Functions of the pancreas
The pancreas is made up of two parts:
- The hormonal part (the endocrine pancreas) produces insulin and other hormones which regulate carbohydrate (glucose, starch) metabolism and are responsible for storing nutrients. They also help to mobilise energy reserves and keep the blood sugar at a constant level.
- The other part of the pancreas (the exocrine pancreas) produces the digestive enzymes required for the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates and protein in the small bowel prior to the absorption into the bloodstream.
Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Under normal circumstances digestive enzymes are secreted from the pancreas to the small bowel where they are activated to help with the digestive process. However if the digestive enzymes become activated while they are still in the pancreas, they start to digest the pancreas itself and inflammation develops. This process is called "acute pancreatitis" and the underlying cause is still unknown.
Signs of pancreatitis
The symptoms of acute pancreatitis vary greatly. Common symptoms are tiredness, apathy, loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and fever.
Diagnosis of pancreatitis
Pancreatitis resembles many other acute stomach and bowel conditions, as well as various other organ disorders. Extensive diagnosis such as blood tests, x-rays and ultrasound scans are therefore required.
Treatment of pancreatitis
The treatment of pancreatitis is based on the symptoms, which may vary considerably from case to case. Often, the animal needs to be fed by infusion as it cannot take solids or liquids orally and this also allows the pancreas to recover. Your veterinary practitioner will prescribe/administer the necessary treatment as determined by the diagnosis and may prescribe an antibiotic to treat or prevent secondary infection. Depending on the condition, the animal will usually improve after 24 to 72 hours. Once the acute symptoms have improved, your dog or cat should be gradually introduced to a low-fat, carbohydrate-rich diet under your veterinary practitioner's supervision. Most animals develop pancreatitis only once in their lives and remain healthy thereafter as long as they are kept on a low-fat diet.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (digestive enzyme deficiency)
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is characterised by a lack of digestive enzymes. In dogs, this deficiency is generally caused by degradation of the pancreatic cells that produce these enzymes. Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is most commonly found in German Shepherds Dogs. It usually occurs in the dogs first years of life, but older animals may also develop the condition. Cats may also develop exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, but in cats, unlike dogs, the condition often follows on from chronic pancreatitis and may be accompanied by diabetes.
Signs of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
Dogs with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency have insatiable appetites but look emaciated and continue to lose weight. The faeces are bulky, yellowish, and have a greasy glistening appearance. Vomiting is occasionally seen. Cats also display increased appetite in the presence of weight loss and diarrhoea. Because of the chronic nature of the condition these symptoms may remain mild for a long period, only becoming more marked as the disorder progresses.
Diagnosis of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can be diagnosed by stool and blood tests.
Treatment of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
Replacement of the missing digestive enzymes is the key to successfully overcoming exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Most animals respond well to pancreatic enzymes taken with every meal. Other measures, such as antibiotic treatment and/or vitamin injections, may be necessary initially. It is important for the animal to receive sufficient enzymes with every meal to gain weight and help the appetite return to normal. Dogs gain 250 g - 500 g a week during recovery. Once an improvement is apparent, the amount of enzymes given with each meal can be reduced to a maintenance level.
In summary: enzyme supplementation in combination with a balanced, low-fat diet and regular veterinary follow-up will give your animal years of health and happiness!