Pancreatitis is an extremely painful and life-threatening condition. The more we know about how to avoid it the better, and how to return your dog to good health should it have been unfortunate enough to have experienced it.
Science now confirms that most health issues are related to lifestyle choices rather than genetics. The good news is that, armed with the best information for your dog, there is lots you can do to ensure that your dog stays as healthy for as long as possible.
Understanding your dog’s physiology and how it is evolved to eat and hunt is key to making the best decisions for your dog. Let’s face it, we make all the decisions for our dogs – where and when they eat, exercise, environment, chemicals in and on them etc., so keeping ourselves well informed is key to helping us know what we can do to help our dogs. Even though dogs don’t live in the wild any more, they are physiologically still designed to eat as though they did.
What is the Pancreas and What does it do?
The pancreas is a small organ that sits behind the small intestine and the stomach. its purpose is to help dogs digest food and regulate their blood sugar.
The pancreas performs two main roles in keeping the body in balance:
- It produces and stores hormones such as insulin, assisting in the maintenance of blood sugar levels;
- It produces and stores digestive enzymes to facilitate the digestion of protein and fats.
The term pancreatitis is used when the pancreas is inflamed and swollen. This is normally due to the pancreas being overworked, for many reasons, as we will see below.
When the pancreas is inflamed or over stimulated, this can cause excessive flow of enzymes and digestive juices (including bile). In a normal pancreas, the digestive enzymes are not activated until they reach the intestines. However, when the pancreas is over stimulated the digestive enzymes are activated whilst still in the pancreas, resulting in the pancreas starting to digest itself! If this is allowed to continue, the digestive juices and enzymes can leak into the abdominal area where they will start to break down the body’s fats and proteins in other organs, including the kidneys and liver. This triggers an inflammatory response, and can also lead to severe infection and bleeding. Pancreatitis is extremely painful and can lead to death – so must always be treated very seriously and quickly.
Typical Causes of Pancreatitis
Like most conditions, pancreatitis can build up over time, with the owner being unaware of the problem (if they do not pick up on the early warning signs). However, it can also progress rapidly, so if you have any suspicion that your dog is in abdominal pain it should be taken to the vets straight away.
The type and frequency of feeding is the main contributor to pancreatitis.
Food – Frequency of meals
Dogs have evolved to eat a large meal intermittently – many owners now feed their dogs twice or more a day. Indeed some owners leave a bowl of kibble down for dogs to ‘graze’ on. This can have disastrous consequences. A dog’s digestive tract is very short – and its stomach acid is very strong (acidic). Dogs are able to eat and digest a meal even if it is not fresh, with possible high bacterial levels. The food stays in the stomach for a relatively long time; anywhere between 1,2 Hours to 20 Hours (depending on fat, carbohydrate and fibre content, bite sizes, empty or half full stomach etc.) where most of the protein digestion takes place. It is important to know that the strong stomach acid is perfectly evolved to digest proteins but NOT fats and carbohydrates! The strong stomach acid also kills many potentially harmful bacteria.
Once the food leaves the stomach, it enters the intestines, where the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes and bile to complete the digestive process. The dog’s intestines are very short in comparison to humans and herbivores (poor cats have it even shorter).
The food is designed to exit the body as quickly as possible once it has left the dogs stomach, so this means that there is very little time left for digestion of carbohydrates and fats! If the fat and / or carbohydrate content is too high then the pancreas has to work overtime to try and break the food down.
Food – composition & quality
Here lies one of the main problems. A dog is designed to eat small prey animals such as a rabbit. A wild rabbit has very low-fat levels (unlike many farmed rabbits) – typically 7 – 15% fat. The only carbohydrates that a dog would eat in the wild are those that are already partially digested in the stomach and gut of their prey, and some grazing on fruits and vegetation when needed. Alas most modern dog foods are highly processed and many contain very high levels of carbohydrates and / or fats. Even many raw feeds contain very high fat levels. Many commercialy produced animals used for pet food have much higher fat levels due to the way they are kept and fed than their wild counterparts. High fat levels slow down the breakdown of proteins and also the absorption of water-soluble vitamins such as B vitamins. As such, when a high fat food is fed, much of the protein remains undigested, and the pancreas has to produce excess enzymes and bile salts to digest the high fat levels. Over time this means the pancreas is working much harder than it should do, which causes problems and inflammation. The pancreas literally tires, and cannot therefore function properly leading to malfunction and pancreatitis and often diabetes.
If the food fed is high in carbohydrates, again the pancreas has to work very hard to produce enough juices and enzymes to break these down – leading to the problems described above. From a financial point of view many pet food companies use high carbohydrate levels, as they are the cheapest way of providing high energy foods. Alas, a dog simply can’t digest high amount of carbohydrates. However, as the dog is very adaptive, many owners can feed inappropriate diets for long periods without realising the harm they are doing. Eventually the body will reach a tipping point and problems will show, but by that time it is harder to rectify!
Symptoms of Pancreatitis
Knowing how to recognise the symptoms early is key to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering to your dog. Seeing a dog with pancreatitis is extremely stressful for the owner too.
Pancreatitis can be either Acute (sudden) or Chronic (ongoing).
This is the term used when the dog has a ‘sudden’ onset of pancreatitis, without any apparent prior symptoms (in practice there normally are symptoms but they may have gone unnoticed). If a dog has been given different foods, for example at Christmas, with excess fat and carbohydrates, or if the dog / household is stressed, (e.g. if in kennels) this can cause a sudden acute attack.
Chronic (long term) pancreatitis
This is where the dog has developed problems over time, often with the symptoms building up gradually until eventually pancreatitis is diagnosed.
Typical symptoms can include:
- Smelly breath and stool
- Chronic Fatigue and lack of attention
- Pain during digestion
- Pain sensitivity on the abdomen
- Constant flexion of the abdomen, especially during digestion.
- Stool with mucus and/or blood
- Lack of performance, quicker to pant
- Increased flatulence
If you notice any unusual symptoms in your dog it is so important to talk to your vet about it as quickly as possible. Do not just dismiss them. The body gives early warning signs when things are going out of balance so we need to listen.
Your vet can run several blood tests to diagnose pancreatitis, including:
Diagnosis can be done with a proper blood test, both enzymatic tests and complete blood count to investigate if any pancreatic enzymes leach into the blood. Also abdominal ultrasound and x-ray is necessary to assess if there are any foreign objects or any obstruction to the bile duct/gallbladder channels. Your vet would know which tests to do according to the symptoms and condition of your dog.
What should I do if my dog has pancreatitis?
Always consult your vet. However, what and when you feed your dogs will have major impact, so here is some great advice that might really help:
- Fast your dog for 24-48 hours – dogs are able to regulate their blood sugar levels for much longer than humans, so can cope (and should) fast regularly to rest their pancreas and digestive system. Always ensure fresh room temperature water is available at all times. Resting the digestive system will help quickly reduce inflammation and stress – your dog will thank you. If your dog is really weak and exhausted from long term vomiting, diarrhoea or just malabsorption, keep the fast below 24 hours. Check with your vet if any infusion is necessary.
- Reintroduce foods slowly: A healthy dog functions best with raw, minimally processed organic/wild food, period! But dogs with IBS, heavy diarrhoea and sometimes pancreatitis can’t digest most of the food properly. Therefore, cooking (whilst your dog heals) might ease the breakdown of fibres, proteins and starches. It will also reduce the risk of bacterial, viral and parasitic infections. After the problem is solved, there should be a transition to raw again. Long term cooked food can bring other disadvantages. Please choose as much organic as you can. Especially the animal based products. Fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides (like glyphosate/Roundup), heavy metals and synthetic vitamins have a very negative effect on the digestive tract, function and overall health of your animal and you. By avoiding these, you increase the life-span and quality of life of yourself and your companion
- A typical recipe that you could cook for your dog after the initial fast, and whilst it is recovering, would be:
Example Recipe: ~400 g cooked meal for 10kg Dog
75g turkey liver, 75g turkey heart, 100g turkey breast (250g total)
25 g Broccoli, 50g Beets, 25g apple (raw, rasps), ½ teaspoon chia seeds, ½ teaspoon turmeric, a pinch of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of herb mix (see below). Water to cover the ingredients ( approx 400 ml). All large sized ingredients should be diced to min 1cm size or slightly bigger.
You can always add half a cup mangoes for increased digestion.
Organic bone broth would also help a lot. Prepare it at home and freeze it in cubes for convenience. Avoid fatty meats and organs for your broth. High fat in broth reduces the benefits and increases the stress on the pancreas.
You can use this recipe as a guideline and exchange the ingredients with similar ones.
Please feed this to your dog only once a day, preferably evenings, before the night sleep. Do not leave the bowl on the floor if your dog does not finish up. You can also freeze the food and thaw for your convenience
As supplements, we advice to use two well known adaptogenic mushrooms. Cordyceps (Reishi) and Hericium (Lion’s mane) to help the intestinal tract regain it’s vitality and balance the microbiota.
- After 1 – 4 weeks, when your dog is showing no further problems, reintroduce it to a raw balanced diet. Your dog should be fed once per day, in the evening, to allow time for the body to rest and digest the food properly.
- Choose starch free veggies and fruits like mangoes for their positive effects on the digestive system
Step 2: Bland food
Once you’ve given the pancreas time to rest and you notice the symptoms have improved or gone away, start feeding a small amount of bland food, such as bone broth. Be sure to cool the broth and skim off the fat that sets on the top before giving it to your dog, to keep the fat to a minimum.
Short-term food reintroduction. Mix cooked meals with every day bigger amounts of raw. You can feed 50% of the total food in raw during the day in very small pieces (4 to 6 times). Most important thing is to let the digestive tract to get used to nutrients, in natural, glorious form. Keep it low fat to avoid pancreas fatigue.
Herbs & Homeopathy
Can also be very useful – this will be part of a future blog!
Long-Term Feeding advice
- Avoid all processed foods! There is no such things as a healthy kibble!
- Reduce carbohydrates and starch in your dog’s diet – that means no kibble (grain free or not).
- Limit the fatty foods in your dog’s diet.
- Feed natural whole foods – seek the help of a nutritionist (great recipes coming here soon) to ensure that your dog is getting all the nutrients they need.
- Exercise – is good for the body and mind, Dogs need as much time in nature as possible – this will help keep them physically and emotionally fit and will help ensure that their microbiome is healthy – which affects all aspects of health!
- Look out for early warning signs of digestive discomfort, diarrhoea,
- Feed a balanced raw organic food to ensure your dog THRIVES not just survives The health of the digestive tract (and a healthy balance of the microbiota) is key to overall health
- Feed adult dogs once per day in the evening
- Ensure your dog gets appropriate exercise (for their age and breed) every day Minimise chemicals in their environment, food / water and on / in them!
- Meditate daily with your dog to reduce stress
- Share organic meat and veg with your dog so save time and cost