Pancreatitis is a serious illness in dogs and it often takes pet owners by surprise. Its onset can be sudden and many times pet owners assume that the fact that their family dog doesn’t want to eat or drink and is throwing up may be a passing thing. It could be, but it could also be life-threatening pancreatitis. If that’s the case, you need to act fast.
My experience with pancreatitis began when my 11-year-old Yorkie, McCarthy, started showing signs of ill health about a week after surgery to amputate two cancerous toes. He was doing relatively well after the operation, but then the lethargy crept in; he looked pale, and his eyes sunken. It was so out of character, he was usually active and demonstrated immense excitement whenever I picked up the leads to take him and his brother, Higgins, out for a walk or run.
He also refused food and water, so I took him to the vet and he was given anti-nausea and pain medication. It didn’t help, he licked his lips constantly, another sign of nausea; he ate grass at every opportunity and started throwing up through the night. I spent the evening Googling what could be the problem – I suspected pancreatitis.
The following morning we were back at the hospital, he was admitted and given medication and fluids intravenously. The following afternoon he was discharged, completely transformed and back to being his bouncy self, but a week later, the symptoms returned.
Back to the hospital, where they ran a batch of blood tests and found that his liver enzymes had skyrocketed. The specialist thought he’d eaten something poisonous, but he hadn’t. He was prescribed a cocktail of medication. I thought he was going to die, I had never seen him so sick, his listless, tiny body hung in my arms as I carried him. However, to my surprise, a week later he looked well, but it was fleeting and we found ourselves back at the hospital once again.
The ultrasound reflected that his pancreas was extremely inflamed and finally a diagnosis was made – pancreatitis. He was prescribed chronic medication to make the bile less fat-soluble, milk thistle to support his liver, and we continued with some of the other medication previously prescribed. I also had to change his diet, as the Hills food he was eating was not staying down. I prepared home-cooked chicken and vegetables and blended those for him; he still refused food. Initially, it is good to allow the pancreas to rest by withdrawing food and water for 24 hours, but after that, they need nutrition and hydration, so I had to force feed him the blended food with a syringe.
Our journey to keep him symptom-free began…
Further information on pancreatitis
Firstly, for those who are not aware of the pancreas’ purpose – it has a dual function in that it helps to digest food as well as control blood sugar. It is situated near the stomach. Pancreatitis occurs when this organ becomes inflamed, which could happen suddenly, as in McCarthy’s case, which is called acute pancreatitis, but it could also then turn into chronic pancreatitis. Some dogs have one bout and never again, others need specialised foods and careful management to prevent recurring bouts for the rest of their lives.
When the organ is functioning as it should, the enzymes from the pancreas only become active when they reach the small intestine. In a dog who has pancreatitis, those enzymes activate prematurely when they are released, which causes inflammation and damage to the pancreas as well as the surrounding organs and tissues. The enzymes can even begin digesting the pancreas itself, which causes excruciating pain.
I knew immediately when McCarthy was having a pancreatic attack. I could see the pain in his face and he would hunch over and then begin to vigourously scratch his bed or blankets, it was as if he wanted to dig the pain away. It broke my heart watching him digging like a mad animal.
He remained on chronic medication and I fed him small portions of low-fat, home-cooked meals three times a day, but he still had recurring bouts of pancreatitis; even a visit to the vet or the slightest form of stress triggered an attack. I was at my wit’s end, but I continued researching.
The next option was a more natural one; I was referred to a reputable homeopathic vet.
Our journey into homeopathy for pets
The homeopathic vet suggested ozone therapy and biopuncture with a range of homeopathic medication and high doses of Vitamin C. He also prescribed a live probiotic and homeopathic tinctures which I had to administer daily. A few days after receiving his first round of treatment, my dog was vibrant. The transformation was miraculous.
He regained his appetite and we moved over to Acana Light and Fit kibble with tiny bits of boiled chicken as a topping. He wouldn’t eat it otherwise. I continued medicating him with the prescribed medication, probiotics, homeopathic tinctures, and milk thistle a few times daily, according to the homeopath’s instructions.
We repeated the treatment with the homeopathic vet every two weeks initially and slowly progressed to every three weeks, then six, then eight. We continued in this way for two years.
The first few months post surgery were particularly bad and I believe the repeated bouts of pancreatitis caused much damage to his pancreas. However, after receiving treatment from the homeopathic vet, he only had two attacks over a 19-month period, but sadly, the last one — a few days before his 14th birthday — caused too much damage; it was also accompanied by hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE), which is a disease in dogs that is characterised by sudden vomiting and bloody diarrhea. The symptoms are severe, and if the illness is not treated, it can be fatal.
McCarthy’s symptoms began by him refusing food and displaying signs of nausea, but there were no other serious signs initially during that day, but during the night his symptoms worsened, and I took him to the vet early the following morning. He was losing a lot of blood and his breathing became laboured. The vet admitted him and administered intravenous fluid therapy (IV), but she called me an hour later to say he was battling to breathe and she referred him to the animal hospital. He was placed in an oxygen tank, had an ultrasound, which confirmed that his pancreas and intestines were severely inflamed, and they too administered a cocktail of the appropriate medication intravenously, but he sadly died 90 minutes later from toxic septicemia.
I was shocked at how quickly death could come. He was completely healthy between Monday and Wednesday, started showing signs of nausea during the day on Thursday, became severely ill during the night, and died the following morning. From the commencement of symptoms to death was not even within a 24-hour period. Life is so fragile.
The purpose of this article is to warn other pet owners not to take the following symptoms lightly.
Acute symptoms of pancreatitis include:
a) loss of appetite
b) reluctance to drink
e) depression and lethargy
f) abdominal pain
g) frantic digging in blankets or bed (a tell-tale sign when McCarthy had an attack)
Chronic symptoms of pancreatitis include:
a) vomiting or pain after eating (but not necessarily after every meal)
b) reluctance to eat or loss of appetite
c) reluctance to drink
d) weight loss
e) depression and lethargy
f) difficulty breathing
g) frantic digging in blankets or bed (my experience in McCarthy’s case)
The causes of pancreatitis are not always clear and are commonly debated. It has been said that high-fat diets are often the cause, but this has not been scientifically proven. However, too much fat can cause pancreatitis in older dogs, especially if they are overweight or relatively inactive. Dogs who eat scraps from the garbage are also more prone to pancreatitis, especially if the dog usually eats a low- to normal-fat diet, but then suddenly eats rancid fatty scraps or high-fat foods. There are also several medications associated with pancreatitis in dogs.
In McCarthy’s case, none of the above applied, as I never fed him or Higgy a high-fat diet and they both lead active lives. McCarthy was particularly active and ran six to ten kilometres with me on many occasions until he reached his senior years, then I tapered it down, but we still did many hikes and walked daily. The vets and specialists suggested that the cause in McCarthy’s case could’ve been the repeated anaesthesia required for the procedures leading up to his amputation surgery, and the surgery itself, which can wreak havoc with the functionality of the bodily systems.
Pancreatitis is a serious illness. I would like to warn other pet owners to err on the side of caution and take their pets to their local vet as soon as they display any of the abovementioned symptoms. It could be a matter of life or death and one should certainly not take a wait-and-see approach.
Our pet’s lives are precious and it is our responsibility to care for them to the best of our ability.
Stay informed, do your research, and always do what is best for your pets!
Authored by Delilah Nosworthy (née Sao Joao)