What Causes Pancreatitis in Pets? The Danger of Dietary Indiscretions

August 28, 2022

In this article we will explore the topic of pancreatitis- a pathology characterised by inflammation of the pancreas- which can be a fatal condition for cats and dogs in severe acute cases and, at the least, warrant a visit to the vet in mild acute cases. 

Let's first discuss the pancreas. The pancreas is an organ with an important role in digestion of food through the production and release of a variety of enzymes that break down different types of nutrients such as fats, sugars, and proteins. The pancreas is crucial in digestion and if damaged, the enzymes it produces can cause significant damage to the abdominal cavity and lead to loss of organ function. Often referred to as “The Lion of the Abdomen” in medicine, the pancreas is feared for the damage it can cause when unregulated. 

Causes of Pancreatitis 

There is not a single cause of pancreatitis, rather a combination of predispositions and dietary choices that lead to cases of pancreatitis specifically in dogs and cats. 

Proposed risk factors for acute pancreatitis in dogs include breed; being overweight (Hess et al. 1999; Lem et al. 2008); being male or spayed female (Hess et al. 1999); being neutered or having previous surgery (Lem et al. 2008); hyperlipidaemia (Whitney et al. 1987; Xenoulis & Steiner 2010) and certain drugs.

In addition, concurrent endocrine diseases (DM, hyperadrenocorticism and hypothyroidism) were associated with an increased risk of fatal acute disease in one study (Hess et al. 1999). Epilepsy was also identified as a risk factor for acute pancreatitis in the same study, but it is unclear whether this was an association with the therapy (medication) rather than the disease.

Hypertriglyceridaemia, or excess of triglycerides/fats in the blood, is a recognised cause of recurrent acute pancreatitis in both humans (Tsuang et al. 2009) and dogs (Xenoulis & Steiner 2010). In dogs, it is most commonly reported in miniature schnauzers (Xenoulis et al. 2010). However, the pathogenesis of hypertriglyceridemia-induced pancreatitis is poorly understood. It is postulated that pancreatic lipase might break down triglycerides to fatty acids within the pancreas resulting in acinar damage (Tsuang et al. 2009).

An alternative theory suggests that hyperviscosity of the blood compromises pancreatic oxygen supply (Tsuang et al. 2009). However, interestingly, although there is a recognised threshold blood concentration of triglycerides which will predispose to pancreatitis in humans, there is no correlation above that threshold between the concentration of triglycerides and the severity of pancreatitis, which perhaps argues against both of these proposed mechanisms (Talukdar & Vege 2009).

Excessive fat intake in dogs is often achieved through what is referred to by veterinarians as “dietary indiscretion” or essentially allowing a pet dog/cat to eat human food scraps. 

Fat in the Diet 

In dogs/cats without endocrine disorders, feeding fat within a balanced diet is appropriate and should not be avoided completely, out of fear of inducing pancreatitis. The issue, as always, is when fat in the diet is excessive. 

Another issue that is often brought up with fats in the diet is that of cooked fat. Given that small animals are sensitive to the amount of fat in their diet, many people contend that quality and stability of the fat matters as well. This is referring to the level of oxidation of the fat/oil, or its exposure to oxygen which alters the chemical structure of fat molecules into less stable forms. 

An article about pancreatitis from KetoPet in 2019 wrote, “fats exposed to high temperatures, oxygen and, in some cases, bacteria or fungi, have an increased rate of lipid peroxidation, or rancidity. Oxidized fats enhance NFK-B and augment Tumor Necrosis Factor, thus inducing pancreatitis. Therefore, raw fats and oxidized (cooked or old) fats have vastly differing results on the pancreas. Getting into a trash can of leftovers, grease traps or cooked table scraps increases exposure to pancreatitis inducing fats. An already inflamed pancreas, from regular consumption of high carbs and antinutrients, combined with oxidized lipid consumption may result in an acute attack of pancreatitis.”

While there is not a definitive link between heated and oxidised fats in the current literature, the process of oxidation of fatty acids is known to trigger inflammatory reactions compared to less-oxidised fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Given that pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, it is not a stretch to suppose that cooked fats can contribute to an acute episode of pancreatitis or developing chronic pancreatitis in dogs and cats.

If inflammatory processes mediated by NF-kB and Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF) are up-regulated due to recurrent exposure to oxidised fatty acids, a chronic inflammatory state of the pancreas and other organs could possibly lead to other serious health conditions (SIRS, organ damage/failure, cancer, etc).


Pancreatitis is a serious health condition that commonly sends dogs and cats to the vet, and in this article we discussed several factors that lead to inflammation of the pancreas.

The main known causes of pancreatitis in dogs include breed, being overweight, hyperlipidemia, endocrine disorders, use of certain drugs such as anti-epileptic medication, and diet indiscretions, especially in acute cases of pancreatitis. 

As always, research on the amounts and/or quality of fats to cause pancreatitis in dogs/cats is limited. However, professional consensus among veterinarians is that ingestion of cooked fats is a common theme across cases of pancreatitis given the increased oxidation state of fatty acids exposed to heat (versus raw or uncooked fat sources).

In order to avoid acute episodes or reduce the occurrence of chronic pancreatitis, it is important to have your vet treat comorbidities- overweight pets, hyperlipidemia, hypothyroidism, etc, while also limiting dietary causes- feeding excess table/food scraps, excessive fat in the diet, etc, in order to steer clear of the dangers of pancreatitis. 


Hess, R.S. et al., 1999. Evaluation of risk factors for fatal acute pancreatitis in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 214.  

Lem, K.Y. et al., 2008. Associations between dietary factors and pancreatitis in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 233(9), pp.1425–1431. 

Tsuang, W. et al., 2009. Hypertriglyceridemic Pancreatitis: Presentation and Management. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 104(4), pp.984– 991. 

Talukdar, R. & Vege, S.S., 2009. Recent Developments in Acute Pancreatitis. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 7(11), pp.S3–S9.  

Whitney, M.S. et al., 1987. Effects of acute pancreatitis on circulating lipids in dogs. American Journal of Veterinary Research, 48(10), pp.1492–1497. 

Xenoulis, P.G. & Steiner, J.M., 2010. Lipid metabolism and hyperlipidemia in dogs. The Veterinary Journal, 183(1), pp.12–21. 


Please consult physicians/veterinarians, and/or other trustworthy science-based sources for advice on human and animal dietary questions.

As always, I hope this post was helpful!

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