The pancreas is situated behind the stomach, adjacent to the duodenum and colon in the dog. Its function and diseases are still not fully understood. Acute inflammation is excruciating and can be fatal. Chronic, or long-term inflammation, called chronic pancreatitis (CP) is often less painful. Still, it can be problematic, causing vomiting, inappetence and dehydration. There are many causes, making CP more common than it has been historically. Treatment is simple and often effective, but nutritional management is critical. We suggest raw food is key to avoiding CP and in the treatment and rehabilitation of those dogs unlucky enough to suffer from this common disease.
The pancreas is possibly the least well-known organ in the body. Which is surprising because, like the brain, you only have one and if it goes wrong, the results are profound, painful and potentially fatal.
‘Acute’, quick-onset, pancreatitis is considered one of the most painful conditions in humans; up with breaking a leg or having a baby. We think it’s the same for dogs. And it’s often lethal.
Chronic pancreatitis (CP), it’s less severe relative, describes the same disease, but less intense and longer-lasting. CP can go on for years.
Many dogs have it, and we don’t even know. In a study of 200 dogs who died from non-pancreatic diseases (e.g. hit by car or cancer), it was found that 34% were suffering chronic pancreatitis when examined at post mortem. In another study, 73 otherwise healthy dogs examined after death, a whopping 64% showed physical or microscopic evidence of chronic pancreatitis!
Pancreatitis is becoming more prevalent. In her 2015 review on the subject, Penny Watson of the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, states that CP is now common. Thirty years ago it was seen rarely in practice.
The signs of clinical (i.e.visible) CP are usually not hard to spot: inappetence and vomiting are most common. Lethargy and stretching because of the abdominal pain is often seen, too. Small dogs may be reluctant to be picked up or cuddled. Larger dogs may resent having their abdomen touched or stroked. CP dogs usually dehydrate because they don’t want to drink and may lose fluids through vomiting.
Some breeds are more predisposed than others: CKCS, boxers, cocker spaniels and Border collies are the worst affected in the UK.
Conventional treatment involves painkillers (e.g. Pardale V) and intravenous fluids. Most dogs, thankfully, recover well. Unfortunately, most dogs are then put on low-fat kibble or tinned foods which we will see below are possibly problematic. A low-fat raw diet is our recommendation. Bone broths and digestive enzymes are useful additions. Once a day feeding is desirable to not over-stimulate a delicate pancreas. Little and often feeding is to be avoided.
After three months of health, the food can be returned, gradually, to more normal fat levels. If a flare-up happens again, it’s worth investigating for other primary problems that may be causing the pancreas to inflame secondarily, e.g. Cushing’s disease or IBD.
Causes of CP
Processed foods contain poor-quality fats, are often allergenic (sensitivity-causing) and induce gut inflammation that can lead to CP. Processed and ultra-processed foods often rely on grains for energy and fibre. It is well recognised that high grain-carbohydrate diets promote more elevated triglycerides (fats) in the blood. A raw diet, counterintuitively, even if it’s high-fat, helps lower blood fats, reducing the risk of CP.
Processed foods often cause gut inflammation, IBD and Leaky Gut problems, all of which can promote CP.
Rancid fats are found in poor quality pet foods and in dry kibbles, especially if the bag has been open for a long time. This is quite common with people who buy large economy bags of food but only have a small dog. These fats are pro-inflammatory as well as being toxic.
Healthy fats do not cause pancreatitis in an otherwise healthy dog. Those found in raw food that have not been heated, modified, emulsified and oxidised as they are in kibbles.
If healthy fats did cause damage, generations of Huskies and the other mushing dogs in Alaska, Siberia and other cold climes would have died off years ago. Their diet of whale or seal blubber with a bit of fish thrown onto the snow would have given each and every one of them raging pancreatitis, but it did not, obviously.
Scavenging is usually fine, but if the dog picks up a particularly rotten morsel, this can really strain the pancreas through inflammation. If the scavenged material contains rancid fats, this can compound the problem.
Genetics can play a part. We know this because, as we have seen, certain breeds are predisposed. The most common genetic polymorphism is SPINK1. Just because a dog has the gene, though, doesn’t mean it will be expressed. Toxins, drugs and inflammation influence epigenetics, the mechanisms that control if a gene is switched on or off. A good (raw or lightly-cooked fresh) diet and minimal use of drugs, vaccines and flea and tick products are thought to encourage more healthy gene expression.
Obesity is rife in the UK and Europe among our dogs. Up to 70% of all dogs in this country are overweight or obese. Obesity predisposes to CP by increased pancreatic inflammation and cell death from an increased amount of fat in and around the pancreas.
Pharmaceuticals: 120 known drugs can cause CP, including, for example, Potassium bromide and phenobarbitone for epilepsy. Corticosteroids (Prednisolone, Prednidale or Medrone, for example) are high on the list, too. Unfortunately, they are very commonly used daily in veterinary practice.
Cushing’s disease, where the body produces too much of its own natural steroids, can predispose to CP, just as the use of steroids in pill or injection form can.
Infections: tropical, insect-borne blood parasites such as Babesiosis, or Leishmaniasis have been found to cause some canine CP.
Sex: entire male dogs and neutered females are seen to be more at risk of CP.
Surgery – some studies suggest that the process of having surgery can also predispose to pancreatitis. It is not clear if it’s the act of surgery, the drugs or other factors, e.g. stress, at play.
When we look at this daunting list of causes of CP, it’s a wonder that all dogs don’t have clinical disease all of the time. Raw fed dogs are not exposed to ultra-processed foods and rancid fats. They are generally leaner and healthier than conventionally fed dogs and are less likely to get CP. They need fewer drugs and so will be at a sizeable advantage to their poor kibble fed pals.
Every organ in the body needs a plethora of micronutrients always available in a varied fresh raw diet. Every organ suffers when carcinogens are eaten, toxins are ingested, or low-nutrient ultra-processed products are fed. None more so than our hard-working, little-known friend, the pancreas.