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The Pancreas: A Dual-Purpose Powerhouse

Navigating the maze of dog nutrition can be perplexing, especially when you’re confronted with a diagnosis of pancreatitis for your dog – a dog that’s only ever known a diet of what you believed to be simple, trouble-free kibble.

To unravel the complexities of the canine pancreas and pancreatitis, we’ll venture into a clear, simplified exploration of the organ’s role and the disease’s progression. Imagine the pancreas as a talented culinary virtuoso, deftly juggling the art of baking and cooking simultaneously, mastering both with skillful ease.

Endocrine Duties: The Balancing Act

In its role as an endocrine gland, think of the pancreas as a diligent baker, precisely measuring ingredients to ensure the perfect pastry. It carefully balances two critical hormones: insulin and glucagon.

Insulin operates much like a delivery driver, shuttling glucose from the bloodstream into cells to fuel their work. On the flip side, glucagon acts as a warehouse operator, pulling reserves from the storage (in this case, glycogen in the liver) and converting them into glucose when more energy is needed in the blood. This delicate interplay between insulin and glucagon ensures the optimal “recipe” for your dog’s blood sugar balance.

Exocrine Responsibilities: Master of Digestion

Transitioning to its exocrine duties, the pancreas is like a master chef, proficient in cooking up an array of dishes. It produces essential digestive enzymes – amylase, lipase, and protease – each specializing in a different type of “dish” (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, respectively). These enzymes expertly break down complex food molecules into simpler forms, making it easier for the intestines to “consume” or absorb these nutrients.

Pancreas Through the TCVM Lens

If we look through the lens of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), the pancreas as a singular organ fades into the background, and its roles are dispersed among a team of organs: the Spleen, Liver, and Stomach. Picture them as a trio of chefs, each handling a distinct task but working together to deliver a satisfying meal.

The ‘Spleen’ in TCVM, which includes some of the pancreatic functions from a biomedical perspective, is like a kitchen manager, overseeing food transformation into essential Qi and blood – the fuel and life force for your dog. A well-functioning Spleen ensures your dog’s metabolism hums along nicely, providing vital energy for everyday activities.

Pancreatitis: A Kitchen in Chaos

Pancreatitis in dogs is akin to a kitchen falling into disarray. Everything that should run smoothly goes into overdrive, creating a dangerous situation. Let’s break it down.

Unplanned Fire: Inflammation and Damage

In pancreatitis, the pancreas, our diligent baker and master chef, catches an unexpected “fire”, i.e., it becomes inflamed. This inflammation disrupts the usual functions of the pancreas. The digestive enzymes, typically reserved for breaking down food in the intestines, get activated prematurely within the pancreas itself, essentially “cooking” the organ.

As a result, the pancreas begins to digest its own tissue, causing substantial damage and leading to a range of symptoms that can be severe, like intense abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and even fever.

Fuel to the Fire: Escalating Problems

The initial inflammation and damage can spark a chain reaction, adding fuel to the fire. The body may respond to the inflammation by releasing more enzymes and chemicals, worsening the situation. The inflammation can even spread to nearby organs and body parts, such as the liver and abdominal cavity, which is akin to the fire spreading to other sections of the kitchen. I write about Acinar Cells and Zymogens as it relates to pancreatitis HERE.

In severe cases, pancreatitis can lead to systemic issues like a drop in blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, and difficulty breathing. It may also result in complications such as diabetes and pancreatic insufficiency, where the pancreas is no longer able to produce adequate digestive enzymes.

Quenching the Fire: Treatment and Recovery

Addressing pancreatitis is like bringing in a skilled firefighter to control and extinguish the fire. Immediate veterinary care is crucial to manage the inflammation and protect the body from further damage. Treatment typically includes fluids to prevent dehydration, pain management, and sometimes antibiotics.

Food and water are often withheld for a while to rest the pancreas. Once the inflammation is under control, a gradual reintroduction of a low-fat, easy-to-digest diet, much like easing back into cooking after a kitchen fire, is recommended.

From a TCVM perspective, restoring balance to the system is key. Cooling, Yin-nourishing foods may be beneficial in bringing the metaphorical fire under control.

Diagnosing Pancreatitis: The Hunt for Clues

Diagnosing pancreatitis in dogs requires an analytical process, similar to piecing together a complex jigsaw puzzle. Veterinarians rely on a combination of clinical signs, blood tests, ultrasound imaging, and sometimes, more advanced diagnostic tools.

Initial Consultation: Reading the Visible Signs

The first step in this investigation is an initial consultation where your vet will review your dog’s health history and perform a thorough physical examination. Symptoms like abdominal pain, vomiting, decreased appetite, and lethargy can raise the suspicion of pancreatitis.

Laboratory Tests: The Body’s Tell-tale Signs

Blood tests provide vital clues to support or rule out a diagnosis of pancreatitis. A Complete Blood Count (CBC) can reveal an increased white blood cell count, indicating an ongoing inflammatory process. However, to get a more direct indication of pancreatitis, vets look for elevated levels of pancreatic enzymes, specifically amylase and lipase.

However, these traditional pancreatic enzymes can sometimes be misleading as their levels can also rise due to other conditions. To get a more accurate diagnosis, a special blood test, called the Canine Pancreatic Lipase Immunoreactivity (cPLI) test, is often used. This test is more specific for pancreatitis in dogs.

Imaging: The Window into the Body

In addition to blood tests, imaging techniques can also help diagnose pancreatitis. Abdominal ultrasound is commonly used and can reveal an enlarged, inflamed pancreas. It’s like using a magnifying glass to look at the inner structures of the body. However, ultrasound findings can sometimes be inconclusive.

Advanced Diagnostic Tools: Deep Diving into Details

In some cases, more advanced diagnostic tools like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used. These technologies provide a more detailed, three-dimensional picture of the pancreas, helping to confirm the diagnosis.

Final Picture: Piecing it All Together

Once all the pieces of this complex puzzle are gathered, your vet can make a diagnosis of pancreatitis. But remember, every dog is unique, and so is the way they might present this condition. A diagnosis may require several tests and a lot of patience. It’s critical to work closely with your vet to understand the process and make the best decisions for your dog’s health.

Your vet will most likely send you home with a bland diet recipe and recommendation for a GI kibble or canned food.

The Science of Cooking: Unraveling Proteins

For dogs diagnosed with pancreatitis, I highly recommend transitioning from a kibble-based diet to balanced, home-cooked meals. These meals, precisely tailored to your pet’s needs, can provide easily digestible proteins and a controlled level of fats, which can soothe the pancreas and facilitate a smoother recovery journey.

Cooking is an alchemical process. It can change the chemical and physical properties of food, making it tastier, safer, and easier to digest. A significant aspect of this transformation involves the denaturation of proteins, turning them from complex structures into simpler ones.

The Untouched Symphony: Protein in its Natural State

Proteins in their natural state, before cooking, resemble a beautifully orchestrated symphony. They are complex, three-dimensional structures with unique shapes defined by the sequence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Some proteins, like DNA, adopt a double-helix shape, while others form pleats or spirals. These complex shapes are maintained by different types of bonds – hydrogen bonds, ionic bonds, disulfide bridges, and hydrophobic interactions.

The Heat of the Moment: Denaturation

Cooking applies heat, which acts as a disruptive force on this harmonious symphony. Like a sudden, blaring note that shakes the concert hall, the heat disrupts the delicate bonds holding the protein’s shape. This is what we refer to as denaturation.

Denaturation causes proteins to lose their original shape. The process is a bit like uncoiling a tightly wound spring or unraveling a twisted telephone cord. The complex, three-dimensional structure of the protein (e.g., the double helix) breaks down, resulting in a simpler, flatter, and elongated structure.

Improved Digestibility

The unraveling of proteins during cooking has a significant benefit: it makes the proteins easier for our stomachs (or those of our dogs) to handle.

Think of it as dismantling a large, intricate piece of furniture into smaller, manageable sections. When proteins are denatured, digestive enzymes find it easier to access the peptide bonds that hold the amino acids together.

In the stomach, an enzyme called pepsin starts the process, breaking the denatured proteins into smaller fragments. As these fragments move into the small intestine, other enzymes continue the breakdown process until the proteins are ultimately reduced to individual amino acids and small peptides.

These smaller units can be readily absorbed by the intestines and utilized by the body for a variety of functions, such as building muscle, producing hormones, and supporting the immune system.

In essence, the denaturation of proteins through cooking helps to kick-start digestion, making it easier for our pets’ bodies to extract vital nutrients from the food we feed.

Note: Some links in this article are affiliate links (Amazon Associates or other programs I participate in). At no charge to you, as an affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  

Harnessing the Power of Digestive Enzymes

Employing digestive enzymes in your dog’s diet can act as a powerful assistant for a pancreatitis-stricken pancreas. Consider these enzymes as miniature sous chefs, expertly pre-digesting proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. This pre-digestion aids in nutrient absorption and reduces pancreatic stress, ultimately supporting your dog’s path to recovery and bolstering health.

I’ve seen a lot of success when the enzymes are very simple and currently, the supplement I like to recommend is from PanTenex.

The Ancient Wisdom: Chinese Herbs and the Pancreas

Chinese Herbal Medicine, steeped in thousands of years of wisdom, can offer powerful support for a dog’s ailing pancreas. Certain Chinese herbs, ADOPTREX is formulated for it’s ability to harmonize digestion and support the function of the pancreas.

This works best alongside a real food diet and a probiotic that has Lactobacillus.

Diet Recommendations

As an advocate of Chinese Medicine, I formulate meals utilizing principles rooted in food energetics. In the case of Pancreatitis, we are mostly looking at a case of:

  • Excess Pattern of Stomach Cold
  • In Acute presentations, it may be a case of Spleen-Damp Heat or Large Intestine Damp Heat.

In either case, this would be determined during a one-on-one.

Treatment Principle:

  • Warm the Middle Burner and eliminate Cold or Eliminate Heat as well as stop diarrhea, drain damp, and detoxify
    • Easy to Digest food (Potentially smaller meals if needed 3x per day)
    • Enzymes
    • Bone Broth + Slippery Elm
    • Herbal supplement + Probiotics

Foods To Avoid

  • Dairy
  • High glycemic index foods
  • Saturated fats
  • Highly processed foods (kibble)
  • Too cold foods in the case of a cold pattern or too warm foods in the case of a hot or Yang pattern
    • Avoid deep-ocean white fish in the case of a dog that is seeking warmth

Final Thoughts: Paving the Path to Recovery

In the labyrinth of dog nutrition, a diagnosis of pancreatitis can feel overwhelming, especially when all you’ve ever fed your dog is the seemingly simple kibble.

With the right dietary adjustments to real food, supplements, and perhaps a pinch of ancient wisdom from Chinese Herbs, recovery is within reach.

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


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Hashimoto A, Kita I, Okada K, Fujimoto Y. Juvenile acinar atrophy of the pancreas of a dog. Vet Pathol. 1979 Jan;16(1):74-80. doi: 10.1177/030098587901600107. PMID: 462720.

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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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