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canine health problems

Digestive enzymes for dogs

Essential information on digestive enzymes and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency

Updated September 29, 2021

Created By

Victoria Lancaster,
Chocolate Labrador licking its snout

The essentials

  • Digestive enzymes are essential for a dog’s health They are proteins that help break down food molecules.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is the primary cause of enzyme deficiency— EPI develops when the pancreas does not produce enough enzymes.
  • Symptoms of enzyme deficiency concern your dog’s digestion — Steatorrhea and diarrhea in dogs are some of the most prevalent signs.
  • Treatment of EPI is crucial — Due to its long-term side effects, your dog may need to take an enzyme supplement and incorporate dietary restrictions for the rest of their life.

What are digestive enzymes?

There are a variety of natural enzymes that a dog’s body produces. Digestive enzymes are some of the most important in maintaining a dog’s digestive and overall health. These enzymes are proteins that help to break down food which converts into nutrients and energy.

The enzymes that naturally occur in a dog’s body typically live in the pancreas. As food goes through the GI tract of your dog, the pancreas releases enzymes to aid in the metabolization process. Once food breaks down, the small intestine absorbs it and transfers these healthy nutrients throughout the blood and body.

Dogs need digestive enzymes

All dogs need enzymes to maintain a healthy level of nutrients in the body. Without these enzymes, the nutrients that dogs get from their food go to waste.

The four types of digestive enzymes explained

There are four naturally occurring enzymes in a dog’s body. These enzymes help drive all the metabolic systems of a dog’s body, enhancing nutrient absorption.

  1. Protease: Breaks down proteins. This enzyme is important in cell division, preventing blood clotting, and overall immunity.
  2. Amylase: Breaks down carbohydrates. These carbohydrates become simple sugars that are easier for the body to digest.
  3. Lipase: Breaks down fats and converts them into energy. It helps maintain a dog’s triglycerides which keeps their heart healthy.
  4. Cellulase. Breaks down fibers. These are the fibers that come from grains and vegetables. This enzyme also controls blood sugar.

👉 It is important to note that cellulase is not actually naturally occurring in a dog’s body. However, it is an essential enzyme for dogs who eat kibbles. Kibbles contain fibrous elements and cellulose which needs extra help breaking down.

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) in Dogs

EPI develops when a dog’s pancreas does not produce enough pancreatic enzymes. EPI causes a variety of problems for dogs, first and foremost with their digestive health. Dogs with EPI have difficulty breaking down food. They also have trouble absorbing essential nutrients, causing them malnourishment and even starvation.

EPI occurs when the acinar cells in a dog’s pancreas fail to function properly or produce enough enzymes. EPI can also be a result of other chronic pancreas problems, like pancreatitis.

The symptoms

There some health issues and disruptions to the digestive tract to look out for when observing your dog for an enzyme deficiency:

  • Pale, fatty stools (known as steatorrhea)
  • Foul smelling stools
  • Loose stools
  • Constipation
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Coprophagia (when dogs eat their own stool)
  • Weight loss

Diagnosing EPI

The vet can carry out a number of tests on a dog’s pancreas in order to detect EPI. Tests may include the following:

  • A serum sample to see if there is a reduced amount of TLI released into the blood
  • Urine analyses
  • Stool analysis

Treating EPI with digestive enzyme supplements

The vet will probably recommend an enzyme supplement to make sure your dog has enough digestive enzymes. These supplemental enzymes are usually given to a dog in powdered form to sprinkle over the food. Enzyme supplementation can also come in pill form. You should typically give your dog these pills in advance of a meal.

Depending on the cause, EPI treatment can be especially tricky. Due to its long term effects on a dog’s health, they will probably need to take a supplement for the long haul.

The short-term and long-term health problems that come with EPI

If your dog is dealing with an enzyme deficiency as a result of EPI, they will suffer a variety of health consequences. These issues will continue to get worse over time if you don’t do things to stimulate your dog’s enzyme production.

If your dog is enzyme deficient they will likely also have trouble eliminating toxins from their bodies. It also has a significant impact on the gallbladder which is essential in the breakdown of fats. Overall, the immune system will suffer if you do not treat an enzyme deficiency.

Feeding dogs with EPI

Your dog’s diet is an important tool by which you can make sure their digestive health is up to snuff. The vet will probably recommend you feed your dog small and more frequent meals throughout the day. Overall, dogs with EPI should eat highly digestible foods.

High-fat and high-fiber foods are no-nos. Fiber in particular can interfere with the normal production of enzymes in the pancreas. If your dog does have an enzyme deficiency, they will still need an enzyme powder or pill on top of a healthy diet. Both home cooked meals and high-quality commercial dog food are suitable.

 Don’t feed a dog with EPI the following:

  • Treats
  • High-fiber foods like legumes
  • High-fat foods like fatty meat
  • Table scraps
  • Raw food

Do feed your dog with EPI the following:

  • High-quality carbohydrates
  • Protein like skinless and boiled chicken breast
  • High-quality pet food

👉Because dogs with EPI should not eat too much fatty food, your vet may suggest you give your dog an MCTs (medium chain triglycerides). Something like coconut oil will allow them to get the fatty acids that help maintain things like their coat and ability to absorb nutrients.

Weekly monitoring is key for enzyme deficiency due to EPI

Plentiful digestive enzymes are key to a dog’s overall health. It’s important you get to the vet if you have a suspicion your dog may be dealing with an enzyme deficiency. Not all dogs can rely on their own digestive enzymes. Even a seemingly healthy dog could benefit from a supplement.

After an initial diagnosis of EPI, it is important to keep a close eye on your dog for any regression or improvement. Pay attention to their stools and digestive issues, their appetite, and overall well-being. With vet treatment, your dog should return to normal quickly.