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You have probably seen digestive enzyme supplements on the shelf at your pet food store, and wondered, does my dog need these?
To answer this question, let's look at what digestive enzymes do for the body. Digestive enzymes work to break down food, to make the nutrients available for absorption. All dogs need digestive enzymes for proper digestive function, and the good news is that most dogs with a properly functioning pancreas, will produce all the digestive enzymes their body needs.
There are 3 main types of enzymes:
Lipase – breaks apart fat molecules (into fatty acids)
Amylase – breaks down carbohydrates (into sugars)
Protease – breaks down proteins (into amino acids)
How does the dog’s body produce these enzymes?
To be more exact, digestive enzymes break down your dog’s food into tiny pieces that are small enough to be absorbed and used as fuel for critical body functions. Digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas which secretes enzymes into the food as the food leaves the stomach. As the food moves through the small intestine, the enzymes work to break apart the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed by your dog’s body.
As mentioned, for animals with a healthy, normally-functioning pancreas, there is no evidence that supplemental enzymes are needed, or even helpful for digestion. That said, dogs with a health condition that affects the pancreas, such as pancreatitis or EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency) may not be able to properly produce their own enzymes, and will need a supplement. If your dog has ongoing digestive issues such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, insatiable appetite, or excessive gas, be sure to see your vet, as these can be signs of pancreatic dysfunction. Keep in mind that these symptoms can also be caused by many other health issues, so it is important to pinpoint the root cause. EPI is common in certain breeds like German Shepherd and Rough-Coated Collies, but can happen to any dog.
If your dog is experiencing GI issues, they may also have an imbalance in the gut microbiome. There has been a lot of research done on the gut microbiome in recent years (in both human and veterinary biology), and you may have heard of a condition called Leaky Gut Syndrome. A dog’s gut microbiome, which is the bacteria found in the digestive tract, plays a critical role in gut function. If your dog is missing key beneficial gut bacteria, this can contribute to an imbalance. Some common causes of Leaky Gut Syndrome include a poor, highly-processed diet, imbalance caused by certain medications, particularly antibiotics which strip the gut of both good and bad bacteria, as well as flea & tick medications and deworming drugs. In addition, over-vaccination can contribute to decreased immune function and chronic disease, which can lead to improper gut function. Be sure to read more about safer flea & tick preventatives as well as safer vaccine protocols in my previous articles.
If your dog has been diagnosed with pancreatic dysfunction, then digestive enzyme supplements will likely be required. There are 2 types of enzymes – plant-based and animal-based. There is quite a bit of controversy over which form is more effective.
"One recent study supplemented healthy dogs with either plant- or animal-sourced digestive enzyme supplements and measured the effect of the supplements on the digestibility of their food.(1) The study found that the digestibility of the calories in the diet – as well as protein, fat, and carbohydrate – was not different between the two supplements, or when the dogs did not receive a supplement, meaning that there was no benefit seen of either supplement."
Pancreatin – an animal-based enzyme - may be better for dogs with pancreatic damage. Pancreatin is a combination of digestive enzymes produced by the exocrine cells of the porcine pancreas. It provides protease, lipase and amylase to assist in digestion and to improve the absorption of fat, protein, and energy.
Microbial and plant-derived enzymes are often combined with probiotics for overall digestive support. These are less likely to cause adverse reactions such as loose stools, gas, vomiting, or signs of discomfort after eating, which can happen with pancreatin supplements.
Other considerations that may factor into the need for digestive enzymes include illnesses, extremes in weather or strenuous exercise and age. As the body declines with age - age related illness and debilitation may increase the need for supplementation.
Bottom line: work with your vet to determine what kind, if any, digestive enzyme supplements your dog needs. People can sometimes think that “too much can’t be harmful”, but in some situations – like with digestive enzymes – if they aren’t lacking, adding more CAN actually cause problems.
If you want to help restore balance to your dog’s GI system, consider instead, using a probiotic or gut-friendly foods like the following:
· Bone Broth – make your own using this recipe
· Kefir or plain yogurt (be sure to check the label to ensure they contain live/active cultures)
· Fermented Vegetables – there is an excellent guide to fermented veggies for dogs here
With any new food addition, work up slowly – starting with the lower end of the recommended amount usually around 1 tsp. for medium-sized dogs.
1- Villaverde, C., et al. (2017). “Effect of enzyme supplements on macronutrient digestibility by healthy adult dogs.” J Nutr Sci 6: e12.