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From Acinar Cells to Zymogens: Demystifying Pancreatitis in Dogs and A TCVM Perspective

Pancreatitis in your dog is a gut-wrenching affair – literally. Let’s dive into what this means and how we can manage it. First off, let’s break down the term. “Pancreatitis” combines the Greek words ‘pankreas’, meaning pancreas, and ‘itis’, meaning inflammation. This spells out “inflammation of the pancreas” and paints a picture of what’s happening inside your dog’s body.


Essentially, pancreatitis happens when the pancreas, the Master Chef of your dog’s digestive system, gets inflamed. The usual culprits behind this gut turmoil are the pancreas’ own digestive enzymes, produced by cells known as acinar cells. These enzymes, which should only swing into action in the small intestine, jump the gun and start their work inside the pancreas. Instead of breaking down food, these enzymes start gnawing at the pancreas itself.

Acute pancreatitis is like a sudden gut storm, while chronic pancreatitis is more like a long, grueling gut marathon. Both are serious and need immediate vet attention.

Acinar Cells – The Little Factories of the Pancreas

Acinar cells are the workhorses of your dog’s pancreas. They churn out the digestive enzymes needed to break down food. But, these enzymes don’t start as heavy lifters – they begin their life as zymogens.

Zymogens – The Sleeping Giants of Digestion

Zymogens are like sleeping giants. They’re the inactive forms of digestive enzymes, safely stored in the pancreas. When all’s well, they leave the pancreas, head to the small intestine, and only then wake up to start their work of breaking down food.

When Zymogens Wake Up Too Soon

But what happens when these zymogens rise and shine too early? That’s where pancreatitis comes into play. When the pancreas is stressed or injured, these zymogens can get activated within the pancreas itself – instead of in the small intestine.

The Pancreatic Domino Effect

One key zymogen is trypsinogen, which turns into trypsin when activated. If this happens prematurely, trypsin starts a domino effect, waking up other zymogens, leading to a snowballing situation where the enzymes start digesting the pancreas itself. This process of ‘self-eating’ causes the inflammation and damage we know as pancreatitis.

Cooked Meals and Digestive Enzymes – Your Dog’s New Best Friend

Post-pancreatitis, you can help your dog by adding digestive enzymes to their meals. Think of it as hiring some extra chefs to help the battered pancreas in the kitchen of digestion. These enzymes help break down food into bite-sized, absorbable pieces, ensuring your pup gets the nutrients they need.

Now, let’s talk about meals. Cooked meals are the go-to option for dogs that have suffered pancreatitis. Cooking breaks down the food and makes it easier for your dog to digest. Remember, the key is low-fat meals – lean meats, steamed veggies, and easily digestible, so as not to cause another flare-up.

Pancreatitis from a TCVM Perspective

Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) considers pancreatitis as a disharmony in the body’s energy, particularly in the “Spleen Qi” (pronounced “chee”). The Spleen in TCVM is not only related to the anatomical organ but also encompasses a broader concept involving the digestive system, nutrient absorption, and overall vitality. In TCVM theory, the Spleen is responsible for transforming and transporting food essence to nourish the body.

When the Spleen Qi is compromised or imbalanced, it can contribute to the development of pancreatitis. Factors such as improper diet, emotional stress, and external pathogens can disrupt the flow of Qi in the Spleen, leading to inflammation and dysfunction within the pancreas.

TCVM treatment for pancreatitis aims to restore the balance of Spleen Qi and promote overall well-being. This may involve dietary modifications, herbal remedies, acupuncture, and other modalities. Herbal formulas containing ingredients such as Chinese skullcap, honeysuckle, or gardenia may be used to clear “heat” and reduce inflammation in the body. Other herbs like Chinese hawthorn and tangerine can support digestion and promote the movement of Qi.

In food therapy, practitioners such as myself will focus on supporting the Spleen through dietary recommendations. I would advise you to feed easily digestible foods, warming ingredients, and avoid excessive cold or raw foods that could further burden the digestive system. Balancing emotional well-being, stress reduction techniques and exercise can also be incorporated to support the overall health of the Spleen.

In Closing

To wrap it all up, understanding pancreatitis in dogs is crucial for their well-being. From the inflammation within the pancreas to the delicate interplay of acinar cells and zymogens, it’s a complex puzzle to unravel.

By implementing strategies like digestive enzyme supplementation, feeding cooked meals, and leaning into the timeless insights of Traditional Chinese Medicine, we can navigate this challenging condition with more clarity.

As always, thank you for stopping by and I wish you and your dogs Good Health!


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Watson PJ, Archer J, Roulois AJ, Scase TJ, Herrtage ME. Observational study of 14 cases of chronic pancreatitis in dogs. Vet Rec. 2010 Dec 18;167(25):968-76. doi: 10.1136/vr.c4912. PMID: 21262713.

Author Biography

Hannah Zulueta obtained her Certificate in Canine Nutrition from CASI Institute. She is also studying for her Doctorate in Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Herbalism from the esteemed Pacific College of Health and Medicine.

She resides in San Diego with her three dogs, Maggie, Orbit, and Mr. Higgins.

She is available for one on one consultations. Additionally, you can find her sharing free content on Instagram.

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