Joan Capuzzi, VMD
The pancreas is basically a bag of enzymes and hormones. The potent compounds it releases function as key activators needed for life. Sickness results when the pancreas becomes overzealous or, alternatively, slacks off.
The active pancreas
The pancreas has two functional compartments: The endocrine pancreas releases compounds into the bloodstream, and the exocrine pancreas delivers its products to target organs via ducts. The endocrine portion consists of alpha, beta and delta cells that produce glucagon, insulin and somatostatin, respectively. In cats, the main disease of the endocrine pancreas is diabetes mellitus, sometimes resulting from insufficient insulin production.
The larger component—the exocrine pancreas— consists of acinar cells that make and secrete enzyme precursors, or zymogens. When mixed with pancreatic proteases situated in the intestinal lumen, these zymogens transform into digestive enzymes like amylase and lipase. The pancreas also secretes bicarbonate, which neutralises stomach acid, antibacterial proteins, and intrinsic factor, which aids absorption of the vitamin cobalamin. Pancreatitis is the most frequently diagnosed condition involving the exocrine pancreas.
The endocrine and exocrine portions of the feline pancreas may conspire to produce disease, explained Scott Owens, DVM, MS, DACVIM, an internist at MedVet Indianapolis, at the Fetch dvm360 conference in San Diego. For instance, diabetes mellitus—more an issue of insulin resistance than deficiency in cats—can be triggered by pancreatitis. Though this association is unconfirmed in cats, one study links about 40% of diabetes cases with pancreatitis.1-4