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Vet Talk: Symptoms and tests confirmed beloved pet had pancreatitis

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Eilidh was a bouncy, six-year-old miniature Schnauzer brought in after her owner noticed her vomiting regularly after eating and being withdrawn and quiet. On examination I noted she was unusually subdued, and her abdomen uncomfortable to palpate, very firm and “tight”.

Eilidh was in discomfort and lethargic so I admitted her for fluid therapy, pain relief and further tests.

Abdominal ultrasound examination and blood tests confirmed she had acute pancreatitis.

The pancreas is a delicate organ that sits alongside the small intestine. Its purpose is to help digest food and regulate blood sugar.

The term pancreatitis describes when the pancreas becomes inflamed and swollen.Pancreatitis is typically described as either chronic or acute, with chronic meaning the condition has developed slowly, while acute is when it appears suddenly.

Dogs with pancreatitis are likely to suffer loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea and lethargy. They may also have abdominal pain and can quickly become dehydrated. In milder forms symptoms are not quite as obvious, but may be the same. During an acute attack dogs may hunch up their backs, holding their rear end in the air with their front legs and head lowered onto the floor, in an odd “praying” stance.

The prognosis depends on severity. Mild cases may just require a change of diet, while more severe cases will need urgent, aggressive medical treatment. If left untreated, pancreatitis may lead to long-term organ damage and even shock and sudden death.

There seems to be a higher prevalence of pancreatitis in border terriers, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, miniature schnauzers, poodles and Yorkshire terriers.

It is often difficult to pinpoint the exact cause. One of the most common risk factors is scavenging, and it is sometimes triggered when a dog eats foods that are high in fat or otherwise rich. Severe trauma or surgery can also be a cause, and it has been linked to the use of some drugs. Dogs with Cushing’s disease can also be prone to it.

If your vet suspects pancreatitis they will provide treatments including pain relief and medications to reduce inflammation and ease vomiting and nausea. Your pet may be hospitalised for intravenous fluids and to receive medications to relieve any abdominal pain.

Your vet may be able to give you a provisional diagnosis of pancreatitis based on history and symptoms. Tests are likely to include a specific blood test called a canine pancreatic lipase test. Also, abdominal x‑rays and/ or an ultrasound scan.

Life expectancy for dogs diagnosed with pancreatitis is difficult to predict. In mild cases, the prognosis is generally good. In more serious and chronic cases the prognosis can be more guarded, with repeated episodes causing complicating factors such as organ failure. In the case of necrotising pancreatitis, a very severe and complicated form, portions of the pancreas and surrounding body tissues are destroyed. These severe cases require hospitalisation for urgent intensive care.

Thankfully, little Eilidh had had a mild episode and recovered well after treatment. She was now monitored closely and kept on a strict prescription diet.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant with Crown Vets in Inverness.

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