The digestive system of dogs is highly adapted to eating and thriving on a wide variety of foods. While dogs belong to the order of animals called Carnivora, they are not true carnivores. Instead, their metabolism and nutritional needs more closely resemble that of omnivores, or animals that eat both animals and plants. This is in contrast to cats, which are obligate carnivores, meaning that they require meat in their diets in order to survive.
There are many supplements out there for dogs claiming to aid in their digestion. With digestive enzymes for dogs increasing in popularity, it is important to know what these enzymes are, their purpose, and if they will be beneficial to your dog.
What Are Digestive Enzymes for Dogs?
The process of digestion can be divided into two separate categories: mechanical and chemical. An example of mechanical digestion is chewing food, which breaks it up into pieces small enough to swallow. Digestive enzymes help with chemical digestion, and their actions help to break down and dissolve foods so that they can be absorbed by the intestines and utilized by the body.
Humans and dogs alike produce their own digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are produced mainly in the saliva, stomach, and pancreas of humans. A difference between humans and dogs is that dogs do not produce any digestive enzymes in their salivary glands, so chemical digestion in dogs begins lower down in the stomach.
Without digestive enzymes, both dogs and humans would not be able to utilize the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in our diets. This would lead to weight loss, malnutrition and, over time, even death.
Types of Dog Digestive Enzymes
Dogs have three main types of digestive enzymes:
Lipases break down fats into fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Proteases work to break down proteins into individual amino acids, while amylases break down carbohydrates and starches into simple sugars such as glucose. The majority of digestive enzymes in dogs are produced by the pancreas.
Digestive Enzymes in Dog Food
Pet parents are always looking to optimize their dog’s nutrition and may be attracted to foods that state that they contain or are coated with digestive enzymes.
However, at this time, there is no research to support any benefits of including digestive enzymes in dog food that is made to feed healthy dogs. Instead, pet parents should work with their veterinarians to select a high-quality food for their dogs that is complete and balanced. A high-quality diet will provide all the nutrition that your dog needs to produce her own enzymes necessary for digestion.
If your dog is not producing enough digestive enzymes on her own (more on this to come), then your veterinarian may recommend a digestive enzyme supplement for dogs.
Digestive Enzyme Supplements for Dogs
Some digestive enzyme supplement brands claim that the enzymes in foods are destroyed when food is cooked, so supplementing enzymes is crucial. If your dog has a normally functioning pancreas, however, she does not need any additional digestive enzymes. In fact, one study found no differences in food digestibility among three different groups of healthy dogs who were either fed a commercial kibble by itself, the same kibble with an added plant-based digestive enzyme supplement, or the kibble with an animal-based digestive enzyme supplement (1).
But for some dogs who have a rare condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, or EPI, supplementation with digestive enzymes is crucial to treating this disease. In these dogs, the pancreas has shrunken (atrophied) or scarred and can no longer produce sufficient amounts of digestive enzymes. This disease may occur as a result of chronic pancreatitis and is more common in certain breeds of dogs, especially German Shepherds.
Symptoms of EPI in dogs include:
- Weight loss
- A ravenous appetite
- Soft, voluminous stools
If you suspect that your dog may have EPI, it is important to take her to your veterinarian for testing, as other diseases such as cancer of the intestines can cause similar symptoms. If your dog has something called a low serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI) test result, this is diagnostic for EPI. The treatment of EPI involves supplementing your dog’s food with pancreatic enzymes. The most effective supplement is powdered porcine pancreatic enzymes.
Digestive enzymes used to treat EPI are generally well tolerated but may rarely cause oral bleeding, which can usually be resolved by reducing the dose. Dogs with EPI typically need to be supplemented with these enzymes throughout their lifetimes.
Keeping Your Dog’s Digestion Healthy
The most important thing pet parents can do to ensure their dogs’ digestion remains healthy is to feed them a high-quality, complete and balanced diet and to have their stool checked at least annually for parasites.
For dogs who have frequent vomiting, flatulence, loose stool, or other digestive issues, it is important to work with a veterinarian to determine the cause of these problems.
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