The Best Dog Foods for Dogs With Pancreatitis

The pancreas is an important organ but one which is not among the most well known. After all, everyone knows what the heart and lungs do, but the pancreas? Not so much. If your dog has pancreatitis she will need some special food, and there are a lot of options.

Dog eating food from its bowl in a room.
If your dog has pancreatitis she will need some special food, and there are a lot of options.
credit: Photoboyko/iStock/GettyImages

What is the pancreas?

A healthy pancreas is vital to food digestion. This organ is located on the right side of the abdomen next to the stomach. VCA Hospitals explains that the pancreas produces enzymes to assist in food digestion and hormones such as insulin, which regulates blood sugar or glucose metabolism. The pancreas releases digestive enzymes into the small intestines, and the hormones go into the blood stream.

Inflammation of the pancreas is called pancreatitis. This inflammation can be anywhere from mild to severe. What happens is that the inflammation allows the digestive enzymes to go where they shouldn't go . . . in the general abdominal cavity. This damages other organs such as the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and intestines.

Pancreatitis is caused by the body activating the enzymes before it should. For example, the enzymes are normally produced in an inactive state and then travel to their intended spot in the intestines, where they go to work. With pancreatitis, the enzymes are activated before they reach the small intestine, which results in digestion of the pancreas itself. VCA Hospitals says that a dog who has pancreatitis and recovers from it may continue to have issues with pancreatitis over time.

Dog food for pancreatitis

For a dog with pancreatitis, diet is a primary factor. Fat seems to be an issue in causing pancreatitis, therefore, dog food for pancreatitis is often considered low fat. Some dogs have trouble absorbing fat, which can lead to pancreatitis and other issues such as diarrhea, gallbladder or liver disease, or intestinal infections in the intestines.

Simply For Dogs says to aim for finding a dog food for pancreatitis that is under 10% fat. High-fat dog foods are 20% or more fat, while moderate-fat dog food contains between 10% and 20% fat. A low-fat dog food might be labeled as being good for senior dogs or good for weight control. Food that is mostly plant-based would be a low-fat dog food, but check with your veterinarian to be sure your dog is getting all the nutrients they need before opting for a vegetarian diet.

Dogs that get pancreatitis

Any breed of dog can get pancreatitis, and sometimes the cause cannot be identified. The Merck Veterinary Manual indicates that miniature schnauzers seem to experience pancreatitis more than other dogs, and it may have a genetic, hereditary component. Other studies show that Yorkshire terriers, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, poodles, and sled dogs also experience this condition more than other breeds.

Risk factors seem to be hypertriglyceridemia (high blood levels of triglycerides, the fatty molecules). Blunt trauma to the abdominal area, such as having been involved in a traffic accident or falling from a great height, can also cause inflammation of the pancreas. Pancreatitis caused by some other infectious disease has been noted, but that seems to be a weak link.

The American Kennel Club says that a high-fat diet is a major cause of pancreatitis, which makes sense that eating a low-fat dog food could either help prevent pancreatitis or help cure it. They also go on to say that high-fat human food is particularly problematic for dogs, so watch how many "treats" your dog is getting around times like the holidays when people commonly eat more of a high-fat diet.

If each guest in your home is giving your dog a buttery cookie and a fatty piece of meat, you could have a problem! This may seem like a joke, but the AKC says that the day after Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days of the year for pancreatitis-related emergency vet visits.

Signs of pancreatitis in dogs

The AKC provides a list of classic signs of pancreatitis in dogs. These include:

  • Hunched back.
  • Repeated vomiting.
  • Pain or distention of the abdomen (dog appears uncomfortable or bloated).
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness/lethargy
  • Fever

Any of these signs exhibited more than just occasionally is a cause for concern. If you see multiple signs at once, call your vet right away.

VCA Hospitals says in addition to the "hunched back" position, you may see your dog in a "praying position," with their rear end up in the air while their front legs and head are lowered onto the floor.

Dog pancreatitis recovery time

If your dog is one of the many dogs who will experience pancreatitis in their lifetime, recovery can depend on a few different things. For instance, it can depend on the severity of the attack and if it is chronic (building up over time) or acute (coming on suddenly). The AKC says that early intervention is key for a quick recovery.

Choosing the best pancreatitis food

When choosing the best dog food for pancreatitis, it's important to remember that one recommendation for a great commercial dog food may not work for all dogs. The best dog food for your dog depends on the dog's age and other general health issues. If your dog has some other issues that affect his diet, such as allergies, that will also need to be taken into consideration. The dog's age may also be a factor, as dogs need varying levels of protein and calories as they age.

Daily Dog Stuff recommends some commercial dog foods for pancreatitis, all of which have "reduced fat" or "healthy weight" recipes. When choosing the best dog food for your dog with pancreatitis, first check with your veterinarian. Then narrow down the options by considering the amount of fat in the food, the amount of protein in the food, simple formulas (without a lot of filler ingredients), and enzymes or probiotics that can support digestion.

They say that wet canned dog food should have no more than 4% fat. They also indicate that a proper amount of protein is essential, as every dog needs protein for muscles and overall health.

The AKC suggests talking to your vet about digestive enzyme supplements that can help prevent or treat pancreatitis. Supplements with pancreatin can help, and are available in over-the-counter strength as well as prescription strength. Even fish oil can help. While fish oil does have a high fat content, it is the "good kind" of fat that can actually help to lower overall blood lipid levels.