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Nutritional management of pancreatitis in dogs

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Your dog’s pancreas is a vital organ with two main functions. It produces enzymes that help digest food in your dog’s intestine, and the hormones insulin and glucagon which among other things, help regulate your dog’s blood sugar levels.

When the pancreas is working normally, the digestive enzymes become active only when they reach the small intestine. It is believed that pancreatitis develops because of premature activation of the enzymes. When this happens, the enzymes begin to digest any of the dog’s own tissues that they encounter, resulting in pain, inflammation and general unwellness.

There are two types of pancreatitis – acute, which happens suddenly and tends to be more severe and chronic, which is an ongoing, continuous condition that is often less severe.

While there isn’t a full consensus about what causes pancreatitis, there are several possible causes.

For example, damage or trauma to the pancreas, some drugs and toxins and high levels of calcium in the blood have all be associated with the onset of pancreatitis. Obesity linked to a high-fat diet has also been suggested as a risk factor for the disorder.

Generally, pancreatitis occurs in dogs that are middle-aged or elderly dogs. And while it can happen in all dogs, it is more common in some breeds, including Boxers, Cocker Spaniels and Collies.

Some of the signs and symptoms of the disease to be aware of include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea
  • Mild to severe abdominal pain, that can become worse after eating
  • Increased heart rate

This isn’t an exhaustive list, so it’s important to speak to your vet if you notice anything unusual about your dog and their behaviour.

How pancreatitis is treated

If your dog has been diagnosed with pancreatitis, the first thing that is recommended is to give the pancreas time to rest and recover.

To do this, it’s typically recommended that food is withheld for between 24 and 48 hours. During this time it may be necessary for fluids to be given intravenously (IV) to prevent dehydration. Your vet will guide you as to whether or not you need to withhold fluids and if IV fluids are required, and on how long food should be withheld for.

Your dog may be prescribed different medicines to help them recover. These can include buprenorphine injections to control and reduce pain, or antiemetics such as chlorpromazine to stop vomiting.

In some instances, vets may also prescribe antibiotics so as to control infections that might arise as a result of pancreatitis. And in the more severe cases, surgery or a plasma transfusion may be needed, but this is relatively rare.

Dietary treatment of pancreatitis

Aside from treating pancreatitis with medication, it is well established that altering a dog’s diet can help them recover. In particular, home-cooked diets are the preferred choice because they offer flexibility and complete control over the ingredient list.

Carbohydrates cause the least amount of pancreatic enzyme secretion compared with proteins and lipids. For that reason, a diet for pancreatitis should be restricted in fat, low in protein and high in carbohydrates.

If your dog has been nil-by-mouth for a few days after being diagnosed with pancreatitis, food should be reintroduced gradually. To begin with, food should be bland and given in small quantities at regular intervals throughout the day. Frequent small meals stimulate the pancreas less and are easier to digest, meaning they are less likely to trigger vomiting or cause discomfort.

However, it is also recommended that longer-term dietary changes be made, both to help in your dog’s immediate recovery, and to prevent a reoccurrence. In the case of chronic, ongoing pancreatitis, long-term dietary changes can help control symptoms and keep the disease at bay.

One of the biggest changes you can make to your dog’s diet if they have been diagnosed with pancreatitis is to reduce the amount of fat in their diet.

It’s important to be consistent with a reduced-fat diet. In particular, be mindful around the holidays, a time when people tend to feed their dog’s more ‘treats’ which more often than not are high in fat – and when vets report seeing an increase in cases of the disorder.

Another big change you can make is not serving your dog raw food. Cooking your dog’s food has many advantages – it destroys bacteria, makes food easier to digest, and perhaps most importantly, it reduces fat content. In most cases, the dog can eat a raw diet later on but initially, the pancreas needs every little bit of help to recover.

It’s not just meat that should be cooked. Cooking – and even overcooking – starchy foods like rice and potatoes increases their digestibility, and can help soothe the stomach and digestive tract.

White rice is generally the carbohydrate of choice, especially if made with excess water. Potatoes or sweet potatoes can also be given, but the skins should be removed to keep fibre intake low. Skinless chicken breast or white fish can be included as a protein source.

Some dogs who have suffered from mild to moderate pancreatitis can return to a ‘normal’ diet after a few weeks; however, if they have repeated attacks, then they should be kept on a low-fat, cooked diet.

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