I Used to Spoil My Dog with Treats—Till They Gave Her Pancreatitis

Updated: Feb. 09, 2023

I thought I was showing my dog how much I loved her, but it turns out I was actually putting her health at risk.

Fancy, my scruffy ten-pound Maltese mix, lay listlessly in my lap in the crowded waiting room at the vet. A friendly yellow lab barked at no one in particular while a red Pomeranian yapped at Fancy, trying to grab her attention. Ordinarily, Fancy would’ve woofed back and then some, but today she wasn’t in the mood. She’d been vomiting since yesterday, and she’d spent all night under my bed—the first time for that to happen. After waiting 30 minutes to be seen, we were finally ushered into an examining room where a young veterinarian was expecting us.

“I’m Dr. Hammer!” she announced. I did a double-take—this wasn’t grandfatherly Dr. Swenson, our regular vet who was always such a source of comfort. I craned my neck into the hallway and spotted him in a room with another dog, but didn’t say anything since I didn’t want Dr. Hammer to think I didn’t trust her.

“She’s been throwing up, and she has diarrhea and no appetite,” I told her.

“Sorry to hear that,” she said, palpating Fancy’s stomach. This made her yelp, which made me want to yelp, too. Then Dr. Hammer took her temperature, examining the thermometer with concern.

“A hundred and three,” she said. “What does she eat?”

“Dry food and some treats,” I said, “plus chicken…turkey…yesterday I made hamburger.”

“No,” she said flatly.

“But it’s just a tiny bit.”

“No, you can’t give her that,” she said with a glare. “Only steamed chicken and rice.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Dr. Hammer,” I promised.

She ran some tests and connected a terrified Fancy to an IV.

“Her enzymes are very high. She has pancreatitis because of all the fat you feed her. It can become chronic and lead to diabetes. In the worst-case scenario, it can also cause brain damage and even death. I’m hospitalizing Fancy until she stabilizes. Call me tomorrow to see how she’s doing,” she said and ushered me out. Find out the 10 signs your “healthy” dog is actually sick.

What is canine pancreatitis?

My chihuahua Tallulah greeted me when I entered the house, but as soon as she realized Fancy wasn’t there, she retreated to her cozy bed, whimpering. This made me feel even worse about the pancreatitis, and I hopped online to research the condition. The pancreas, which is located between the stomach and small intestine, controls blood sugar and also releases enzymes that help with digestion. In pancreatitis, enzymes activate when they’re released, causing inflammation to the pancreas and its surrounding tissues and other organs. The enzymes can even begin to digest the pancreas itself, which causes extreme pain in dogs, according to the Whole Dog Journal. There are two types of pancreatitis: chronic (recurring) and acute (sudden). Chronic pancreatitis results from repeated attacks of acute pancreatitis and can threaten other organs if the inflammation spreads.

What are the symptoms of pancreatitis?

According to the American Kennel Club, the classic signs are vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, fever, dehydration, weakness, and lethargy. Dogs may also experience pain or distention of the abdomen, which makes them look uncomfortable or bloated. And they may have a hunched back—due to stomach pain, they assume a “praying” position.

What are the causes of pancreatitis?

A high-fat diet is the key cause of pancreatitis, especially for a dog who gets one large serving of fatty food in one sitting, which is what happened when Fancy got some hamburger. Another cause of pancreatitis is a history of dietary indiscretion, which means the dog eats everything—from stuff they find on the street to the food they get from the dining table. Other causes are obesity, hypothyroidism (or other endocrine diseases), and diabetes. Severe blunt trauma is also a cause, as are certain medications and other toxins. Furthermore, while any dog can get pancreatitis, some breeds may be more susceptible to the disease, according to the Pet Health Network. They include the miniature schnauzer, miniature poodle, and cocker spaniel.

I felt guilty about spoiling my dogs with treats

fancy dog pancreatitisCourtesy Florina Rodov

I realized I shouldn’t have fed Fancy the burger…but she loved it and that made me happy. I was too permissive because I was overcompensating for being away from Fancy and Tallulah. I’d been working in Los Angeles for a few years, so I left them in New York with my retired dad who had plenty of time on his hands. And he was mourning the death of his best friend Bricks, our 135-pound Rottweiler, so having two little yappers running around cheered him up. Though I visited often, it wasn’t the same as living with them. So, when I moved back to New York, I spoiled them rotten—and that included giving them lots of treats. After a sleepless night, I called Dr. Hammer in the morning.

Thankfully, my dog was feeling better

“Fancy’s doing better,” Dr. Hammer told me and explained that she’d treated her with IV fluids and pain medications. She wanted to keep her on the fluids for another 24 hours to ensure her pancreas rested, but she said to stop by tomorrow to see if she can keep her food down. She suggested bringing “steamed chicken and rice – nothing else” since low-fat, high-carbohydrate food is good for the pancreas.

The next day, a groggy Fancy stared at me through the bars in her cage as I mixed the steamed chicken, rice, and nothing else that I bought at the Chinese restaurant.

“Too much rice will constipate her,” Dr. Hammer said, so I shoveled some rice back into its container, leaving three-quarters chicken and one-quarter rice in Fancy’s bowl. When I opened the cage door to feed her, she gobbled up the food.

“Good. If she makes it through the rest of the day and night without vomiting, you can pick her up tomorrow,” she said.

The vet read me the riot act

Fancy made it through, and I picked her up the next day. Dr. Hammer reminded me of how important it was to regulate her diet so her pancreatitis didn’t become chronic. She also told me to be extra careful around the holidays since people tended to be more likely to slip their dogs treats from the table. And she gave me cans of low-fat soft food to take home with instructions to buy more later if Fancy liked it. As we were about to leave, she added, “I’d also clean her ears and brush her teeth more often—she has a lot of earwax and tartar.”

I thanked her, grabbed Fancy, and headed out the door, thinking I’d add “doesn’t clean her dog’s ears or teeth enough” to my list of dog mom demerits.

I became stricter with the treats—and everything else

That night I decided to become more authoritative, a parenting approach that balances warmth with boundaries. I fed Fancy the low-fat dog food Dr. Hammer had given us, which she ate for a couple of days, then decided she didn’t like. So I cooked chicken, rice, and nothing else, which I mixed into a three-to-one ratio and added to both dogs’ low-fat dry food. As hard as it was not to give them a little salami sometimes, especially when they guilt-tripped me with their puppy eyes, I stuck to my guns. I even limited the doggy treats since some of them were high in fat. During Thanksgiving dinner, I vigilantly monitored the table, and when I saw my uncle about to give Fancy some turkey, I ripped it out of his hand.

Time for a checkup

A postcard arrived in the mail: a reminder about my dogs’ annual wellness exams, which are vital for good health. Ordinarily, I’d have set up an appointment immediately, but this time I hesitated. I put the postcard on the fridge and ignored it…for six months. Finally, I called, thinking I’d ask to see not Dr. Hammer, but our old vet Dr. Swenson. When I spoke to the receptionist, though, I didn’t state a preference. I wasn’t afraid of Dr. Hammer—I would show her what a great dog mom I was.

The moment of truth was upon me

In the examining room on the day of their appointment, Dr. Hammer perused Fancy’s charts. Dr. Hammer weighed her: 11 pounds.

“She gained a pound, which is good considering she was dehydrated before due to the vomiting and diarrhea,” she said.

“I’ve been really careful with her food. I feed her chicken, rice, and nothing else. Not too much rice, though, because that would constipate her,” I recited.

Dr. Hammer looked happy, that is until she went on with the rest of the examine and admonished me for not brushing her teeth enough and advised me to bring her in for a cleaning. This is how often you should be brushing your dog’s teeth.

I was a good dog mom after all

Before we could walk out the door, Dr. Hammer said, “You can call me Susan.”

I turned around.

“And another thing,” she said, “Don’t beat yourself up, you’re doing great.”

I stared at her, not quite believing what I just heard. I ingested what she said, thanked her and walked out with my dogs. On the way home, I contemplated whether or not to bring Fancy in for a teeth cleaning, ultimately deciding that I would. While I may not be Dog Mom of the Year, I was a good dog mom. Find out the 15 everyday habits of great dog owners.