Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, is commonly seen in dogs and cats and presents a spectrum of disease severities from acute to chronic and mild to severe. It is usually sterile, but the causes and pathophysiology remain poorly understood. The acute end of the disease spectrum is associated with a high mortality but the potential for complete recovery of organ structure and function if the animal survives. At the other end of the spectrum, chronic pancreatitis in either species can cause refractory pain and reduce quality of life. It may also result in progressive exocrine and endocrine functional impairment. There is confusion in the veterinary literature about definitions of acute and chronic pancreatitis and there are very few studies on the pathophysiology of naturally occurring pancreatitis in dogs and cats. This article reviews histological and clinical definitions and current understanding of the pathophysiology and causes in small animals by comparison with the much more extensive literature in humans, and suggests many areas that need further study in dogs and cats.