Pancreatitis seems to be becoming a more and more common diagnosis. Let's discuss what it is.
First of all, what is pancreatitis?
Put simply, it is inflammation of the pancreas. The pancreas, if you are not aware, is an organ that produces enzymes that digest carbohydrates and proteins. As simple as it sounds, there can be many causes of pancreatitis, including gallstones, some medications, infection, trauma or injury to the pancreas, pancreatic cancer, high blood calcium, or high blood triglycerides. There are two types, acute and chronic. Acute pancreatitis is less severe and does not last long. Chronic pancreatitis is more severe and can persist their entire lives and usually involves the pancreas being irreparably damaged. In humans, the main cause of chronic pancreatitis is alcohol abuse since it destroys pancreas cells and therefore decreases its function permanently (1). Seeing as animals do not indulge in alcohol, then the occurrence of chronic pancreatitis in pets is less likely and is therefore usually caused by something treatable.
Make sure if your pet has pancreatitis to provide them with lots of water since it can cause dehydration. Some symptoms for acute pancreatitis include abdominal pain, fever, nausea, and vomiting. When it is more chronic signs include weight loss and smelly stools from undigested food. Since food is not being properly digested they can become malnourished from lack of absorption.
Let’s talk about the causes of pancreatitis…
Gallstones: If a pet, or human for that matter, gets gallstones, this can cause a blockage for the liver and pancreas. The enzymes that the pancreas excretes cannot fully pass into the small intestine and cause inflammation as it starts to digest itself instead. This inflammation causes further blockage of the bile ducts from the liver, carrying enzymes that digest fats. This blockage of the bile duct is why a low fat diet is recommended for pancreatitis since the fat-digesting enzymes cannot get to the small intestine. Another cause of pancreatitis is high levels of fat in the blood. Both causes (high blood fat and gallstones) are triggered by an overall unhealthy diet high in cholesterol and trans fats. In these cases it is most likely a good idea to feed a low fat food, but the pet would benefit from any food that has good nutrition and digestible, healthy fats. Any animal being fed a diet high in cholesterol and trans fat will develop health problems. However, I also mentioned that the pancreatic enzymes can also become blocked. Decreasing the fat in a food means increasing the amount of protein and carbs, which puts more stress on the pancreas. This can further aggravate the pancreatitis, so it is a good idea to, once the gallstones and high blood fat levels have been dealt with, to feed them a normal ratio of fat to protein to carbs, but the fats should be made of good oils high in omega-3’s and low in cholesterol to ensure they stay healthy. Feeding these “healthy fats” can actually decrease the occurrence of further health problems without putting extra load on your pancreas.
Infections and Parasites: If you have a pet that has pancreatitis from an infection or parasite, having a low fat diet is not going to eliminate the cause. This diet should be followed until the parasite or infection is dealt with. Continuing to feed low fat will put more stress on their pancreas, which could further aggravate the pancreatitis, especially if it persists after the cause is dealt with. This can happen when there is a harsh infection or medication that causes damage to the pancreas. If the pancreas is damaged and its function is depleted, the digestibility of what you are feeding them can make a big difference. Let’s look at a fish-based food compared to a corn and wheat-based food food. Corn and wheat are only about 40% digestible, whereas if you choose a food that is high in fish it will be more digestible since fish is 90-97% digestible (2). Having more digestible protein sources can help decrease the strain put on your pancreas.
Medications: Most medications are made up of chemicals that put a lot of strain on organs such as the pancreas, liver and kidney. This is because they filter these chemicals out of the body which can actually damage them. Some common medications and types of medications that damage the pancreas include cholinesterase inhibitors, calcium, potassium bromide, phenobarbital, l-asparaginase, estrogen, salicylates, azathioprine, thiazide diuretics, and vinca alkaloids. If your pet is taking any of these drugs and has pancreatitis, you may want to consider an alternative treatment for their ailment or talk to your vet about lowering their dosage. Many medications have negative side effects on the body, such as antibiotics wreaking havoc on the digestive tract, or pain killers destroying liver cells and causing stomach ulcers.
Injury: Injury to the pancreas can be caused by toxins, physical trauma, or an autoimmune disease. If this happens to your pet it can result in chronic pancreatitis that they will have for the rest of their lives due to a decrease in pancreatic function. When function is compromised it is recommended to feed a low carb diet, with a balance of healthy, digestible fats and protein to make the work for the pancreas as easy as possible.
PH imbalance: An imbalance in pH can cause damage to the pancreas, resulting in inflammation and possible irreparable damage. This issue is most common in raw fed dogs that are being fed food that does not have basic ingredients to balance the acidity in meat. Ingredients that help with this include spinach, kale, kelp, etc. The high acidity forces your pancreas to work overtime to attempt to neutralize it, but the imbalance can end up damaging the pancreas.
How is pancreatitis treated?
The typical treatment by a veterinarian for pancreatitis is to switch to their low fat prescription food, I.V. fluids and give them drugs for pain, nausea and vomiting. Vets usually recommend to feed this diet for their whole life and to continue medication until it passes. A day of fasting is also suggested at the start of the bout of pancreatitis.
What I recommend
It is extremely important to discover the cause of the pancreatitis because this will change the treatment needed. The first step is to eliminate the cause, whether it be medication, gallstones, a parasite, infection, whatever it may be. Next the inflammation should be dealt with. I recommend a natural anti-inflammatory such as Colloidal Gold, burdock root, and salmon oil. Switch to a leaner food for a few days to give time for the inflammation to go down a bit and allow bile to pass into the digestive tract.
Prevention by the veterinary community
When talking about prevention, vets will most likely switch your pet to one of their low fat foods, such as their prescription Hill’s Weight Reduction food.
The issue with this is it has 7.5% fat, 38.25g of fat per day, 139g of protein and 175g of carbs for a 60lbs dog. For comparison, if you give them Nutram Sound Chicken, which is 15% fat, a 66lbs dog will still only be consuming 39g of fat, with only 59g of protein and 90g of carbs. The reason for this is the Nutram is more nutrient dense and more digestible, so you only feed 210g instead of 450g to a 60lbs dog. Basically, the easiest way to think of this is in order to digest 20g of protein you would need to eat 50g of corn compared to 25g of chicken. The problem with that is that your pancreas is using energy for each gram of protein eaten, not each gram of protein digested, so it is working twice as hard to digest the corn.
Our recommendations for prevention
For prevention we recommend a food that is moderately high in fat, but uses fish oil as their only source of fat. These fish oils will not cause gallstones or high blood triglyceride levels, and will help deal with inflammation since they are anti-inflammatory. Having a higher fat value also decreases the amount of carbs and proteins that your pancreas must digest. A fish based food is also recommended because fish is over 90% digestible, as long as they are using real fish meal, as some companies use “fish,” which is the leftovers from the higher quality pet companies.
A few things to look for are low recommended daily feeding, avoiding “fish meal (good source of glucosamine)” as that means it’s mostly bone, not meat, make sure the added oils are from fish, that it is high in omega three, make sure the food doesn’t use a lot of high starch ingredients such as white potato, white rice, corn, wheat, beet pulp, etc.
A food that we recommend that fits these criteria is Valens Fisher. On this food a 66lbs dog would get 75g of protein, 38g of fat, and 81g of carbs. When comparing these numbers to the prescription diet you can see Valens has much lower levels of carbs and proteins. The fats are also almost entirely fish oil, so as stated earlier there would be no concern for gallstones. Valens also has 4.4% omega-3’s, which will help reduce any inflammation. This food is fish based, so is highly digestible, making less work for their pancreas, as well as other organs.
Pancreatitis is an inflammation that should quickly unless it is chronic. There are many different causes, and their treatment for gallstone-caused pancreatitis is counter-intuitive if the cause is anything other than poor quality fats in the diet. The main result that I found in my research is that pancreatitis is so common because of the amount of poor-quality foods. That’s not to say that your pet can’t get it while feeding good quality foods, but it does help narrow down the cause. If your pet does get diagnosed with pancreatitis make sure you find out the cause or you might end up unintentionally making it worse. A highly digestible diet with balanced pH and good quality fish oils will go a long way to prevent pancreatitis.