, and still others may recover completely. While not always preventable, keeping furry friends at a healthy weight and knowing how to spot signs can blaze a trail away from this frightening foe.