Willie the 12 year old cross bred terrier

Willie has always been prone to carrying extra weight. Every year, when he’s come to see me for his annual health check, he has been weighed, every year he has gained a couple of kilograms. His owners do their best to limit what he eats, but he loves his food, and it’s proven difficult to slim him down. Despite this weight issue, he has always been a healthy, happy dog. 

willie became ill

Last week, for the first time in his life, he fell ill. The main problem was very obvious to the family: he started to vomit repeatedly. Claire counted how many times he was sick: over two days, he vomited fourteen times. 

The strange thing was that Willie didn’t seem in any way fazed by the vomiting. He remained bright and cheerful, eating and drinking normally, continuing to be in good form, wanting to go for walks and still wagging his tail. 

For the first day, Claire hoped that he had just eaten something that disagreed with him: this is common in dogs. Many dogs vomit a few times, then it settles down. Willie has done this occasionally in the past.

But when he continued to vomit on the second day, Claire knew that there was something more serious going on, so she brought him down to see me.

a trip to the vet

When I examined Willie, I was surprised at how well he seemed to be. Most dogs that are vomiting with this frequency tend to be dull and depressed. Willie seemed as happy as any dog could be, even delighted to be visiting the vet. He had no pain, and his vital signs (temperature, heart rate etc) were all normal. Yet the frequency of vomiting could not be ignored. I decided to take a blood sample to find out more about what was going on inside him.

bloods were taken

I processed the blood sample in our in-house laboratory. There are two aspects to this analysis: first, a blood count, measuring Willie’s red and white blood cells. These were all normal, which was a good indicator of his general health. The second aspect was the measurement of Willie’s biochemistry: the various enzymes and chemicals in his bloodstream. These provide valuable information about the functioning of a dog’s internal metabolism, including liver, kidneys and other essential organs.

Nearly all of Willie’s biochemistry was normal, but two enzymes had levels that were sky high: amylase and lipase. Both of these were over twice as high as normal. This result was enough to make a very specific diagnosis of Willie’s problem: he was suffering from pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas.


The pancreas is a finger-sized organ located close to the liver, in the abdomen. As well as producing insulin to regulate the blood glucose, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes that pass down a duct into the intestines. These enzymes allow the body to digest food. 

In pancreatitis, the digestive enzymes somehow leak out of the duct into the body of the pancreas itself. This leakage is dangerous: the enzymes start to digest the pancreas itself, causing it to be swollen and painful. At the same time, the level of the enzymes in the blood is raised, which is why I found the high levels of amylase and lipase.

The main signs of pancreatitis are vomiting and abdominal pain. For some reason, Willie did not seem to be suffering from pain; perhaps he has a high pain threshold. But this diagnosis explained exactly why he was vomiting so frequently, and I now knew exactly how to treat him.

When a dog with pancreatitis eats, the presence of food in the stomach stimulates the production of more digestive enzymes by the pancreas, and this then causes more damage to the pancreas, with more vomiting. So treatment is simple: complete starvation for 1 – 3 days. This has to be accompanied by intensive intravenous fluid therapy to ensure that the dog does not become dehydrated.

Most dogs respond well to this treatment, making a full recovery. However a small number of dogs – perhaps one in twenty – do not respond: they continue to vomit, and they go on to become seriously unwell in other ways. Sadly, some don’t survive. For this reason, treatment of pancreatitis has to be taken very seriously.

Willie was hospitalised for 48 hours, kept on a continual intravenous infusion. Fortunately, he was one of the lucky ones: his vomiting settled down,and when he was offered food after two days, he tucked into it hungrily. There has been no more vomiting since then, and he seems to be completely back to normal.

However there will be two long term consequences for Willie.
First, many dogs are prone to repeated bouts of pancreatitis. In particular, fatty food of any kind tends to prompt a recurrence of the condition. To prevent this, it’s often best to keep affected dogs on low-fat diets. Sometimes a special prescription-type diet from the vet is needed but in many cases, supermarket brands can be used, as long as the fat level is checked carefully.

The second consequence is that Willie really does need to be slimmed down. Pancreatitis is far more common in dogs that are carrying extra weight. If Willie had been a slim, trim dog, he would not have developed this problem. For this reason, as well as for his general health, it’s really important that Willie starts onto a carefully planned, rigorous weight reduction diet.

One of the vet nurses at our vet clinic specialises in helping dogs lose weight, so she’s given Willie a diet and exercise plan. Operation transformation for Willie has begun.

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