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Guard the Fatty Foods, They Can Kill Certain Breeds

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

high-fat food dog pancreatitis

Story at-a-glance -

  • One of the most common causes of acute canine pancreatitis occurs when a dog eats a large quantity of high-fat food (e.g., part or all of a New Year’s Day turkey)
  • Pancreatitis in dogs can range from mild to life-threatening, and there are multiple risk factors for the condition, including breed predisposition
  • Symptoms of pancreatitis include loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, dehydration, and abdominal pain
  • Treatment is primarily supportive and should be focused on alleviating symptoms
  • To help prevent pancreatitis or a relapse, provide your dog with digestive enzymes, preferably along with a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate raw diet

There are many causes of canine pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), but one of the most common is after a dog gets his paws on a large amount of high-fat food and scarfs it down before anyone notices or can stop him. For example (and since the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are still fresh in our minds), imagine a nicely stuffed holiday turkey ready for carving that gets pulled off the dining room table by an enterprising dog while his humans are busy in the kitchen.

While this might be a funny holiday memory in years to come, the more immediate result can be a case of acute pancreatitis in the turkey thief, and unfortunately, pancreatitis is no laughing matter. In humans, the disease is reportedly fatal in 5 to 15 percent of cases. In dogs, it’s even more dangerous — from 27 to 58 percent of patients with the disease don’t survive it.1

An inflamed pancreas can’t efficiently perform its critical functions, which include secreting insulin to balance blood sugar levels, and producing digestive enzymes such as amylase, lipase and protease, which are necessary for nutrient digestion and absorption.

Severe damage to the pancreas can trigger a massive inflammatory reaction known as systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), characterized by increased capillary permeability, fever, rapid heart rate, a drop in blood pressure and ultimately, multiple organ failure.

In addition, as the result of a process called autodigestion, dogs can develop severe necrotizing pancreatitis in which entire portions of the organ are completely destroyed.

Risk Factors and Triggers for Pancreatitis in Dogs

Pancreatitis is most commonly seen in middle aged or older small breed dogs, especially the Miniature Schnauzer, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Cocker Spaniel, Sheltie, Toy Poodle and the Yorkshire Terrier.

Additional risk factors include obesity, diabetes, hypothyroidism, Cushing's disease and pre-existing gastrointestinal (GI) disease. In fact, estimates are that about 25 percent of dogs with acute diabetes also have acute pancreatitis.2 The condition is also more common in dogs who have had recent surgery, especially procedures involving the abdominal organs.

In addition, certain drugs are suspected of triggering acute pancreatitis, including anti-seizure medications such as potassium bromide or phenobarbital, prednisone and other catabolic steroids, and the diuretic Lasix.

As in the example of the turkey-stealing dog, dietary indiscretions are also very commonly the culprit in attacks of pancreatitis and typically involve high-fat foods such as fatty meats, turkey skin, bacon grease, etc. In my experience, processed pet food also plays a role in pancreatitis in pets, which I’ll discuss shortly.

Pancreatitis Symptoms

Canine pancreatitis can cause a variety of symptoms that are also seen in many other conditions, and they can range from mild to very severe. A 1999 study showed that in dogs with acute pancreatitis that ultimately proved fatal, the following symptoms were reported:3

Anorexia (91 percent)

Abdominal pain (58 percent)

Vomiting (90 percent)

Dehydration (46 percent)

Weakness (79 percent)

Diarrhea (33 percent)

When the disease is very severe, inflammation can become systemic, which can cause shock or cardiovascular (circulatory) collapse. The symptoms veterinarians most commonly see when examining dogs with acute pancreatitis are dehydration, excessive drooling and lip-licking (signs of nausea), and abdominal pain. Since these symptoms are present in a wide variety of disorders, a thorough diagnostic workup should be performed, including bloodwork and x-rays or scans.

Historically, veterinarians have diagnosed pancreatitis using a blood test called the PLI (pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity). More recently, Texas A&M University has developed a test for canine pancreatic-specific immunoreactivity called the Spec cPL test. There’s also now a cPL test that offers results almost immediately at the vet clinic, without the need to ship the sample to an outside lab.

Treatment of Pancreatitis

There is no procedure or medication that cures pancreatitis, so treatment is supportive and focused on reducing the dog’s symptoms. Supportive therapy includes:

  • Intravenous (IV) fluids to address dehydration, hypovolemia (decreased blood volume) and electrolyte imbalances
  • Pain management
  • Anti-emetics to alleviate nausea and vomiting
  • Enteral nutrition (tube feeding)

In most cases of pancreatitis, antibiotics are unnecessary and unhelpful. In addition, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and steroid medications like prednisone should be avoided.

Dogs who develop an acute bout of pancreatitis can have different outcomes. Some recover fully with no further issues. Others recover but go on to develop chronic pancreatitis. And some dogs have recurrences of acute pancreatitis. In dogs with coexisting conditions such as diabetes, successful treatment of pancreatitis depends on successful treatment or management of those other disorders.

Pets should be hospitalized if they aren’t eating or drinking on their own, and bloodwork should be repeated until the PLI values are normal. A low-fat, low-residue, human-grade diet should be instituted until the condition has resolved.

Does Processed Pet Food Play a Role in Pancreatitis?

Veterinarians are seeing increasing numbers of both dogs and cats with pancreatitis, and I’m convinced processed pet food plays a bigger role than either the pet food industry or most veterinarians are willing to admit. High-carbohydrate diets affect insulin levels, which affect the pancreas.

KetoPet Sanctuary has made some interesting discoveries about dogs fed unadulterated (raw) fat versus dogs eating cooked (processed) fat. It seems raw fat (even very high fat) diets don’t cause pancreatitis in sanctuary patients, but cooked fat does induce pancreatitis in some patients, even when fed in small amounts.

So the question I think we should be asking is, “Are the highly processed, poor-quality fats (heated repeatedly, up to four times during the manufacturing process) used to create pet food contributing to the epidemic of chronic, low-grade pancreatitis occurring worldwide in pets?” I’m certainly suspicious.

In addition, processed pet food is devoid of the natural enzymes that help reduce pancreatic stress, which is why I suspect the pancreas of many pets exists in a state of chronic, low-grade inflammation. Food that doesn’t contain natural enzymes triggers the pancreas to try to make up the difference. If it fails to perform adequately, pancreatitis results. In addition, many pets are fed high-fat diets, which we know are a cause of pancreatitis.

Dogs (and cats) are designed to get supplemental enzymes from the foods they consume, since their ancestral diet is loaded with living foods that contain abundant enzymes. In the wild, dogs consume portions of the GI tracts of their prey, which is a rich source of enzymes. They also consume the glands, including pancreatic tissue, which are abundant in naturally occurring enzymes.

Even if you’re a raw feeder, chances are you aren’t giving your dog the GI contents of prey animals, since this is where parasites are found. What this means is that even pets consuming a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, raw food diet can be enzyme deficient.

Prevention Tip: Digestive Enzymes

One of the most important steps you can take to lower your dog’s risk of a repeat episode of pancreatitis is to provide a rich source of digestive enzymes, either through feeding pancreatic tissue (which is unappealing to most pet parents, and can be difficult to source) or a supplement. This will help reduce the stress your pet’s pancreas is under to produce enough enzymes to process food.  

So if you have a dog who’s currently dealing with pancreatitis, has had it in the past or if you want to take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood he’ll develop the condition, adding digestive enzymes to his food that contains no cooked or processed fat at mealtime is a great way to help reduce pancreatic stress.