Pancreatitis In Boxers: Causes And The Cure

Pancreatitis is a painful and serious condition involving inflammation of the pancreas, the organ responsible for producing both digestive enzymes and insulin to regulate blood sugar.

While the causes have not traditionally been well understood, with a large, fatty meal usually blamed, the latest research suggests most cases of pancreatitis in Boxers are related to the ongoing consumption of a kibble diet.

An acute attack of pancreatitis can be fatal without emergency intervention, whereas the more common, chronic form of the disease takes time to develop and can be reversed with proper feeding of a fresh, natural canine diet.

I am not a vet. This article is intended for general informational and educational purposes. I encourage readers to see my full disclaimer here.

What Is Pancreatitis?

Pancreatitis means inflammation of the pancreas, but the condition takes two different forms:

  • Acute (Sudden onset)
  • Chronic (Slow developing)

Acute Pancreatitis In Boxers

Acute pancreatitis is the rarer form whereby a malfunctioning pancreas leaks digestive enzymes into the pancreatic tissue and surrounding organs, rather than delivering them to the gut.

This leakage causes the body to essentially digest itself, a condition called necrotizing pancreatitis.

Because it’s positioned close to the pancreas, the liver is often affected.

If the enzymes leak into the bloodstream, they can travel to distant parts of the body, damaging organs including the heart and kidneys.

In a worst case scenario, the pancreatic enzymes cause so much damage that it leads to organ failure, and death.

Chronic Pancreatitis In Boxers

The chronic form of pancreatitis is far more common.

It occurs when a Boxer’s overtaxed pancreas becomes unable to secrete sufficient digestive enzymes (amylase, lipase and protease are all made in the canine pancreas) to allow the body to breakdown and absorb the nutrients in food.

Chronic pancreatitis has a slow onset — by the time symptoms appear, a Boxer is usually more than two years old, and 85 to 90 per cent of the pancreas is already shut down.

How Serious Is Pancreatitis In Boxers?

Pancreatitis can be a serious and fatal disease in Boxers and other breeds.

With cases ranging from mild to life-threatening, the survival rate is similarly variable: 42 to 73 per cent.

An attack of acute pancreatitis comes on suddenly, is debilitatingly painful and — without prompt and aggressive veterinary treatment — is likely to be fatal.

Having said that, dogs can survive.

The chronic form of pancreatitis can be more of a creeping malaise, but progressively robs a Boxer of vitality and quality of life.

Because of the pancreas’ role in the digestive system, left untreated it often snowballs into further health problems.

What Causes Pancreatitis In Boxers?

Modern understandings are challenging the conventional view of pancreatitis where fat consumption has been seen as the culprit.

Typically, vets blame a dietary indiscretion that has seen the dog binge on a large amount of fatty food in one sitting.

The classic scenario is when the dog gets into the trash and wolfs down fatty leftovers or counter surfs a whole Thanksgiving turkey.

In fact, pancreatitis appears to be more complicated than that.

What Foods Trigger Pancreatitis In Boxers?

It’s clear that pancreatitis is diet-related.

Cooked Fat

High blood fat is associated with pancreatitis.

However, research suggests that high levels of triglycerides (fat) in the blood don’t automatically result from the consumption of a diet high in fat.

It’s the type of fat, rather than its quantity, that matters.

In short, cooked fat is problematic — but not fat that’s consumed in the form dogs have always eaten it i.e. raw.

Pancreatitis is almost exclusively a condition of kibble-fed dogs.

Kibble is cooked and, notwithstanding deceptive labelling practices, high in fat.

High Carb Diets

The other characteristic of most kibble is that it’s full of carbohydrates.

Low fat, high carb diets have been shown to increase blood fat moreso than high fat diets.

So why does a dog stealing a big, fatty meal seem to bring on pancreatitis?

It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Fat builds in the blood over time.

While the ultimate precipitating event might be the raiding of the trash can and the consumption of the fat trimmings off a steak dinner, it’s actually the underlying high blood fat — typically as a result of a high-carb diet of kibble – that has set the dog up for pancreatitis.

The ins and outs of this relate to complex metabolic pathways but it’s basically to do with the way a dog’s body processes fats and carbohydrates.

(Dogs are better than us at digesting fat, and — as carnivores — naturally eat diets much higher in fat than carbohydrate, which they have adapted to be able to digest but for which they have no biological requirement.)

The esteemed homeopathic veterinarian Dr Richard Pitcairn agrees about the role of diet in causing pancreatitis, but also predicts it will, in future, be recognized as “another of the immune diseases”.

Dr Pitcairn emphasizes the importance of avoiding vaccination in order to prevent more attacks in a dog that’s already had a bout of pancreatitis.

Risk Factors For A Boxer Developing Pancreatitis

Numerous factors have been associated with an increased risk of pancreatitis including:

  • Dietary indiscretions involving high-fat foods (as above)
  • Kibble diet (More below)
  • Overvaccination — As Dr Pitcairn highlights, pancreatic disease is among the many severe illnesses that have been connected to overuse of vaccines
  • Age — Pancreatitis is more common in middle aged to older dogs
  • Genetics/Breed disposition — Smaller dogs are most often affected including Miniature Schnauzers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Shelties, Miniature and Toy Poodles and Yorkshire and Silky Terriers
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes (A quarter of diabetic dogs are estimated to have concurrent acute pancreatitis)
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Infections e.g. salmonella and legionella
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Pre-existing gastrointestinal disease e.g. “leaky gut”
  • Recent surgery especially involving abdominal organs
  • Drugs — Medication including the steroid prednisone, anti-seizure meds like potassium bromide and phenobarbital, and the diuretic Lasix
  • Spaying— Spayed females are 22 times more likely than intact females to develop fatal acute pancreatitis
  • Injury to the mid-back — the spine at the level of the last rib is an energy point that supplies both stomach and pancreas

Kibble As A Contributing Factor In Pancreatitis?

More and more vets and canine nutritionists are coming to see kibble as responsible for a “plague” of chronic, low-grade pancreatitis sweeping the canine population including Boxers.

Canine nutritionist Dr Conor Brady says a “disgracefully large” number of dogs suffer from pancreatitis.

It’s a condition he regards as entirely avoidable, a result of the fact that eight of ten pet dogs are fed a completely unnatural cereal-based diet i.e. ultra-processed kibble, packed with carbohydrates.

“Pancreatitis in dogs and cats,” says Dr Brady, “.. is almost a certainly a result of dry feeding.”

Aside from experiments showing high-carb diets increase blood fat, carbohydrate consumption is known to affect insulin levels, therefore impacting the pancreas via its role in insulin secretion.

A Lack Of Enzymes

Cooked food, whether kibble or home cooked, is also devoid of the enzymes abundant in raw, living food and which reduce pancreatic stress.

If natural enzymes aren’t in the food, the pancreas has to work overtime to make up the shortfall.

When it can’t, pancreatitis is the result.

How Raw Feeding Supports Pancreatic Health In Your Boxer

A properly fed raw diet, as described here, helps prevent pancreatitis is several ways.

The gut of prey animals, often consumed at least partially by wolves and other wild dogs, is an especially rich source of enzymes.

This is why green tripe, the stomach lining of ungulates like cattle and sheep, is considered “the bomb” by raw feeders.

When eating whole-prey, raw-fed dogs consume the glands including the pancreas, providing a direct hit of enzymes.

Even raw-fed dogs can be enzyme-deficient if they’re not getting to consume whole animals with digestive tracts intact or eating pancreas as part of their offal rotation.

Symptoms Of Pancreatitis In A Boxer Dog

Symptoms range from mild to very severe, depending on whether the dog has acute or chronic pancreatitis.

Signs of pancreatitis include:

  • Mild lethargy, weakness
  • Weight loss or anorexia
  • Poor coat
  • Gassiness
  • Loss of appetite, or increase
  • Poop eating (Due to nutrient deficiency and undigested food in the feces)
  • Excessive drooling and air licking (signs of nausea that are also seen in acid reflux)
  • Transient vomiting
  • Diarrhea that is yellowy-grey and oily or loose stool that is greasy with undigested fat, a classic sign of pancreatitis
  • Dehydration
  • Severe abdominal pain

On the extreme end, pancreatitis can involve a massive inflammatory reaction called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), marked by:

  • Increased capillary permeability
  • Fever
  • Cardiovascular shock including rapid heart rate and a drop in blood pressure
  • Multi-organ failure
  • Death

How Is Pancreatitis Diagnosed In Boxers?

Canine pancreatitis can be difficult to diagnose.

Many of its symptoms mirror those seen in a wide variety of other disorders.

Diagnosing pancreatitis involves an element of judgment, based on supportive bloodwork and scans.

Your vet will likely consider a combination of:

  • Clinical signs
  • History
  • Bloodwork
  • Abdominal ultrasound

Bloodwork will likely show:

  • High triglycerides (fat)
  • Elevated levels of the digestive enzymes amylase (the enzyme that digests carbohydrate) and lipase (the enzyme that digests fat) as well as elevations in specific forms of canine pancreatic lipase called cPLI, SNAP cPL and Spec cPL.

Imaging is typically used to confirm a diagnosis and exclude other disease.

The only definitive way to diagnosis pancreatitis is by looking at samples of pancreatic tissue under a microscope.

This is not done due to the invasiveness of the procedure to biopsy the pancreas, as well as the cost and risk of complications.

Treatment For Pancreatitis In Boxers

Pancreatitis can’t be cured with drugs or a medical procedure.

In life-and-death cases of acute pancreatitis, the care is mostly supportive and focussed on relieving symptoms long enough that the dog’s body can recover.

The four cornerstones of conventional veterinary treatment for pancreatitis are:

  1. Pain relief
  2. IV fluids (to remedy dehydration, low blood volume and electrolyte imbalances)
  3. Control of nausea and vomiting with drugs called anti-emetics
  4. Nutritional support i.e. tube feeding

Note that certain medications should be avoided when treating a dog with pancreatitis, including:

  • Prednisone and other steroids
  • Antibiotics
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)

If a dog with pancreatitis is not eating or drinking, hospitalization may be required.

Your vet may want to repeat bloodwork to monitor pancreatitic enzymes until they return to normal.

Thereafter, the focus is on preventing relapse.

How To Heal A Boxer With Pancreatitis

Recovering from pancreatitis requires an overhaul of the dog’s care and feeding.

Fasting

Therapeutic fasting is extremely powerful in healing a Boxer from pancreatitis.

Withholding food rests an overstimulated pancreas from the work of digestion and is proven to reduce inflammation throughout the body.

If a Boxer has an attack of pancreatitis, he should be fasted for at least one or two full days.

Fresh, pure water should always be available.

When eating resumes, start with smaller meals and make sure you have switched to a raw diet.

Avoidance Of Toxins

Another plank of the recovery is to eliminate as many chemical exposures as possible, as they increase toxic load on the body and antagonise the immune system.

That means minimizing your Boxer’s exposure to:

  • Flea/tick treatments
  • Chemical wormers
  • Vaccines
  • Drugs
  • Household chemicals including chemical sprays, scented plugins, fabric sprays, fragranced candles and personal care products like perfumes and hair sprays
  • Environmental chemicals like weedkillers on grass and other lawncare products

Massage

If you suspect your Boxer’s pancreatitis may have a vertebral cause, treatment with an osteopath, chiropractor or qualified canine massage therapist may help.

Diet For Pancreatitis In Boxers

As outlined above, a raw diet is critical whether trying to avoid pancreatitis and to recover from an attack.

Boxers suffering from pancreatitis, like all Boxers, should eat raw and unprocessed food — no cooked food, commercial dog food or store-bought treats.

Regular fasting, as discussed, should also form part of your dog’s routine.

Digestive Enzymes

Some vets recommend digestive enzymes for Boxers recovering from pancreatitis.

This may be useful short term, to relieve pressure on the delicate organ.

Long term though, dependence on supplements is not desirable.

A healthy, raw-fed dog should be able to produce more than enough of their own enzymes, and source additional enzymes in food, without needing to be propped up with artificial supplementation.

Pancreas And Green Tripe

Providing enzymes in living food like offal such as pancreas and green tripe is infinitely preferable to adding manufactured substitutes.

Feeding wild-caught, whole-prey with organs in is ideal.

Low Fat, Low Carb

A super low-fat diet may be necessary to get a dog out of the danger zone during treatment for acute pancreatitis, but even more important is for the diet to be low in carbohydrates (for the reasons outlined earlier).

A properly composed raw diet will naturally contain low to moderate amounts of fat, in line with a dog’s biological requirements: dogs have evolved eating lean, game meats like venison.

When feeding diets based on chicken, beef or lamb, be aware that the products of human agriculture are deliberately fattened for slaughter.

Selecting lean cuts and trimming visible fat will return the fat ratios to something resembling wild meats.

Is Pancreatitis Common In Boxer Dogs?

Boxers are a breed prone to stomach problems, allergies, hives, yeast and a range of other issues when fed improperly or subjected to other shortcomings in care e.g. exposure to toxins in chemical wormers, flea/tick treatments, repeat vaccines etc.

Pancreatitis is a problem that largely affects the kibble-fed dog population.

It typically evaporates once a Boxer is properly raw-fed.

Is Pancreatitis In Boxer Dogs Fatal?

The acute form can be fatal without prompt and aggressive veterinary treatment.

Dogs with chronic pancreatitis, however, can and do recover as long as the kibble is ditched in favor of a fresh, natural biologically-appropriate diet using fresh, raw ingredients.

How Long Can A Boxer Dog Live With Pancreatitis?

While an attack of acute pancreatitis can be rapidly fatal, low-grade chronic pancreatitis can be turned around.

With appropriate dietary changes, the prognosis for dogs with milder cases of pancreatitis is generally good, with most achieving complete resolution of clinical signs.

If owners continue feeding kibble or other highly processed diets consisting of cooked food high in carbs, recurrent bouts are much more likely.

Conclusion

Pancreatitis can affect kibble-fed Boxers far too often, particularly in its low-grade chronic form.

Diagnosis will often be made on the basis of symptoms and tests showing elevated blood fat, but high fat diets are no longer regarded as the likely cause of pancreatitis.

Rather, the consumption of cooked, high carb dog food like kibble is thought to prime a dog’s system such that a single high fat meal can then tip the system over the edge into crisis.

Processed dog food fails to provide Boxers with the plentiful enzymes contained in raw meat, bones and offal.

As a result, the pancreas can become overworked, eventually breaking down.

Recovery is possible with the feeding of a fresh, raw meaty bone-based diet.

References

Becker, Karen, DVM, Guard the Fatty Foods, They Can Kill Certain Breeds, Mercola Healthy Pets, 2019

Brady, Conor, Feeding Dogs: Dry or Raw? The Science Behind the Debate, Farrow Road Publishing, 2020

Droes, Floris and Tappin, Simon, Canine pancreatitis — a challenging disease. Parts 1 and 2, Companion Animal, 2017

Ettinger, JE and Feldman, EC, Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine: Diseases of the Dog and Cat, 4th edition, 1995

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

Kim et al, Canine exocrine pancreatic insufficiency treated with porcine pancreatic extract, Journal of Veterinary Science, 2005

Mansfield, Caroline Bsc, BVMS, Acute Pancreatitis in Dogs: Advances in Understanding, Diagnostics and Treatment, Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, August 2012

Morris Animal Foundation, Protect Your Dog From Deadly Pancreatitis This Holiday Season, retrieved from website August 2021

Newman, Shelley et al, Histologic assessment and grading of the exocrine pancreas in the dog, Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigation, 2006

O’Driscoll, Catherine, What Vets Don’t Tell You About Vaccines, Second edition, 1998

Pitcairn, Richard H et al, Dr Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, Rodale Press, 2005

Roberts, Mark et al, Macronutrient intake of dogs, self-selecting diets varying in composition offered ad libitum, Journal of Animal Physiology and Nutrition, 2018