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Summer barbeques and celebratory events such as Christmas provide great enjoyment for humans, but for their pets – dogs in particular – an overdose of the good life can lead to a painful and potentially fatal condition called pancreatitis.

The pancreas is a very important small organ that lies in the right hand side of the abdomen. It has two functions:

  1. The endocrine part of the pancreas produces the hormone insulin and controls blood sugar. These cells are involved in diabetes.
  2. The exocrine pancreatic cells produce enzymes that help with food digestion. Inflammation of these cells (pancreatitis) causes autodigestion of the pancreas – in other words, the pancreas is attacked by its own digestive enzymes.

While the cause of pancreatitis is often unknown and there is no age, sex, or breed predisposition, middle to old aged and overweight dogs are more commonly affected. Genetic factors are suspected in some breeds such as Miniature Schnauzers, and some disease conditions and drugs may initiate the disease.

One of the accepted risk factors in dogs is ingestion of excess fat. Think table scraps, lamb chop tails, fat off the ham, cold grease scrapings from the BBQ, cheese and other snacks.


Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic and clinical signs vary accordingly. In acute pancreatitis, there is a sudden onset of nausea, abdominal pain, refusal to eat, vomiting, fever and, in severe cases, shock with complications in other vital organs and death. Chronic pancreatitis means the condition keeps recurring, and this often happens in dogs that may have recovered from an acute episode.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Clinical signs and history help point to a diagnosis, backed up by blood tests showing specific changes to pancreatic and other organ enzyme levels.

Treatment of acute pancreatitis must be initiated as quickly as possible. Intravenous fluids are critical for maintaining normal fluid and electrolyte balance, and antibiotics, pain relief and other treatment is aimed at relieving symptoms and helping the pancreas rest and heal. Dogs that present with shock and depression have a very poor prognosis.


As with so many health conditions in pets, prevention is by far the best option. Think of your pet’s diet as you do your own – once your dog has recovered, talk to our vets about a safe, low fat maintenance diet to use long term to help prevent pancreatitis recurring. Prescription diets are available to make this easier.