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Posted on 01-17-2014
The pancreas is an extremely important and versatile organ. It produces a wide variety of hormones and enzymes to drive different body processes. In addition to releasing insulin and glucagon, which manage the use of sugars in the body, the pancreas is also responsible for producing a number of digestive enzymes that help break down food as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. A properly functioning pancreas is vital for good health, but a sick pancreas is both uncomfortable and dangerous!
Pancreatitis is an illness that occurs in both cats and dogs when the digestive enzymes produced in the pancreas, which normally enter the intestines to break down food, are instead released into other areas of the body. These powerful enzymes can actually start to digest the body's own tissues. If the enzymes enter the circulatory system through the nearby liver, they can cause complications in the lungs, fat tissue, brain, and even the bloodstream itself by causing a clotting disorder known as disseminated intravascular coagulation, or DIC, which can be fatal. Thankfully, these complications are fairly uncommon, but prompt and aggressive treatment of suspected pancreatitis is always the best course to keep them from developing.
The symptoms of pancreatitis are similar to other gastrointestinal problems, and they can vary from case to case. The main signs are usually lethargy and loss of appetite. Pets with pancreatitis often experience abdominal pain or discomfort. Fever may be present, but it's also possible for the body temperature to be lower than normal, particularly in cats. Vomiting and/or diarrhea may occur. If your pet experiences any of these signs, it's important to get them checked out before assuming that this is a simple case of “upset tummy.” Our pets can be very stoic and may not show us how serious their illness is until it is advanced.
To differentiate between pancreatitis and other illnesses of the GI tract, your veterinarian will start by listening to your report of the symptoms and performing a complete physical exam. He or she may then recommend bloodwork, which can show if the levels of certain enzymes such as amylase and lipase (associated with the pancreas) or ALT and alkaline phosphatase (associated with the liver) are higher than they ought to be. This is a sign that pancreatitis might be the culprit. A more specific lipase test can also be performed, which is even more helpful in diagnosing pancreatitis. Sometimes x-rays or an ultrasound are warranted as well.
Treatment depends on how severe the illness is. In more moderate cases, hospitalization and IV fluid support is recommended, along with medications to control pain and nausea, as well as antibiotics to fight secondary infections which may develop. In more severe cases, plasma transfusions may be indicated. Animals with chronic or recurring pancreatitis may need to change to a special diet. If the pancreas itself is damaged by a bout of pancreatitis, it can even cause diabetes, which would require lifelong management.
Unfortunately, there is not much known about the causes of pancreatitis, making it difficult to prevent or avoid. Sometimes it is associated with a traumatic abdominal injury such as being hit by a car. Pancreatitis can also result from exposure to certain toxins such as organophosphates. Certain infections, such as toxoplasmosis or feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), can also be a trigger. In dogs, high fat intake or poor fat metabolism is suspected to contribute to pancreatitis, although the link is less clear in cats. Cats suffering from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are at increased risk for pancreatitis as well. Miniature Schnauzers may be more prone to pancreatitis than other breeds. Sometimes, however, there is simply no known reason why a given pet develops pancreatitis.
If you have any questions, call us at 610-458-8789. We serve Chester Springs, Downingtown, Glenmoore, Exton and the surrounding area.
Written by Christina Gerling, Veterinary Technician
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