Before we discuss the nutritional factors related to pancreatitis, it is first important to define what the pancreas is, what it does in the body, and what happens when it becomes enlarged/inflamed.
What is the pancreas?
The pancreas is one of the organs in the abdomen (belly) that is located near the stomach.
What does the pancreas do?
The pancreas releases hormones (like insulin) and enzymes (lipase and amylase) into the intestinal tract for digestion. When your dog eats a meal, the pancreas responds by releasing these substances to help digest the food as it moves through the stomach and the intestines.
What is pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is simply inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas becomes larger and very irritated in the belly. Because the pancreas is in the belly, as it enlarges it can cause inflammation and irritation of other organs like the stomach, the liver, and the small intestine.
What are the signs of pancreatitis?
Most commonly, the dog will develop sudden vomiting and nausea. The dog may also experience diarrhea, belly pain, act tired/depressed, and lose their appetite. The dog can vomit so much that dehydration can occur as well because they cannot hold down food or water.
What causes pancreatitis?
Most commonly, the dog recently ate a new type of food (like table scraps or something from the garbage can) that has a lot of fat in it. Other causes include: obesity, underlying liver disease, endocrine disease (like diabetes), and sometimes belly trauma or surgery.
What does treatment/management of pancreatitis involve?
Because acute pancreatitis can make the dog quite ill and dehydrated, the dog should be evaluated by a veterinarian who can perform initial lab work, imaging (like X-rays or ultrasound), and stabilize the dog. This typically involves IV (intravenous) fluid therapy to correct dehydration, and medications for nausea and pain. Also, the dog is typically fasted for at least 12 hours to give the belly a rest from having to digest more food.
So, what does food have to do with pancreatitis??
Because the pancreas is all about helping the body break down food, what we feed the dog can have a direct effect on how hard the pancreas must work. When the dog gets a nice juicy, greasy piece of steak from the dinner table… that pancreas starts to go into overdrive and works hard to help get that steak digested. In doing so, the pancreas gets big and inflamed and mad. And when the pancreas gets mad… everybody else in the belly (the liver, the stomach, the intestines) gets mad. And we all have probably experienced an upset belly, and that does not feel good.
So, food started the problem, but it can also be part of the solution?? Yep. Because it is typically the high-fat greasy food that started the inflammation, we switch the dog to a very plain low-fat food that is easy for the belly to digest. Once the dog is no longer vomiting and starts feeling better, a veterinarian can prescribe a specialized diet that is very low in fat and has a moderate amount of easy-to-digest protein in it. After several days of this prescription food and enough time for the belly to rest, we can usually start to switch the dog back to their normal dog food… but no more table scraps this time!!!