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Dog Food for Pancreatitis: What Kind of Diet is Best For a Dog With Pancreatitis?
Pancreatitis is a relatively common disease among companion animals. And, naturally, dog owners whose dogs get diagnosed with the disease have all manner of questions about how to manage and treat it. Many of them concern diet and nutrition issues.
As always, there’s a fair amount of bad information about these subjects floating around on the Internet. So we’re using this article to dispel some common misconceptions, summarize the best available scientific evidence, and otherwise tell you everything you need to know about how to feed a dog that has recently been diagnosed with pancreatitis. Let’s jump right in.
What is the Pancreas and What is Pancreatitis?
The pancreas is a vital bodily organ that secretes enzymes that aid with digestion as well as hormones that facilitate metabolism. (Note the singular form. Everyone – dog or human – has just one pancreas, despite the fact that the word ends in the letter s.) And since nutrition influences both digestion and metabolism, it’s no surprise that so many questions about the pancreas concern a healthy diet too.
The most important metabolic hormone secreted by the pancreas is called insulin. Insulin’s primary function is to get glucose (“blood sugar”) out of the blood and into other tissues (such as fat and muscle), where the glucose can be stored safely. This is an essential bodily function because glucose is highly toxic in even moderately high quantities and rising blood sugar levels will cause horrible health problems (and eventually death) if they aren’t properly controlled by insulin.
By secreting insulin, a healthy pancreas helps prevent blood sugar levels from getting too high after carbohydrate-rich meals and other events that may have caused blood sugar to spike. But a dysfunctional pancreas (such as arises when a dog has pancreatitis) is limited in its ability to perform this vital function.
Acute vs. Chronic Pancreatitis
Pancreatitis comes in two flavors, acute and chronic. The acute variety is the sudden onset of inflammation in the cells responsible for producing digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Most often, this occurs when the digestive enzymes get “activated” too early. Ordinarily, these enzymes don’t start working until they reach the intestines. But if something causes them to get activated too early (while still in the pancreas) they won’t just digest food, they’ll start digesting the pancreas itself! Not good.
Acute pancreatitis develops quickly, in response to a specific stimulus (often a dietary one). Chronic pancreatitis, on other hand, develops slowly, as persistent low-grade inflammation causes deterioration over a period of years.
What Causes Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs?
A host of risk factors have been shown to increase the risk of acute pancreatitis in dogs. These include breed, gender, age, and body composition. But knowing about these associations isn’t particularly useful for individual pet-owners (with the exception of obesity, which should be avoided at all costs because it is worse for a dog than an entire lifetime of smoking is for a human being), as the vast majority of dogs bearing one or even all of them will never develop the disease.
Rare cases of injury- or drug-induced pancreatitis in dogs can be found in the scholarly literature. But they are few and far between. By far the most common cause of acute pancreatitis in dogs is the recent (within 24 hours) ingestion of a very high-fat, low-protein meal. According to this textbook and this one, scientists have even used these types of diets to induce the disease in laboratory settings.
The pathophysiology that explains how and why fatty foods in these diets produce acute pancreatitis is a bit outside the scope of this article. But, generally, things start to go wrong when triglyceride levels in the blood get/stay too high, something that tends to happen when a dog eats a large amount of fat all at once (and/or becomes too fat).
Dogs experiencing acute pancreatitis will almost always begin vomiting heavily. So the disease should be on your radar if your dog experiences severe digestive upset that doesn’t resolve itself relatively quickly. Your vet will conduct imaging and blood tests to make and confirm the diagnosis.
What is the Best Kind of Diet For a Dog With Acute Pancreatitis?
The most common nutritional strategy used to treat dogs with acute pancreatitis is to feed the types of nutrients that will cause as little pancreatic enzyme response as possible. (Remember, those pancreatic enzymes are responsible for damaging the pancreas themselves in cases of acute pancreatitis.) This means reducing the intake of fat and, to a lesser extent, protein. Which is why pet-owners so often identify dietary fat restriction as a pillar of treating acute pancreatitis.
This sounds simple enough in principle. But it is complicated by the fact that fats and proteins are essential nutrients for all dogs, even those with pancreatitis. Completely eliminating fat and protein from your dog’s normal diet may minimize the pancreatic enzymatic response—but it will also cause your dog to starve to death. Striking the appropriate balance is essential.
Is a Low-Fat Diet Best For a Dog With Acute Pancreatitis?
In short, the answer is yes. According to the fourth edition of Small Animal Clinical Nutrition (a leading and widely-used veterinary nutrition textbook), the appropriate fat content for a dog with acute pancreatitis is around 7-15% on a dry matter basis (DMB). However, it is important to note that the appropriate fat content may vary depending on the severity of the pancreatitis and each individual dog's needs.
If your dog is obese then the recommendation may be lower, typically around 5-10% on a DMB. It is important to work with a veterinarian to develop a diet plan that's tailored to your dog’s specific needs and medical condition to ensure that they receive the appropriate nutrition while also managing their weight and pancreatitis.
In any event, however, these are low numbers. Both the Association of American Feed Control Officials and the National Academies of Science believe that adult dogs need to consume diets composed of at least 5.5% fat and plenty of certified “complete and balanced” pet foods contain upwards of 25% fat.
So by just about anyone’s definition the fat intake recommended for dogs with acute pancreatitis can fairly be called “very low.” Nevertheless, acute pancreatitis is a very serious condition. And serious conditions justify significant dietary interventions.
What About Dogs With Chronic Pancreatitis?
This is where things become more nuanced.
In all but the worst cases, pancreatic function will return to relative normalcy after successful treatment of acute pancreatitis. And once things get back to normal, any specialized low-fat diet can be discontinued.
With chronic pancreatitis, that isn’t the case. If you choose to feed your dog a specialized diet due to chronic pancreatitis you’re essentially committing to that diet indefinitely. Which means that all sorts of other nutritional issues need to be considered alongside the issue of whether the diet is effectively managing the pancreatitis.
Perhaps the most important of these issues is the overall macronutritional makeup of the diet. Studies consistently show that dietary carbohydrates are more fattening for dogs than other nutrients, calorie-for-calorie. They also cause blood sugar levels to rise more than other nutrients (meaning more insulin is required to keep blood sugar under control). On the other hand, studies consistently show that high-protein diets help build and preserve skeletal muscle and other important lean tissues.
The problem is that there are only three different calorie-containing macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. And pet foods with more than 50% protein are quite rare (although Ketona is one). As such, if you are considering feeding your dog a low-fat diet in order to help manage chronic pancreatitis over the long-run, you’re also implicitly considering a diet that is loaded up with digestible carbohydrates. The calories simply have to come from somewhere.
If you are seriously considering modifying your dog’s diet permanently in order to manage a long-term chronic pancreatitis diagnosis, we urge you to work closely with your veterinarian to understand the seriousness of the animal’s pancreatic disease and whether any potential benefits from reducing fat intake will be outweighed by the costs of replacing the fat with highly digestible carbohydrates. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, the medicine can be worse than the cure!
Are Raw, Homemade Diets Appropriate For Dogs With Pancreatitis?
Here our answer is simple: no, home cooked diets are not good for a dog with pancreatitis. By this point, we hope you can see that dietary management of pancreatitis is nuanced and challenging, even with trustworthy data about nutritional content. A homemade diet inherently involves making on-the-fly estimates about the nutritional contents of individual ingredients. And the risk of miscalculations and oversights is simply too consequential in cases of pancreatitis. If you absolutely must make your dog’s food at home, at least be sure to work closely with a veterinary nutritionist to make sure that you’re giving them exactly what you’re intending.
Some of the Best Dog Foods For Pancreatitis
We are going to break these down into two categories; non-prescription (as in dog food you can buy at a store or online) and prescription dog food for pancreatitis. As always, talk to your veterinarian about whether a prescription diet is right for them.
Prescription Diets for Dogs with Pancreatitis
- Hill's i/d Digestive Care: This dog food is designed to be easy on the digestive system and can help manage pancreatitis. It contains a blend of fiber, prebiotics, and antioxidants to promote healthy digestion and reduce inflammation. This dog food is available in both canned and dry formulations.
- Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Gastrointestinal Low Fat: This dog food is low in fat and high in fiber, making it an excellent choice for dogs with pancreatitis. It also contains prebiotics to support digestive health. This dog food is available in both canned and dry formulations.
- Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric: This dog food is designed to support gastrointestinal health and reduce inflammation. It contains a blend of prebiotics and antioxidants to promote healthy digestion and immune function. This dog food is available in both canned and dry formulations.
- Blue Buffalo Natural Veterinary Diet GI Gastrointestinal Support: This dog food is designed to promote healthy digestion and reduce inflammation. It contains a blend of prebiotics, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids to support pancreatic health. This dog food is available in both canned and dry formulations.
Non-prescription Diets for Dogs with Pancreatitis
- Hill's Adult Fit: is a dry food that is designed to help adult dogs maintain a healthy weight. It contains a blend of ingredients that help to promote a healthy metabolism, including chicken, barley, and coconut oil. Hill's Adult Fit dog food is also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can help to keep your dog healthy and looking their best.
- Wellness Simple Limited Ingredient Diet: This dog food is made with limited ingredients to reduce the risk of triggering pancreatitis. It is free from grains, gluten, and artificial preservatives, and contains a blend of probiotics and antioxidants to support digestive health. This dog food is available in both canned and dry formulations.
- Canidae Life Stages Platinum: This dog food is made with limited ingredients and is free from corn, wheat, and soy. It is high in protein and low in fat, making it a good choice for dogs with pancreatitis. It also contains probiotics to support digestive health.
- Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free: This dog food is made with a limited number of ingredients to reduce the risk of triggering pancreatitis. It is free from grains and gluten, and is high in protein and low in fat. It also contains added vitamins and minerals to support overall health.
- Nutro Ultra Weight Management: This dog food is low in fat and high in fiber, making it a good choice for dogs with pancreatitis. It also contains added vitamins and minerals to support overall health, and is free from artificial preservatives and colors.
- Instinct Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free: This dog food is made with a limited number of ingredients to reduce the risk of triggering pancreatitis. It is free from grains and gluten, and is high in protein and low in fat. It also contains added vitamins and minerals to support overall health.
- American Journey Healthy Weight Chicken & Sweet Potato Recipe: Grain-Free Dry Dog Food is a high-quality, grain-free dog food that is designed to help dogs maintain a healthy weight. It is made with real chicken as the first ingredient, as well as sweet potatoes, and it is free of corn, wheat, soy, and artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
- Solid Gold Fit & Fabulous Low Fat/Low Calorie with Fresh Caught Alaskan Pollock: is a dry dog food that is designed to help dogs lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. It is made with a high-quality blend of ingredients that are low in calories and high in nutrients like omega fatty acids from fish oil.
- The Honest Kitchen Chicken Recipe Grain-Free Dehydrated Dog Food: is a complete and balanced meal that is made with real, whole food ingredients. It is a good source of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is also free of corn, wheat, and soy.
- Annamaet Grain-Free Lean Low Fat Formula: is a dry dog food is a high-quality, grain-free food that is designed to help dogs maintain a healthy weight. It is made with real chicken as the first ingredient, and it is free of corn, wheat, soy, and artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives.
It is important to note that each dog is unique and senior dogs may have different dietary needs. Therefore, it is important to consult with a veterinarian to determine the best diet for your dog's specific condition and health status.
A Bit about a Raw Diet and your Dog's health
It is generally not recommended to feed raw diets to dogs with pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed, and feeding a raw diet can put additional stress on the pancreas due to the high fat content present in some raw foods.
Dogs with pancreatitis require a carefully balanced and controlled diet to help manage their condition. A veterinarian may recommend a low-fat, easily digestible diet that is cooked and highly processed to make it easier for the dog's body to digest and absorb nutrients.
While raw diets may be touted as a healthier option for dogs, they come with a higher risk of bacterial contamination and can be more difficult to balance correctly. It is essential to work with a veterinarian to develop a diet plan that meets your dog's specific needs, especially if they have a medical condition like pancreatitis.