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Living with a dog on a diet...

Twiggy had been a very fast little agility dog, so fast that her handler Kay Westgate could not keep up so they both retired from agility in 2010. Then in October 2011, Twiggy became seriously ill with immune mediated thrombocytopenia and nearly lost her life. The vets did a wonderful job and, against the odds, she got through it. Not long after, however, she got sick again and was diagnosed with pancreatitis. Kay tried everything and turned to the Internet to find a way to control the condition. She has written this article in the hope that she can help other owners with pancreatic dogs.

Twiggy had been on steroids and an immune suppressant azathioprine for six months and had seemed so much better. But then she got sick again. She became dull and lost her appetite and her faeces started to become softer and softer virtually runny! I could often hear her tummy rumbling. At first the vet thought it was a bug and put her on metronidazole which worked initially.  However, as soon as she stopped taking them, the symptoms returned. Finally, after in-depth blood tests, I was told that Twiggy had Canine Pancreatitis. I felt so guilty as she must have often felt lousy and been in some considerable pain.

Pancreatitis is basically a severe inflammation of the pancreas, a gland located in the abdomen that aids in metabolism of sugar and digestion of nutrients. It is a fairly common disorder among dogs but can become life threatening if left untreated. The good news is that usually it is fairly easy to control by careful feeding the dog a low fat diet. 

What causes Canine Pancreatitis?
I was told that one of the most common causes of pancreatitis is a diet high in fat, sugar and carbohydrates. Originally, dogs were meant to only consume meat, bones and some plants. When a dog's diet is too high in grains, fat and sugar, the pancreas has a harder time processing these nutrients and may become inflamed. I never thought I was feeding her one although she did get the occasional bit of cheese, a little bit of chicken skin and the odd chip. Was this the cause? 

On the other hand, the medication she had been on - and still is - gives a predisposition to the disease. No point in guessing... too late for that! It's a Catch 22 situation anyway. Without the medication, she would have died!

Treatment
Treatment for pancreatitis is supportive, meaning that there isn't usually a direct cause and cure. It's meant to support the dog while allowing natural healing. The vet recommended a low-fat, high-fibre diet to aid in Twiggy's recovery and to prevent future bouts of pancreatitis. I was warned that she might need to be on his diet for life so it was important that I got it right.

And so I started giving Twiggy nothing but boiled chicken and rice. The vet suggested that I try Royal Canin Prescription Diet. Although she ate it, the next day she was sick and had the runs!

Another visit to the vets! This one said to try Chappie mixed with boiled chicken which I did. She ate it for a while although not very enthusiastically. Finally she said 'Mum, I am sick of boiled chicken and I hate fish.'

My only recourse was to research the problem on the internet myself. There is very little food out there specifically for dogs with her condition. I became a weight watcher for Twiggy, avidly reading every label in the pet shop in an effort to find something low enough in fat and not too high in protein and carbohydrates. What a minefield!

About Pancreatitis

The pancreas is a large gland consisting of two main lobes, situated in the abdomen close to the stomach, liver and small intestine. It's most familiar function is in producing insulin, which regulates the level of glucose in the blood. Disorders in this area of the pancreas give rise to diabetes, a condition which is covered in our fact sheet on Diabetes.

The second, equally important function is in the production of digestive enzymes digest food so that it can be absorbed by the body. If the enzymes are not present, an animal cannot digest or absorb food adequately.

Apart from its role in producing digestive enzymes, the pancreas is involved in:

  • Assisting with the absorption of vitamin B12 and other nutrients

  • The neutralisation of gastric acid

  • The prevention of overgrowth of unwanted bacteria in the small intestine

Source: Dene's

I emailed several dog food companies about their food pouches which was supposed to be only 4% fat. James Wellbeloved replied but said they would not recommend their food for dogs with her condition.

One food manufacturer, however, did reply - Denes Dog Food. They emailed a very helpful leaflet about pancreatitis and detailing three varieties of wet food which might be suitable, specifically. heir Light and Senior tins. So I tried a tin of their light version with chicken & liver and she loved it! It smells appetising and has added herbs for taste - and it is very low in fat. I would add I am not being paid by Denes to promote their food and have no connection whatsoever with them. I am only speaking as I find it!

As for biscuits, I could find nothing. I did try Pedigree Milky Bones which say low fat. She was sick again. Nothing else seemed suitable.

As she had tolerated the tins, I thought about trying Chappie Dry Food. Although a bit higher in fat than their wet food, at least she would have something to crunch! She ate that so obviously no fishy smell.

With pancreatic dogs, it is best to give them three small meals a day so that there is always something in their tummies.

And now...
My current regime to give her a small amount of Chappie Dried Kibble for breakfast, the same for lunch and then her Denes wet food in the evening as her main meal. She loves it. She comes and waits when I am dishing up, something which she had not done for a long time.  She eats it all up and licks the bowl. Because she has always been a fussy little madam, I have three different varieties which I can rotate.

No sickness, no rumblings and formed motions at last. She is the best she has been for a long time. Her coat is recovering from the steroid use and her energy levels are returning. She has been through such lot but she is a little fighter!

I hope my ramblings may be useful for others with pancreatic dogs. I am not saying this might be the answer for your dog but perhaps may give you options.

I found it very hard to find suitable foods so perhaps others have found the same thing. It isnít until you start reading dog food labels that you realise how high the fat content can be in prepared dog foods. I know some people say dogs will eat anything if they are hungry and are happy with the same old thing day in and day out.

Try telling my Twiggy that! Yes I do spoil her. After what she has gone through she deserves it. After being tied to a tree and left to die when she was 5 months old and obviously badly treated I will do whatever it takes to give her a comfortable and happy life in her senior years. She is the most loving little girl and has put up with all the treatments and tests without complaint. Thank goodness for insurance!!!!!

I would appreciate knowing what other owners of dogs with this condition have experienced. You can email me k.westgate@ntlworld.com and I would love to hear from you.

Kay's Update

Since writing this article, I have had over 50 emails from owners with dogs suffering pancreatitis. They all say they find it helpful and, like myself, find it very difficult trying to find the right food to give their dogs. All you get offered are prescription diets which are not only so expensive which dogs, in the main, do not like to eat.

There are no commercial dog biscuits suitable even although they say they are low fat.  I think I was lucky to find Denes because, after all this time, Twiggy still loves it and jumps up and down at mealtimes!

I have a young Parsons Russell Terrier whom I give him Burns Alert Lamb and Brown Rice Kibble as he is a working dog and needs to keep trim.  I found out that this is also low in fat (about 7%) so I tentatively tried Twiggy with some so that she had something to crunch. It also suited her, thank goodness. So now she has a small portion for breakfast, again for lunch and again just before bed with Denes being her main meal at tea time.  This regime has done the trick for her, and she has been free from an attack for a long time now.

I am not saying this would suit all dogs. It is a case of trial and error finding what is best for each individual animal,  but there are a lot of owners out there with pancreatic dogs so it seems to be more prevalent than we might think. I am very happy that so many people have taken heart from my article and realised they are not alone in dealing with this horrible disease.

The causes still remain something of a mystery.  It could be the diet we have given them in the past which has been high fat or even some medications but, no matter what the cause, it is a very distressing complaint for both dogs and owners.  (11 May 2014)


About the author...
Kay Westgate is a retired Personnel Officer who lives in Harlow Essex with her dogs Twiggy and Alfie. She is a lifetime member of Trent Park Dog Agility Club. 

Kay started agility in 1990 with her crossbreed Sam who got her to Crufts agility two years running and then with Ozzie her Jack Russell with whom she had varied degrees of success and, in later years, was run by Mike Fairlamb  and Keith Williams. Age and infirmity caught up with Kay, and she retired from active handling two years ago. Twiggy proved to be too nervous to run for anyone else but Kay now has Alfie, a Parsons Russell Terrier, who is being trained for agility by Ann Eddington who hopefully will compete with him in time.

Kay is very involved in sourcing dogs for advertising, films and television and handles herself when the need arises.

First published 27 July 2012