Miniature Schnauzers are small breed dogs, usually weighing in at around 10kg. They’re smart, friendly, and relatively healthy, and they need an average amount of exercise and grooming. They’re actually considered to be the UK’s most ‘average’ dog in just about everything. They get the same amount of a particular disease within the breed as if you took an average of all the dogs in the UK.
They do seem to be a little more prone to severe gastroenteritis than most dogs though, and along with this they often seem to get bad pancreatitis. So what is pancreatitis and why should we worry?
The pancreas is a small organ that sits alongside the first portion of the intestine (the duodenum). Its job is to produce enzymes that digest fat, and it secretes these, along with bile, into the gut as food passes through. This neutralises the acid remaining from the stomach and the enzymes begin the fat digesting process. The pancreas also produces insulin, which is important for regulating blood sugar. Patients with diabetes often get pancreatitis at the same time if the whole pancreas is affected.
Miniature Schnauzers appear to have a genetic predisposition to vomiting, diarrhoea and pancreatitis. It isn’t clear exactly how this happens. In the majority of dogs, pancreatitis occurs due to exposure to a fatty meal- the classic scenario being a dog who got into the party cocktail sausages, or who likes to root through the bins. It’s likely that Schnauzers have a pancreas that ‘angers’ particularly easily, even at normal levels of fat in food. Inflammation in the gut can spread quickly to other areas, and it’s possible that an ‘angry’ stomach causes an ‘angry’ pancreas, hence the link between pancreatitis, vomiting and diarrhoea in Schnauzers.
Dogs with pancreatitis can present with various symptoms. They may be off their food, often completely refusing to take anything at all. They may present with vomiting, and this may be food or just bile. Pancreatitis is very painful and dogs may adopt the ‘prayer’ position (elbows on the floor, bottom in the air) or react painfully to being picked up or moved. Some dogs will have diarrhoea. And some dogs will show hardly any symptoms, just be a little ‘off colour’. It is only whilst having a clinical examination that the condition is picked up.
Your vet will suspect pancreatitis if your dog presents with a painful abdomen whilst off his food or vomiting, but it takes a blood test to confirm it. Most vets will have an in-house test that gives a positive or a negative result. However, it is sensible to get an exact figure put on the level of stress the pancreas is under in order to monitor it going up and down. For this, the blood sample will need to be sent to the lab. The level does not give a prognosis- i.e a higher level doesn’t mean the dog is worse- but it can be compared several weeks later to check that the pancreas is recovering.
Pancreatitis is tricky to treat, and supportive care is all that can really be offered. Since most animals have been vomiting and are off their food, getting them onto intravenous fluids is important. Historically, vets used to recommend starving a pancreatitis patient to let the pancreas relax, but the latest evidence shows that they recover quicker if they are encouraged to eat. Low-fat food will be needed for several weeks, and often the first thing a patient with pancreatitis will eat is chicken or white fish.
Pain relief will be essential. To begin with, this is likely to be injectable pain relief as a patient with pancreatitis will resist all feeding. Opioids are often used to control the severe pain that an animal with pancreatitis will be feeling, and it’s sensible to give several different medications.
Most animals will also need things to reduce their level of nausea. Anti-sickness drugs will be an important part of treatment, even if your dog isn’t vomiting. If there is any diarrhoea, it’s important to give anti-diarrhoeal medications as well.
Depending on the case, there may also be a need for enzyme supplementation in the short or long term. This is because the pancreas stops producing the enzymes necessary to digest fats, and despite the low-fat food some dogs will still be unable to digest everything. Enzymes can be sprinkled over the dog’s food to digest the food for the dog.
Most dogs with pancreatitis will have a one-off acute flare up due to eating something silly. Six or eight weeks later a test will show that their pancreatic enzymes have reverted to normal and they can go back to eating their usual food. However, a proportion of patients will develop chronic-recurrent pancreatitis. This form never really gets better and patients will have to be on low-fat food for the rest of their lives. The severity of the disease may wax and wane and they can go years without a flare up, but eventually one will occur, and often for no apparent reason. These dogs may also have to stay on the enzyme supplements as their pancreas doesn’t produce the necessary enzymes.
The cells that produce insulin also occur in the pancreas, but they are different cells to the ones that produce enzyme-digesting fats. However, generalised pancreatic disorders can occur and these affect all cells in the pancreas. Many dogs with diabetes also have subtle (or not so subtle!) pancreatitis at diagnosis, but most dogs with pancreatitis will not develop diabetes. Schnauzers do not have a higher rate than usual of diabetes.