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We’ve been receiving some displaced Hurricane Sandy pets from New York and New Jersey that want to be adopted, and more are coming in. We’ve had to do a lot of dental cleanings and many of the cats are older, some with medical issues.

There seems to be a notable trend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s for animal distress. One of the more common ailments that I’ve treated is pancreatitis. I think we like to let our pets (over)indulge with us. However, there can be consequences.

What is pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ near the small intestine and liver that produces enzymes to help break down food. When the pancreas is inflamed, the enzymes can actually digest the organ itself, causing clinical symptoms.

It can be acute in nature or chronic over several months. Dogs usually get the acute form and cats get the chronic.

What causes it?

A shy three-year-old female border collie, Tuxedo, needs a loving household without any pets.

The cause of pancreatitis is largely unknown. However, there are many risk factors that have been linked to the disease.

They include hyperlipidemia (fat in the blood) from eating a large, fatty meal, obesity, concurrent diseases (diabetes, Cushing’s disease), consuming contaminated food or water, certain drugs, and bacterial and viral infections.

What are the symptoms?

The signs of pancreatitis can vary from what looks like mild gastrointestinal upset to collapse, or even death. Signs may be vomiting, painful and hunched over abdomen, dehydration, diarrhea, low or increased body temperature, depression, and lack of appetite.

Unfortunately, all of these signs are seen in a variety of other conditions, so more testing is needed to rule out the less serious diseases.

Macadamia is a beige and white two-year-old male cat ready for adoption.

Cats show very vague symptoms over a long period of time. They may have intermittent bouts of vomiting, diarrhea, anorexia, and variable signs of pain. They are usually lethargic, but it’s difficult to notice lethargy in a cat who normally sleeps for 20 hours a day anyway.

How is it diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there is no one test that is specific and sensitive to diagnose pancreatitis. Most of the time vets prefer to rule out other diseases and rely on tests that suggest pancreatitis. It’s common to run several blood tests.

There are a few special pancreas tests that can suggest pancreatic inflammation, which would be added onto normal blood count and chemistry panels.

Imaging is also widely used to rule out other diseases that cause vomiting and abdominal pain. X-rays help to rule out GI foreign bodies that cause vomiting and diarrhea. Ultrasounds will show changes in the pancreas that suggest inflammation.

How is it treated?

Pancreatitis is mainly treated with supportive care. Admitting your pet into the hospital for IV fluids and pain management is crucial. Dehydration easily leads to cardiovascular collapse and death if not treated appropriately. Unfortunately, there is no cure and the body has to heal itself.

Some vets like to withhold food to rest the pancreas while others feel that it heals faster if food is offered. In very severe cases, feeding tubes are needed to support your pet while the body heals.

If there are other disease processes occurring simultaneously, your vet will want to treat those as well. Antibiotics may be needed, especially if a bacterial cause is suspected or if there is enough evidence suggesting that the normal gut flora is invading the pancreas or liver.

Is there any prevention?
Unfortunately, since we don’t know the exact cause, there are no definitive preventatives. I know I say this a lot, but try to keep your pet on the thin side. Obesity leads to fatty blood, a link to pancreatitis.

Since we don’t know for sure that feeding fatty meals causes pancreatitis, I recommend avoiding feeding them to your pets.

It’s hard to resist temptation, especially around the holidays. Instruct guests not to feed your pet fatty food. Instead, have some dog or cat treats available for them to give.

Some breeds of dogs are prone to getting pancreatitis. Miniature schnauzers have a predisposition to having fatty blood and are even more sensitive to high-fat meals. Feeding susceptible breeds low-fat food will help avoid pancreatitis.

Also, keep a good secure lid on your trash cans. Dogs and cats know when you’re distracted and will sneak into the trash for a tempting treat.

If this doesn’t lead to pancreatitis, it may in the very least lead to a pet that is vomiting and having diarrhea all over your house.

That should be enough info for pet owners to be in the know!

Dr. Stephanie Oba is a contributing writer and animal physician working at a non-profit rescue organization in San Diego. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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