Pancreatitis: feeding cats & dogs human food holiday leftovers

With the holiday season now upon us we wanted to share our pet pawrents’ guide to pancreatitis, a very serious and painful condition in cats and dogs that isn’t always easy to spot. Pancreatitis is also more likely to occur between November and February. Although the following might be scary to read, these tips can help you to create many more happy holiday memories with your furry family. Now here comes the science!

What is Pancreatitis?

Your cat’s pancreas weighs about the same as 2 teaspoons of sugar, but it has a very big job in keeping your kitty healthy. In both cats and dogs, the pancreas is a pink organ shaped like a chicken wishbone that sits between the left kidney, which filters blood and removes toxins, and the duodenum, which prepares digested food to enter the small intestine. A healthy pancreas produces insulin and the enzymes that digest food, which only become active once they reach the small intestine. 

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas caused by the digestion-aiding enzymes activating as soon as they’re released, which is too early. Instead of targeting the food in the small intestine, these enzymes inflame the pancreas and surrounding tissue and organs, even digesting the pancreas itself.

The two types of Pancreatitis.

There are two types of pancreatitis: the acute form, which is most commonly seen in dogs, and the chronic form, which tends to affect cats. Acute pancreatitis occurs very suddenly and is the first time an animal has experienced the condition. Chronic pancreatitis is a persistent inflammation of the pancreas that has developed over a longer period. It may also be the progression of acute pancreatitis that happened more than once. 

The two forms can vary from a mild tummy upset to more severe symptoms including death and sadly both will cause pain.

Dogs are more likely to progress to chronic pancreatitis, even if initial symptoms are those of the acute form. It’s also possible for chronic inflammation to be missed in cats, who have hidden symptoms. Whilst Pancreatitis can sometimes be idiopathic with no real cause found and, in a lot of cases linked to physical trauma like being struck by a car, there are other risk factors we can help prevent. Being vigilant towards the risk factors below and knowing what to look out for can help you care for your pets.

What are the risk factors of Pancreatitis?

Genetic Predisposition

Pancreatitis can occur in any pooch, but certain breeds are predisposed including cocker spaniels, miniature schnauzers and some terrier breeds like the Yorkshire Terrier, which is also the most at risk breed for acute pancreatitis. On the flip side, Labrador retrievers and miniature poodles have lower risks for acute pancreatitis. Cats, particularly Siamese, are affected more frequently – perhaps proving they are more persuasive, or just better at stealthy swiping of scraps! Other diseases like diabetes also increase the risk of pancreatitis.

Other diseases can cause pancreatitis

Certain diseases including Type 1 Diabetes, Cushing’s disease, hypothyroidism or epilepsy put your pet at increased risk for developing pancreatitis.

  • Hyperlipidaemia

    High cholesterol, common for miniature schnauzers, doesn’t just affect people and arises when there are too many fatty substances in the blood. In cats and dogs, the symptoms include seizures, abdominal pain, and bumps on the skin filled with a greasy liquid. It can be caused by eating fatty meals, kidney disease, and thyroid problems.
  • Gastrointestinal Disease, e.g. Inflammatory Bowel Disease

    Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) often occurs alongside pancreatitis and causes the same painful symptoms as those seen in humans, including bloating and weight loss, constipation, diarrhoea, and blood or mucus showing in unhappy bowel movements.
  • Cats are vulnerable to Triaditis

    Feline triaditis causes three inflammatory diseases to appear in kitties at the same time, affecting the intestine and liver and causing the chronic form of pancreatitis. A cat with feline triaditis will be very poorly, with chronic vomiting. Frequent kitty vomiting is always a case for your vet as the intestine, liver, and pancreas are all located close to the duodenum. A feline duodenum contains much more bacteria than a canine duodenum, and vomiting can allow nasty bacteria-filled juices to travel to the surrounding organs.

Exposure to fatty foods like table scraps

The government recommends that daily, women should eat 20g and men 30g of fat. On Christmas day alone, the average Brit consumes 200g! This overindulgence may just put you in a familiar food coma and have you snoring through the Queen’s Speech, vowing to get down to the gym in January.

Unfortunately for your fluffy companions, giving in to their begging for scraps under the table can have very serious, unwanted consequences for them. This is the main cause of pancreatitis in pets and it is particularly dangerous for animals to consume a lot of fatty foods all at once.

Obesity

Keeping your pets at a healthy weight has many advantages and is a responsible way of showing how much you love them. A fit and strong animal can enjoy their instinctual hunting, fetching, and playing behaviours for much longer than a chubby critter.

We recommend feeding your daring dogs, playful puppies, cool cats, and curious kitties a hypoallergenic, gut-friendly diet consisting of quality ingredients high in animal protein. A couple of sessions of at least ten minutes of activity a day where you tire your pet out with running, jumping, and chasing their favourite toy is the perfect blend of bonding time and healthy exercise, in addition to daily walks for your dog.

Dietary discretion in dogs

If you’ve noticed one or more occasions where your pooch has eaten something they shouldn’t, like rubbish, gone-off food, balloons, socks, or homework, this is the equivalent of food poisoning in humans. Although common, it can cause complications for your pup so is always worth a quick chat with your vet.

Pancreatitis signs to watch out for. 

Cats typically show less symptoms than dogs, but you can get around this with preventative measures, so you know your kitty is only eating what’s best for her sensitive tummy.

Watch out for your cat refusing to eat and acting lethargic instead of displaying her usual graceful pouncing on dust particles and 4am zooming up and down the hallway. There may also be diarrhoea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Cats who are in pain tend to hide, so warning bells should ring if your normally sociable fluffball won’t come out from under the bed.

Dogs will exhibit similar but more pronounced symptoms to those seen in cats, including chronic vomiting, dehydration, lethargy, fever, and refusing food. There will be times where they aren’t over the moon when you mention walkies or start turning their nose up when you fill their food bowl. They may also have noticeable bloating in their tummy.

Both cats and dogs may put their forearms and head on the floor, raising their rear to help relieve their tummy ache. This hunched-over position is a sure sign an urgent trip to the vet is needed.

If you notice any of these symptoms, particularly if you think your pet is experiencing more than one, it’s important you contact your vet as quickly as possible.

How does a vet diagnose Pancreatitis?

The vet will review an animal’s medical history to check for risk factors or previous indicators of pancreatitis. This is another reason why it’s always worth checking in with your vet if you are worried about something, no matter how small it may seem.

There will also be the usual physical examination, including checking their heartbeat, gums, abdomen, and every pet’s favourite procedure (or not!), taking their temperature.

Blood tests will be taken to determine the level of pancreatic enzymes and X-Rays or ultrasounds of the abdomen to check for damage to the pancreas. Further procedures may be required as recommended by your vet.

What is the treatment for Pancreatitis?

We understand how horrible it is when a beloved pet is unwell, and the first priority is to relieve any pain they may be experiencing and prevent complications by dealing with the symptoms as early as possible.

Historically for less severe cases of pancreatitis food was withheld for 24- 48 hours but up to date research shows this can have a harmful effect therefore it’s advised instead to feed a very small amount of food (1/16thof their normal daily feed) split into four meals. Your vet will either prescribe a specially formulated food that’s highly digestible or advise you to feed something simple at home like boiled chicken and white rice. As well as painkillers, anti-sickness medication will also help cats and dogs to feel better. Once they can keep down food without vomiting, they will be sent home with pain medication to continue their recovery under the watchful eye of their pawrents.

More serious cases will require hospitalisation to keep a close eye on the patient, including tube feeding to ensure they get the nutrients they need for about three to five days. Hopefully by this point they will respond well to a gradual reintroduction of liquid, soups, and food, eventually tucking in to healthy-sized portions of a nutritionally balanced pet food.

Unfortunately, there isn’t yet an effective cure for pancreatitis and once your cat or dog has pancreatitis, it requires ongoing management. Diet modification is vital – your vet will typically prescribe a low-fat diet for dogs. Cats are better adapted for higher fat diets so do not need a low fat diet - the key focus for cat’s is that the food is highly digestible and high in animal protein. For both cats and dogs, it’s important to split the meal into small, frequent meals to ease digestion, and in some cases additionally supplements are prescribed to further help with digestion.

Why does Pancreatitis happen more in the holiday season?

Many vets internationally all expect to see an increase in cases of pancreatitis in cats and dogs arriving in their surgeries around the holiday season. The abundance of high-fat foods as people gather together to celebrate with delicious home cooked meals – and a never-ending flow of mulled wine increasing their generosity – exposes pets to the danger of table scraps more readily than other times of the year.

4 simple ways to keep your pets happy during the holiday season. 

Your pets are the heart and soul of your family and it’s natural to want to give them a fun and exciting experience this party season. When you see their fluffy little face peering up at you (possibly wearing reindeer ears if they like dressing up) it’s hard to resist their insistent whines. No matter how demanding they may be, limiting their exposure to pancreatitis-causing conditions is the best thing you can do for them.

  1. Consider closing off the kitchen to your pets on the days you’ll be cooking and try to always store food away in the fridge and cupboards – a curious cat can get into some foil or cling film in ten seconds flat, and Smudge has even been known to drag our Indian takeaway containers out of the bin. Where possible, make your bins pet-proof by adding a lock to your dustbin lid or storing the rubbish bags in an outdoor cupboard or shed. You don't want your fur babies dining out on days-old, decomposing foodin secret. 
  2. We all know that what’s yours belongs to your fluffy friends too, whether it’s the warm spot on the couch or your computer keyboard, but it’s important to create a mealtime routine that makes begging harder. Try to eat in a separate area away from your pups or felines and if they sneak up to sniff your plate, silently move them away, ushering them to another room and closing the door if necessary. Don’t make a big deal about it and do show them they only get the attention they love from their favourite humans when you aren’t eating.
  3. Stay consistent and never give up now that you’ve made the decision to prevent pancreatitis. Don’t despair if you’ve been spoiling your kitty or canine with some of your human favourites at mealtimes. We have no doubt it was done with love and it might take your furry friends a little while to get used to the changes. You can swap the scraps for healthy treats instead to start with and taper off until their diet consists of the recommended portion size of purely pet-friendly food. Every little change you implement leads to big benefits to their health, comfort, and all your future adventures together. Even when their begging is Oscar-worthy as they try to convince you they’re so hungry, remember why you’re doing this
  4. Spread the word! Share this blog with people you know, as well-meaning party guests would no doubt be devastated to hear the little scraps they’re slipping your pets to befriend them could cause them harm. Humans who aren’t yet owned by any fluffy creatures might not know about pancreatitis and may believe the stereotype that pets are designed to hoover up leftovers. Unfortunately, even “just a little taste” isn't safe.

          People foods to permanently avoid!

          And don’t forget, there are some people foods you should never, ever feed your pets: 

          - Alcohol and caffeinated drinks

          - Chocolate

          - Chives, garlic, and onion

          - Raisins and grapes

          A quick note on decorations

          Be careful when choosing your decorations and watch out for people bringing traditional, seasonal flowers to your parties. Holly berries are poisonous to cats and particularly dogs, as they contain theobromine, the chemical found in chocolate. European mistletoe, the plant most commonly used at Christmas, also contains several poisons. When ivy is accidentally ingested it too can lead to serious gastrointestinal problems. Always avoid yews as they are dangerous to people and pets, causing irregular heartbeat when eaten.

          One last thing...

          With the holiday season comes a guarantee of fireworks aplenty, so be sure to check out our advice on how to help your fluffy friends stay happy and calm here.

          Do you have any tips for preventing your pets from getting at fatty scraps this time of year? Let us know in the comments section. And finally, a toast: here's to many more happy, healthy holiday seasons!

          Thanks for reading,

          Aneisha, Jack, Smudge and Boo x 

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