During the holidays, you can ask any veterinarian in general practice or in the emergency room, and they will tell you they see lots of vomiting dogs! From Thanksgiving through New Year’s, veterinary practices are busy treating pets with a potentially fatal disease called pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas, an organ that provides digestive enzymes and insulin. Under typical circumstances, the digestive enzymes are kept safely inactive inside the pancreatic cells until they are normally released into the intestines and activated. These powerful chemicals help break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates so that the body can make use of the food.
However, for some reason, these enzymes are occasionally triggered early and actually start damaging the pancreas itself, causing severe inflammation of the organ and surrounding tissues. This serious condition can appear suddenly (acute), or it may develop slowly over time (chronic).
This is a very painful condition and is more common in dogs than cats. It is seen around the holidays because pet lovers just can’t resist and give their pets too much of the fatty foods left over from holiday meals. This fat is thought to trigger the disease. Pet owners first notice that their pets are just not normal. The pet may seem to have a painful abdomen that gets worse and develop diarrhea. The hallmark symptom is repetitive vomiting. Many times, no food or water will stay in the stomach.
Chronic cases of pancreatitis are more commonly seen in cats and result from long-standing inflammation. This often leads to irreversible damage and could even develop into diabetes.
Although the exact mechanism of pancreatitis is not known, there are risk factors and some things we do know. The biggest of these are pets who’ve recently had a high-fat meal. During the holiday season, this usually means the greasy turkey, ham trimmings and gravy that we don’t want and feed to our pets. Certain breeds, some small dogs and obese pets are very prone to quick onsets of this disease. Veterinarians also report that pancreatitis can develop alongside other diseases, like Cushing’s disease or diabetes and even occur due to some drugs, toxins or bacterial/viral infections.
Even though symptoms range from mild to life-threatening, acute pancreatitis is a very painful condition. These pets will whine or cry and often walk with a “hunched-up” appearance, a sure sign of pain and that veterinary care is needed immediately! Dehydration, heart arrhythmias or blood-clotting issues may occur without quick medical attention.
Veterinarians will often do blood work or even take X-rays in order to rule out other causes of abdominal pain, such as an obstruction in the intestines, kidney or liver disease.
Your veterinarian can alleviate the pain, vomiting and dehydration, which are side effects of the pancreatic inflammation. By controlling the pain and the main symptoms, it is likely the pancreas will heal itself, but this needs to happen under direct medical supervision. Affected pets cannot have any food or water by mouth for several days, so IV fluids and other medications are essential. And because of a severely painful abdomen, proper pain control measures are a vital part of the treatment.
Many pets who suffer a bout of pancreatitis seem to be prone to develop the disease again. Whether this is due to eating inappropriate things, genetic predisposition or some concurrent disease is not known.
One of the simplest things you can do to avoid this serious disease and a holiday trip to the animal ER is to not feed any pet from the table. The skin of the holiday turkey, fatty parts of the ham or even leftovers tossed in the trash can all trigger an episode of pancreatitis. If you notice a change in your pet’s eating behavior or stance or any signs of abdominal pain, especially with vomiting, call your veterinarian immediately and get early treatment. This could save your pet’s life.
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem (www.creaturehealth.com). She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Email your pet questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”