Posted on 22nd, May 2017
|HE PET HEALTH LIBRARY
By Wendy C. Brooks, DVM, DipABVP
Educational Director, VeterinaryPartner.com
The Normal Pancreas and What it Does
We eat food, chew it up into a slurry, and swallow it. It travels down the esophagus to the stomach where it is ground up further and enzymes are added to begin the break-down of dietary nutrients (digestion). When the food particles are small enough, they are propelled into the small intestine for further digestive treatment and ultimately nutrient absorption.
The small intestine has three portions: the duodenum which connects to the stomach and the jejunum and ileum below. The jejunum and ileum are mostly involved in absorption but the duodenum, being so close to the stomach, is the site of further digestion.
There are two ducts that enter the duodenum near where the stomach contents enter. One duct is for bile, squirted in directly from the liver’s gall bladder. The bile serves to neutralize the acid which the stomach had added, to emulsify (or dissolve) dietary fats for absorption later in the tract, and also to excrete some toxins. The other duct is the pancreatic duct which squirts in more digestive enzymes so as to break down starches and continue the break down of protein.
The pancreas is a pale pink glandular organ that nestles cozily just under the stomach and along the duodenum. As a glandular organ, the pancreas is all about secretion and it has two main jobs: the first job is to secrete digestive enzymes to help us break down the food we eat, the second job is to secrete insulin and glucagon (to regulate sugar metabolism). The digestive enzymes are the part of the story that concerns us in pancreatitis.
Pancreatitis is Inflammation of the Pancreas
In pancreatitis, inflammation disrupts the normal integrity of the pancreas. Digestive enzymes that are normally safely stored in granules are released prematurely, and they digest the body itself. The result can be a metabolic catastrophe. The living tissue becomes further inflamed and the tissue damage quickly involves the adjacent liver. Toxins released from this rampage of tissue destruction are released into the circulation and can cause a body-wide inflammatory response.If the pancreas is affected so as to disrupt its ability to produce insulin, diabetes mellitus can result; this can be either temporary or permanent.
The disruption of surfactants in the lung tissue that normally keep the tiny air-filled alveoli from collapsing after each exhaled breath. Without surfactants, the alveoli close up and respiratory failure results.Specific Pancreatitis Disasters
The good news is that most commonly the inflammation is confined to the area of the liver and pancreas,
but even with this limitation pancreatitis can be painful and life-threatening.
Pancreatitis can be acute or chronic, mild or severe.
What Causes Pancreatitis
In most cases we never find out what causes it, but we do know some events that can cause pancreatitis.
Miniature Schnauzers are predisposed to pancreatitis as they commonly have altered fat metabolism.
Signs of Pancreatitis
The classical signs in dogs are appetite loss, vomiting, diarrhea, painful abdomen, and fever or any combination thereof.
Making the Diagnosis
A reliable blood test has been lacking for this disease until recently. Traditionally, blood levels of amylase and lipase (two pancreatic digestive enzymes) have been used. When their levels are especially high, it's reasonable sign that these enzymes have leaked out of the pancreas, and pancreatitis is present, but these tests are not as sensitive or specific as we would prefer. Amylase and lipase can elevate dramatically with corticosteroid use, with intestinal perforation, kidney disease, or even dehydration. Some experts advocate measuring lipase and amylase on fluid from the belly rather than on blood but this has not been fully investigated and is somewhat invasive.
A newer test called the PLI, or pancreatic lipase immunoreactivity, test has come to be important. As mentioned, lipase is one of the pancreatic digestive enzymes and only small traces are normally in the circulation. In pancreatitis, these levels jump dramatically and the diagnosis can be confirmed with a less expensive and non-invasive test. The PLI test is different from the regular lipase level because the PLI test measures only lipase of pancreatic origin and thus is more specific. The problem is that technology needed to run this test is unique and the test can only been run in certain facilities on certain days. Results are not necessarily available rapidly enough to help a very sick patient.
More recently a new test called the SPEC cPL (specific canine pancreatic lipase) has become available. This test is a newer generation immunological test for canine pancreatic lipase and can be run overnight by a reference lab. This test is able to detect 83% of pancreatitis cases (the test is 83% sensitive) and excludes other possible diseases in 98% of cases (i.e. the test is 98 percent specific for pancreatitis). The test can be run in a laboratory yielding an actual number that can be used for monitoring the patient or it can be run as an in-house test kit. The in-house test kit yields a negative or positive result for pancreatitis rather than a number that can be used for monitoring. A negative in-house test rules out pancreatitis but a positive test is best followed by the laboratory test so an actual number can be obtained.
Radiographs can show a widening of the angle of the duodenum against the stomach, which indicates a swelling of the pancreas. Most veterinary hospitals have the ability to take radiographs but this type of imaging is not very sensitive in detecting pancreatitis and only is able to find 24 percent of cases.
Ultrasound, on the other hand, detects 68 percent of cases and provides the opportunity to image other organs and even easily collect fluid from the belly. Since pancreatitis can be accompanied by a tumor near the pancreas, ultrasound provides the opportunity to catch such complicating factors.
In some cases, surgical exploration is the only way to make the correct diagnosis.
The most important feature of treatment is aggressively rehydrating the patient with intravenous fluids, as this restores the circulation to the pancreas and supports the body's natural healing mechanisms. This means that the best route to recovery involves hospitalization. Fluids are continued until the patient is able to reliably drink and hold down adequate fluid intake, a process that commonly takes the better part of a week. Pain and nausea medication are needed to keep the patient comfortable, restore interest in food, and prevent further dehydration.
Plasma transfusion is somewhat controversial in treating pancreatitis. On one hand, plasma replenishes some of the natural blood proteins that are consumed by circulating digestive enzymes and would seem to make sense. In humans with pancreatitis, however, no benefit has been shown with plasma transfusion. Whether or not the protection afforded by plasma is real or theoretical is still being worked out but since it is difficult to go wrong with a plasma transfusion, do not be surprised if your veterinarian uses this approach.
In the past, nutritional support was delayed in pancreatitis patients as it was felt that stimulating the pancreas to secrete enzymes would encourage the on-going inflammation, but this theory has been re-thought. Currently, earlier return to feeding has been found to be beneficial to the GI tract's ability to resume function. If nausea control through medication does not give the patient a reasonable appetite, assisted-feeding is started using a fat-restricted diet. Return of food interest and resolution of vomiting/diarrhea generally means the patient is ready for return to the home setting. Low-fat diets are crucial to managing pancreatitis and their use should be continued for several weeks before attempting return to regular dog food. Some dogs can never return to regular dog food and require prescription low fat foods indefinitely.
Beware of Diabetes Mellitus
When the inflammation subsides in the pancreas, some scarring is inevitable. When 80% of the pancreas is damaged to an extent that insulin cannot be produced, diabetes mellitus results. This may or may not be permanent depending on the capacity for the pancreas’ tissue to recover.
Date Published: 1/2/2006 12:27:00 PM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 07/21/2015
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