Pancreatitis - The Appropriate Way to "Treat" Your Dog Over the Easter Break

What dog treats are you planning to give this Easter? We all love to give dog treats, but here's a word of warning for which dog treats are best for your pet's health.

Dog Treats at Easter

Pancreatitis in dogs is a disease of the exocrine pancreas. It involves inflammation of the pancreas, resulting in acute pain, vomiting and dehydration. Ongoing disease can result in further clinical signs. Pancreatitis can be an idiopathic disease (a disease without apparent cause) but dietary indiscretion is seen as a risk factor in dogs - i.e. giving the wrong dog treats.

The pancreas is an organ located in the abdomen which serves several important functions in the dog's body. The pancreas produces insulin (an endocrine function) as well as the enzymes required for the digestion of food (an exocrine function).

The exocrine pancreas is involved in pancreatitis. The pancreas normally excretes digestive enzymes in an inactivated form. The enzymes are then activated once in the digestive tract. In pancreatitis the digestive enzymes are prematurely activated within the pancreas. These enzymes cause "auto digestion" of the pancreas, resulting in pancreatic damage followed by the potential for multi-organ disease. Secondary bacterial infections can develop within the damaged pancreas. This is a severe and painful disorder which can be fatal or result in chronic disease.

Whilst many cases of pancreatitis are idiopathic, several risk factors have been identified. Any abdominal surgery can increase the risk of pancreatitis, as can being overweight, some medications and dietary indiscretion.3 Dietary indiscretion, especially over festive seasons, will be the focus of this article.

Dogs are generally known to have indiscriminate eating patterns which can lead them to ingest a variety of inappropriate foodstuffs and human treats instead of dog treats. The ingestion of fatty foods has been identified as a risk factor for pancreatitis in dogs. Times of celebration such as Christmas and Easter can result in an increase in cases of pancreatitis. The human-animal bond can be very strong and owners often wish to share the excitement and indulgence of the festive season with their pets. If done appropriately with the right dog treats, this can be beneficial for both the owner and dog, however if done inappropriately it can result in a painful and potentially fatal disorder for the dog.

Dogs and humans have different abilities to metabolise certain products so some human foods are inappropriate or even dangerous for dogs if ingested. Examples include chocolate, macadamia nuts and onions. Others foods may be tolerated in small amounts but cause illness in excessive quantities.

With respect to dietary-induced pancreatitis, it is often high fat content foods that act as a trigger for this disorder in dogs. It is inappropriate to feed dogs high fat foods. At Easter and other festivities, owners may be inclined to feed their dogs the off-cuts from their food. Ham fat, pork crackling and the like are common foodstuffs available around Christmas and owners may be tempted to feed these to their dogs. Unfortunately most dogs will readily devour these products. They may also scavenge in garbage bins to access leftovers. These high fat foods can trigger pancreatitis.

Dogs who develop pancreatitis will display signs of abdominal pain, vomiting and dehydration. Dogs may adopt an unusual position involving bending the forelimbs and lowering the head whilst keeping the hind quarters elevated to reduce abdominal pain. They may also show signs of persistent vomiting and an inability to eat or drink without vomiting. Weakness, lethargy and diarrhoea may also be seen. Pancreatitis can lead to secondary infections and systemic disease. Pancreatitis can be fatal.

Prompt identification, diagnosis and treatment are important in affected dogs. A history of exposure to high fat content foods combined with clinical signs will be suggestive of pancreatitis. Your veterinarian can perform several tests, often beginning with blood tests to use as diagnostic aids and to monitor the improvement or progression of disease during treatment. Treatment is supportive and will often involve hospitalisation, intravenous fluids (a drip), nil per os, pain relief and regularly antibiotics as a minimum. Prevention of this disorder is highly recommended.

Owners can implement several preventative mechanisms to help reduce the risk to their dog of pancreatitis at any time, but with specific focus on times of celebration. Feeding your dog a regular low fat diet is recommended along with the occasional dog treat made especially for dogs.

During times of celebration it is still possible to include your dog in the festivities and even offer dietary dog treats in a way appropriate to manage the risk of pancreatitis. It is recommended to avoid feeding your dog any fatty foods or fatty off cuts from your celebration. Numerous dog treats exist which are low in fat and can be given to your dog in small quantities without risking overstimulation of the pancreas. Even with these dog treats, moderation is the key. Many dogs are known scavengers, and the lure of food scraps in a garbage bin or treats on an unsupervised table may be too tempting for many dogs. Ensure all garbage is securely fastened and disposed off away from your dog's reach. Similarly, tempting Easter treats should be kept out of your dog's reach, including the Easter egg hunt.

Although your dog may like certain human foods, it is inappropriate to feed them to your dog in large quantities. It is advisable to "treat" your dog over the festive season with affection and dog appropriate treats rather than with fat-laden human foods which may result in a visit to the local veterinarian and facing treatment for a potentially fatal disorder which could be avoided by exercising more diligence in your dog's diet.