What is Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is the inflammation and swelling of the pancreas. It may be acute or chronic.
Acute is usually a sudden onset of mass inflammation and can go away in a couple of days (if it doesn’t result in more severe complications).
Chronic pancreatitis is however a low-grade inflammatory response that extends over a period of time. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is something different, but it can be a result of chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms of Pancreatitis include:
- Loss of appetite
- The typical arched back
What is the Pancreas?
The pancreas is a small organ that sits behind the small intestine and the stomach. It helps to digest food but also secretes hormones that help to regulate blood sugar levels.
You can think of the pancreas as the factory of the digestive system. It releases a range of enzymes and hormones that further help to break down food as it makes its way through the system. It produces lipase which helps to break down fat, protease which helps to break down protein and amylase which helps to break down starch. As we know, canine saliva contains low levels of amylase, but we are relying on the pancreas to produce the bulk to do the job.
The pancreas feeds these enzymes into the small intestine.
There is an age-old question around fat causing pancreatitis in dogs, but this is largely data extracted from human information. There are associations between hyperlipidemia (high circulating fat levels in the blood) and pancreatitis in humans, but the exact relationship is not known in dogs (or cats for that matter). Some studies have demonstrated a link, some have not. For example, one study found that 26% of pancreatitis cases also had hyperlipidemia, yet other studies that have experimentally induced pancreatitis haven’t altered lipid levels at all.
For this reason, there are a few other noted risk factors:
Data has suggested that upwards of 40% of pancreatitis cases report the dog was overweight or obese. Sadly, obese animals are predisposed to many diseases affecting many organ systems. What is particularly interesting is that pancreatitis often runs concurrent with diagnosis of diabetes in dogs, but it is thought that the damage to the pancreas leads to the development of diabetes.
It is easy to see how processed foods can contribute to the development these conditions.
Calorie dense, but not nutrient dense foods can contribute to obesity in pets. But high starch foods place an unusual burden on the pancreas. As noted, the pancreas releases the enzyme amylase to digest starch, so the more it has to digest, the more work it has to do.
This also leads us into another potential risk factor for pancreatitis.
The digestive system is a beautiful orchestra, everything has its place and needs to come in at the right time, at the correct level.
Partially or under-digested foods can start to run amok in the digestive system; calling the immune system to action to sort it all out. The inflammatory response is a one of the immune systems most prized tools. The pro-inflammatory response is countered by an anti-inflammatory response and so the body sorts itself out. Pancreatitis is an inflammatory process and there are considerations that the damage is a result of an imbalanced inflammatory response.
But there is also the consideration that if food isn’t sufficiently being digested in the stomach, then it is again placing an unusual burden on the pancreas.
The other risk factor that it gaining attention is pharmaceutical induced pancreatitis, more commonly linked to corticosteroids. The interest first arose in dogs being treated for intervertebral disc disease. Higher reports of pancreatitis were seemingly occurring in those dogs treated with corticosteroids. Yet there are those who criticise this could simply be genetic – IVDD has a genetic risk, as does pancreatitis.
That said, there are studies which highlight that increasing doses of steroids may increase the risk of acute pancreatitis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7398688/#:~:text=Increasing%20doses%20of%20steroids%20may,required%20in%20cases%20of%20pancreatitis.
As noted, there are certain dogs that are predisposed to pancreatitis. They include:
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Cocker Spaniels
That said – we know that we can turn genes on and off to an extent, so this is where consideration of other factors is key.
It’s clear that simply blaming fat for pancreatitis is short-sighted. Whilst there are cases of it occurring, the exact relationship is just not yet known in dogs.
There is also data that suggests beneficial fats can in fact be supportive in pancreas health. Omega-3 fats are associated with better clinical outcomes and less inflammation. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25835048/
It wouldn’t be wise to actively increase fat content during an acute phase – but ensuring the appropriate balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fats in the diet as a whole may be beneficial for overall health.
As always if you are tackling a health issue with dog, it is best to seek the guidance of a qualified practitioner.
Written by Lisa Hannaby - Bsc. Psych. Hons, MSc Human Nutrition