Creature Comforts: Hooray for the pancreas

One of my favorite musical artists actually is a comedian who goes by the name Heywood Banks. He truly can write a song about anything – and get his audience singing along about dust mites, cow stomachs, wiper blades or, one of his most famous – toast. (“YEAH, TOAST!”) Love that guy.

And one of his best songs, in my opinion, is simply titled, “Pancreas.”

“Let us all sing the praises of the pancreas,

It has never been an organ of distinction –

Though it functions day by day,

In a most convenient way,

It has never had the glory that the liver gets…”

It’s true: a lot of people are familiar with the liver and kidneys, but we really don’t talk much about the pancreas; when it is functioning normally, it’s greatly under-appreciated. It’s also quite small and unassuming to look at.

In fact, in an abdominal ultrasound, the pancreas is considered structurally normal when you look in its location and don’t see it.

Tucked into the middle of the upper abdomen, nestled nicely against the duodenum (the first part of the intestine) it quietly and efficiently completes all of its important duties without getting much credit for its brilliant design and remarkable functions. This crazy cool gland has both exocrine and endocrine functions! Stay with me, now – Heywood – help!

” … Let us all raise our glasses to the pancreas,

Just secretin’ alkaline digestive juices,

Into the intestine

Just to neutralize the stomach acid

That could be remaining on the food … “

That’s the exocrine pancreas: the part that produces and secretes enzymes used for the digestion of foods.

Here’s the thing – when food leaves the stomach, it is mostly liquified, broken into mushy bits by the muscular action and the remarkably strong acid produced in the stomach.

Once food leaves the stomach, the acid must be neutralized to keep it from irritating the lining of the intestines, but also, it needs to be broken into even smaller bits so the body can absorb its nutrients as it moves along.

Enter the helpful pancreas. The chemicals used in digestion are secreted in response to eating a meal, and food continues down its path to being broken down into useful, absorbable nutrients.

You critical thinkers out there might wonder why these strong, alkaline digestive juices created in the pancreas don’t actually digest the pancreas itself – after all, it is made of the very stuff (fats and proteins) it seeks to break down (you are so smart).

But, my friends, the pancreas is smarter!

The digestive enzymes that would be harmful to the pancreas are created in their INACTIVE forms, and are “turned on” when they come in contact with other chemicals in the duodenum. It’s like that app on your iPhone that requires an activation code. It’s sitting there, taking up space, but completely inert until the right key is inserted into the lock – then it springs to life.

Or think of epoxy glue that requires the mixture of two components to make it work as glue and harden properly.

When things go awry with this system, the potential for disaster is high. I’m flashing back to a thriller with some lethal toxin that threatens all mankind if activated and turned loose.

In this case, if the pancreatic enzymes become activated early, before leaving the pancreas, or if the activating compounds somehow leak into the pancreas – it’s like a wildfire burning out of control.

Abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible gastrointestinal unrest ensues. We call this pancreatitis.

Animals and people can suffer this condition, and it is pure misery for most. It is thought that an unusually fatty meal can trigger it.

Some medications have been implicated in causing pancreatitis, and there are some individuals who have a genetic predisposition to pancreatitis.

There is no specific treatment for pancreatitis, so doctors and veterinarian do their best to alleviate the symptoms and hope to see their patients through it. Some patients die from pancreatitis.

Those who recover must often undergo permanent diet and lifestyle changes to prevent reoccurrence.

Eating the dinner leftovers or the contents of the kitchen garbage can (dogs) is a fantastic way to set them up for pancreatitis, so rethinking the style, location and access to the trash receptacles is a must for owners with dogs that have a rap sheet on garbage can raids.

But let’s return to the normal pancreas and all its wonders. Heywood?

” … Pumpin’ out from the lovely Isles of Langerhans.

Comes the insulin that regulates the sugar in the blood …”

Okay, so it’s actually the Islets of Langerhans (I guess, ’cause they’re so darn small) and no, they are not an exotic vacation destination unless you are extraordinarily small and extremely strange. The endocrine pancreas also must have its due.

Endocrine means hormones, by the way – specifically, insulin and glucagon, both being responsible for blood sugar balance.

Most people are familiar with insulin – if you’ve got diabetes, you may need to take insulin, because something made your pancreas quit making insulin properly. Insulin drives glucose (a sugar product of digestion of food) into the cells. Without it, you can have all the glucose in the world in your bloodstream, but your cells can’t use it for energy and you become very sick very fast. Because obesity sets up a body to develop diabetes, and obesity is common these days in pets, we see a fair number of pets suffering from diabetes.

Excessive drinking and urinating is the most common first sign of diabetes, so if this is happening, it should be checked out right away.

If your blood sugar drops a bit, the pancreas sends out some glucagon, another hormone, which drives the blood sugar UP (opposite effect of insulin).

Happiness is when both insulin and glucagon are secreted in appropriate amounts at appropriate times – and the blood sugar is maintained in a fairly steady range. Because the pancreas is awesome.

” … And that’s why so high I rank it.

And I’ll drop a note to thank it.

May you never have a cranky pancreas!

Hey pancreas, hey pancreas, have a nice day!”

‘Tis the season to over indulge -but try to go easy on the sweets and treats and beware of the dish “pre-washers” and garbage hounds. Here’s wishing you and your pets (and your respective pancreases) a happy, healthy holiday season.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.

Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at life@sungaze