Feline and Canine Pancreatitis: Why is it Becoming So Common?

December 18, 2023

By Sarah Griffiths, DCH

Diagnosis of canine and feline pancreatitis cases are becoming more common. This may be because there are better diagnostic techniques available to detect it. What’s becoming clear is that pancreatitis in dogs and cats is much more common than previously expected. Veterinarians often refer to it as an “idiopathic” condition which means that the cause is unknown. In today’s article, I’d like to challenge the theory that pancreatitis is a mystery disease. It has very real causes that can be explained by science. If your pet is struggling with this disease, this article is for you!

The Pancreas: A Tiny But Mighty Organ

The pancreas is the organ located on the right side of the abdomen near the stomach and liver in both dogs and cats. It is part of both the endocrine and digestive systems, responsible for the production of digestive enzymes and hormones insulin and glucagon. Insulin is secreted in response to high blood glucose levels and helps the body maintain glucose homeostasis. Glucagon is released in order to address low blood glucose. When the pancreas or surrounding tissues (eg. the liver or the GI tract) become inflamed, it can result in systemic inflammation, extreme nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, liver stress, metabolic changes and more.

What is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis refers to inflammation of the pancreatic tissue. Elevated liver enzymes (amylase and lipase) are signs that your pet could be suffering from pancreatitis. A specFpL or spec CpL blood test may also be done via bloodwork to determine pancreatic lipase enzyme levels in animals suffering from pancreatitis symptoms. Increased blood enzyme levels can trigger a dramatic inflammatory response of the pancreatic tissue. It can progress into an autoimmune response in which tissue can be damaged and the animal can become gravely ill.

Symptoms of Pancreatitis

Symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, lethargy, stretching, severe abdominal pain, increased blood amylase/lipase and dehydration. If you see any combination of these symptoms, it’s important to get to the vet right away, especially for those animals with a past history of pancreatitis.  Cats can be harder to diagnose since their lipase levels can look normal but can still spike within normal range and cause illness. They often require IV fluids to recover.

Early Warning Signs for Pancreatitis

If you want to get ahead of pancreatitis, you must use your keen observation skills to detect early warning signs. They may look like subtle changes but you know your pet best. You will notice small changes in your pet’s health long before a disease is detected by your veterinarian. This is where you can make a huge difference in preventing a major illness. Early warning signs for GI disease that should concern you are:

  • Increased drinking and peeing (PU/PD)
  • Soft, smelly stools and/or constipation
  • Intermittent vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Change in eating behaviours (eg. pickiness or ravenous hunger)
  • Intermittent lethargy
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Skin disease/allergies
  • Change in behaviour (eg. fear, aggression, etc.)

If you see any combination of these symptoms, it’s time to book a wellness check up with your holistic veterinarian. Low-grade pancreatic inflammation can be spotted on blood work if you’re looking for it!

Truth: Pancreatitis Isn’t A Mystery

As mentioned above, many animal care professionals believe that pancreatitis has a mysterious origin but, in my experience, this just isn’t true. There are some concrete reasons that animals develop this disease. Most of the time, it doesn’t develop overnight unless your pet has been poisoned in some way. There is often a medical history that tells the story of how the road was paved for this illness.

The development of pancreatitis is linked to obesity, diabetes, endocrine disease and irritable bowel disease (IBD). (1) All of these are related to diet. Let’s discuss how these diseases are connected and how we look at it in a holistic light – as one disease instead of many separate ones.

Disease Risk Factors for Pancreatitis

  • Processed/high starch diets
  • High fat diets
  • Microbiome imbalance (eg. antibiotics and infections)
  • Digestive disease (e.g. IBD)
  • Endocrine (hormone) imbalance or disease
  • Trauma to the pancreas
  • Some seizure and immune-suppressive medications
  • Breed disposition (small breeds in particular)
  • Early spay and neuter

Obesity and Hormone Imbalance

Since 2010, pet obesity has increased by 150% (2) That is a staggering number. 1 in 3 pets is overweight or obese. In humans, the US National Library of Medicine reported that there is a link between visceral body fat distribution and increased risk/severity of pancreatitis. (3)

There is a definite hormonal factor associated with pancreatic disease. Dogs at highest risk for pancreatitis are neutered or spayed, overweight and middle-aged. Spayed females carry a particular risk for fatal acute pancreatitis over intact females. (1) As part of the male endocrine system, a function of the testicles’ is to produce the hormone testosterone which helps regulate fat distribution within the body. Male animals that no longer have their testicular glands are more likely to become obese. Early neuter and spay is particularly problematic for a number of reasons including increased risk of obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel disease, orthopaedic disease, hypothyroidism and cancer. (4)

Feline and Canine Diabetes

It’s no secret that obesity is the biggest risk factor for diabetes, a hormone imbalance of insulin secretion. Diabetes occurs in dogs when the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are damaged or destroyed. This can develop with repeated immune-mediated inflammatory insults to the pancreatic tissue. In cats, the islet cells become compromised but they can often return to normal function with a correction of diet. Yes, that means that feline diabetes is almost always resolved with species-appropriate foods. It’s fair to hypothesize that diabetes and/or insulin resistance may precede pancreatitis in a large number of cases. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t make this connection because it can go undetected for long periods of time.

Liver Disease

Liver dysfunction can occur simultaneously with pancreatitis. It can be acute or chronic and is often related to some type of toxic overload from either diet and/or environmental sources. Stress also plays a role in the development of liver issues. It’s another disease that usually doesn’t just happen overnight unless your pet has been poisoned. Chronic liver issues are often not discovered until your animal is really not feeling well, possibly years after it first developed. This is why wellness check-ups and blood work are so important.

If your pet is suffering from a pancreatic flare-up, bloodwork will show elevated amylase and lipase enzymes in the blood. This can be accompanied by elevated liver enzymes (eg. ALT, ALP, AST, GGT). Pancreatic enzymes can be destructive to the liver and other tissues when they reach dangerous levels in the bloodstream. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if liver or pancreatic disease is the primary factor. Your vet may suggest further testing to differentiate.

Irritable Bowel Disease

Irritable bowel disease or IBD is another generalized term for inflammation of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. When things are working properly, the GI tract, liver and pancreas all work together in unison to help regulate nutrient intake, toxic load, immune response, hormone balance, some nervous system function and nutrient synthesis. It does this alongside the microbiome. The GI tract consists of a layer of specialized cells called the epithelium. The epithelium is made up of 7 different types of cells that specialize in specific functions. These cells are renewed prolifically in healthy animals (every 4-5 days). One of the epithelial cells, (Goblet cells), secrete the protective mucosal layer in which the microbiome lives. The mucosal layer is the primary defense mechanism for keeping the GI epithelium healthy and disease-free. When this mucos lining is damaged, the epithelium is exposed to bile acids, potential food and environmental toxins, resulting in an inflammatory response which can wreak havoc on the surrounding tissues. Left unchecked, it can affect multiple systems in the body including digestive, immune, neurological and endocrine. It has a terrible domino effect. Many alternative practitioners believe that this is where diseases begin –  a condition known as leaky gut syndrome.

In practice, one of the most common causes of digestive damage that I see is a result of nutritional insult. When you remove the insult and provide healthy food, your chances for resolution are much greater!

Feline Triaditis

Feline triaditis is a multifaceted condition involving inflammation of the pancreas, the bile duct, liver tissue and the intestinal lining. It can make your cat extremely ill and can be life-threatening. In my experience, animals suffering from triaditis have been sick for a very long time. They are often fragile and need a slow and gentle approach to help them recover.

Connecting the Dots of Pancreatitis Development

In holistic terms, dysbiosis, pancreatitis, liver disease, IBD, diabetes and obesity are not separate diseases. They are all connected. It’s an important consideration because by supporting the digestive and endocrine systems, you can make a huge difference in the outcome of your animal’s illness. It is highly recommended to seek professional guidance for animals that have had several flare ups. These animals are severely compromised and need slow and steady changes to help them recover.

Nutritional Risk Factors: The Most Obvious Cause……And Fix!

Diet has a significant influence on disease development. That’s especially true for digestive diseases like pancreatitis. It’s one of the foundations of health and directly affects the function of digestive organs.

Feeding kibble? It’s a resounding NO!

All kibble contains high starch content – yes, even grain-free brands! Processed starch converts to sugar in the digestive system, increasing blood sugar and insulin secretion.  It puts your pet at risk for obesity and overworks the pancreas. Highly processed starches such as grain meals, pea meals, and lentil meals are not appropriate food sources for dogs or cats who have no nutritional need for dietary carbohydrate, especially processed carbs. Believe it or not, legume diets can contain just as much starch as grain diets so best to steer clear of both for pancreatic health. For some very odd reason, carbs are not required to be listed on pet food labels so you will have no idea how much starch you are feeding if you feed processed food. (5)

Mistakes with Commercial Raw Pet Food

There is an overwhelming selection of commercial raw pet food diets these days. Unfortunately, there’s no regulation in Canada relating to standards, quality and balance in the pet food industry. In the US, the FDA does some regulation but it’s minimal. AAFCO (the American Association of Feed Control Officials) lays out the standards for pet food but it isn’t a regulatory organization. That means: AAFCO only assumes that pet food companies are following the rules but no one is actually checking! This goes for commercial processed feed, raw diets and everything in between. It means that YOU have to be educated on what to look for so that you’re not causing stress or illness to your pet. Below are some of the ways processed and poorly balanced raw food diets can pave the way for pancreatic disease.

Microbiome Imbalance

The microbiome is highly influenced by diet. New research shows that dogs that eat a raw diet have healthier microbiomes than processed-fed dogs. (6) The GI mucosal barrier is the home of your pet’s microbiome. Damage to this lining can occur simply from feeding the wrong diet. And it can happen years before you see any symptoms. A healthy gut starts with fresh food! If you suspect your pet has a microbiome imbalance, helping your pet diversify their healthy gut bugs is a must. A combination of good pre/probiotics and diversification of natural settings – aka living DIRT are important for keeping your pet’s gut healthy. You can also consider having your pet’s microbiome tested (via fecal test) to understand how to help them best.

Too Much Saturated Fat

Have you ever heard someone say that raw diets cause pancreatitis? Fat excess is one of the reasons that this statement holds some merit. (7) One method that some raw pet food companies use to cut costs is to use fat (“trim”) instead of lean meat. Trim is much cheaper than premium cuts of muscle meat. Muscle and fat are both important pieces of the raw diet but sometimes, they are not in balance and high saturated fat content can cause pancreatic stress. The pancreas and liver are responsible for excreting the enzyme lipase which is necessary for fat digestion. Excessive dietary fat can cause a great deal of stress to both the liver and pancreas. A lot of pet parents are, unknowingly, feeding too much fat. If your pet has a pancreatic episode while switching to raw, it’s not just the diet causing the issue. Your pet may already in deep inflammatory distress and switching them to a high fat raw diet often exacerbates the problem.

Adult dogs need a diet that contains between 8-12% fat unless they are athletes or severely over/underweight, in which case, their requirements may change.

Healthy cats should have 8-10% fat, in their daily diet (as fed).

Animals with chronic pancreatitis will most likely need reduced fat intake until they recover. And yes, you can still accomplish this with fresh food. It’s best to consult a professional to determine the best dietary route for your pet.

Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acid Imbalance

Most pet food (even most raw pet foods) is deficient in omega 3 fatty acids. This can set your pet up for inflammation in all areas of the body so you need to ensure that you are balancing your fats.

A well-balanced diet must include sufficient omega 3’s which are known to have anti-inflammatory effects, especially in the digestive system. The minimum ratio is a 4:1 (omega 6:3 fatty acid ratio) but you can include more omega 3’s if your pet is suffering from inflammatory disease. You will need to start low on all fats if your pet has recently had a flare up.

It’s imperative that your fatty acids come from whole food sources if your pet has been diagnosed with pancreatitis. Poor quality oils can cause GI upset. They are often rancid, defeating their purpose or even making your pet worse.

Fatty acid-rich foods include:

  • Canned Atlantic sardines packed in water (not oil) – ¼ – ½ fish every second day
  • Whole fish roe – ½ – 1 tsp per 20 lbs of bodyweight
  • Antarctic Krill Oil – 250-500mg per 15 lbs of bodyweight per day
  • Raw and/or fermented goat milk – ¼ – ½ oz. per 10 lbs

Check in with an expert for how and when to start these foods if your pet is currently sick.

Not Enough Healthy Fibre

There’s a great debate among pet parents and professionals about vegetables for dogs and cats. Some feel they don’t need vegetables because they are carnivores but dogs can benefit greatly from the right types of veggies in their diet, providing antioxidants and healthy fibre that can aid in the recovery of IBD, diabetes and pancreatitis. Even cats benefit from small amounts of juiced green veggies and/or fresh wheatgrass. Fermented, freshly blended and juiced vegetables are all great options too.

Safe veggies for pancreatitis:

  • green leaf vegetables
  • organic whole wheat grasse
  • winter squash (cooked)
  • beets (cooked)
  • broccoli (steamed)
  • Fermented veggies are also extremely useful for enhancing microbiome function
  • Psyllium fibre can provide healthy probiotic fibre to the gut lining and aid in microbiome recovery. It is a great option for severely compromised animals, increasing healthy fibre without increasing starch

Rotational feeding is the best if your pet is healthy. If they are sensitive, they may need a simpler approach at first with only one veggie at a time.

Vegetables for dogs: 20-25% of the total diet

Vegetables for cats: 1-3% – only green leaf veg and cat grasses (oat or wheat)

Not Enough Dietary Enzymes

Lack of dietary enzymes puts a burden on the pancreas. Fresh foods contain enzymes to aid in digestion. When your pet only eats processed foods, they are denied access to enzymes coming from an outside source. That puts all of the responsibility on the body’s organs to produce the enzymes required for digestion. Science shows in humans, that the pancreas is able to adapt to the amount of enzymes and water that come into the digestive tract via food. (8) To support the pancreas, animals need species-appropriate raw foods containing enzymes. They can also benefit from extra enzymes from animals and plants in supplement form.

Not Enough Water

Water is often overlooked as a nutrient but it’s an important part of the digestive process (hydrolysis). Food breakdown can’t happen without water. If water isn’t consumed at the same time as food, the bile duct releases extra digestive juices (water, bile and enzymes) to initiate the digestive process. And guess which organs feed the bile duct? Yep, it’s the pancreas and the liver. If food is dry, it can exhaust both organs’ ability to excrete water, bile and enzymes. Water will allow the digestive organs to stay efficient. Make sure your pet is getting moisture with their food. Fresh food diets will provide ideal moisture (70-80%). It’s not the same as if your pet eats dry food, then gets dehydrated and thirsty, then drinks a bunch of water. The organs have already stepped in to aid in the digestive process before your pet gets thirsty.

Summary Tips for Pancreatitis Recovery:

  • Delaying Spay/Neuter—If you have a young animal, you may want to consider waiting to neuter or spay. Talk to your holistic vet about the pros, cons, and timelines for disease-avoidance.  New research shows that early spay and neuter can cause a myriad of diseases in dogs and cats, including pancreatitis. (9) (10) (11) (12)
  • Gentle, low impact exercise is important for obese pets until they regain a healthy weight. Swimming is my favorite option.
  • Diet, Diet, Diet – fresh food is a must but work with a pro to ensure success.
  • Gut Support – rebuilding the gut lining/microbiome and reducing visceral inflammation is key! You can do this with healthy diet and targeted supplementation
  • Integrative care – homeopathy and other alternative approaches can give your pet the best chance at recovery

References:

  1. Evaluation of risk factors for fatal acute pancreatitis in dogs, 1998
  2. Banfield State of Health Report on Obesity
  3. World Journal of Surgery: Effects of Abdominal Fat Distribution Parameters on Severity of Acute Pancreatitis, 2012
  4. Frontiers in Veterinary Science: A review of the Impact of Neuter Status on Expression of Inherited Conditions in Dogs, 2019
  5. Know Your Pet Food
  6. BMC Veterinary Research: Raw meat based diet influences faecal microbiome and end products of fermentation in healthy dogs, 2017
  7. Die en Arts: Diet and canine pancreatitis, 2019
  8. Reproductive and Nutritional Development: The Adaptation of Pancreatic Digestive Enzymes to the Diet: Its Physiological Significance, 1980 
  9. Journal of Veterinary Medicine (Aukland) : Current perspectives on the optimal age to spay/castrate dogs and cats, 2015
  10. Frontiers in Veterinary Science: Assisting decision-making on age of neutering for 35 breeds of dogs: Associated joint disorders, cancers and urinary incontinence, 2020
  11. Plos One: Neutering Dogs: effects on joint disease and cancers in golden retrievers, 2013
  12. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association: Risk factors associated with acute pancreatitis cases in dogs: 101 cases (1985-1990), 1993