There are many brands that currently market digestive enzyme supplements for dogs which claim that they will improve your pet's digestion. However, some of those claims may not be accurate. And while it might seem like added enzymes would benefit all dogs, especially those with digestive issues or irregularities, that's not necessarily the case. In this article we’ll cover what digestive enzymes are, how they’re produced, and whether dogs benefit from supplemental enzymes.
About digestive enzymes
First, let's get to know enzymes, and why they are important. Enzymes do the work in animals, and in their cells, to make things and break things. Digestive enzymes are proteins that cut food into tiny pieces so that the body can absorb the nutrients. There are three main types of digestive enzymes: proteases, amylases, and lipases.
• Proteases: Proteases break down proteins that make up foods like meats and eggs.
• Amylases: Amylases break down carbohydrates in the food that your dog eats. Compared to people, dogs are not nearly as skilled at breaking down carbohydrates, because their bodies produce only small amounts of amylase.
• Lipases: Lipases break apart fat molecules.
Where are these enzymes made?
In dogs, most digestive enzymes are made by the pancreas, a relatively small organ that sits close to the stomach and small intestine. The pancreas is a digestive enzyme factory, and secretes enzymes into the food as the food leaves the stomach. When the food moves through the small intestine, the enzymes from the pancreas break apart the proteins, fats, and sugars so that they can be absorbed by your dog’s body.
Are pet foods that are cooked more difficult for dogs to digest?
One case made for the use of supplemental enzymes is that pet foods that have been cooked are harder to digest because they have destroyed the enzymes in the foods. There are enzymes in foods which can be damaged during cooking, but dogs break down food primarily with enzymes they produce themselves, not with enzymes in their food.
For animals with a normal pancreas, there is no evidence that additional enzymes have benefits for digestion or for overall health. A recent study administered digestive enzyme supplements to healthy dogs and measured the effect of the supplements on the digestibility of their food. The study found that there was no difference in digestibility between the food supplemented with enzymes, and the un-supplemented food when measuring digestibility of the proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Some veterinarians think supplementing a healthy dog with digestive enzymes may suppress production by the pancreas and could lead to dependency on the enzyme supplement.
Does your pet have a limited supply of enzymes that will run out?
Some brands encourage the use of their enzyme supplements based on a claim that your dog has a limited supply of enzymes, and will eventually run out of them unless they are added to the diet. This is not true for a healthy dog. The pancreas makes and adds enzymes to the food as needed, and does not run out of them.
If the pancreas makes digestive enzymes, why would a pet need an enzyme supplement?
Most dogs make their own enzymes with their pancreas. However, there are illnesses and conditions that can limit the ability of the pancreas to do its job.
For example, dogs with pancreatitis - an inflammation of the pancreas - may need added digestive enzymes because the pancreas does not function as well as it needs to. There is also a specific disease called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) that damages the pancreas so that it is unable to produce enough enzymes. Dogs with EPI may lose weight rapidly despite voracious appetites. They may also suffer from digestive issues, including diarrhea, nausea, and/or vomiting. Some breeds are more likely to have EPI, including German Shepherds and Rough-Coated Collies.
A veterinarian can confirm the disease and prescribe high quality animal-based digestive enzyme supplements that typically help to relieve the symptoms. Note that for dogs that do not have EPI, these prescription enzymes are not likely to bring any benefit.
There are a number of natural supplements in capsules or powder form that you can add to your dog’s diet to help break down foods.
Is it necessary to consult a veterinarian before introducing new supplements to my dog’s regimen?
Probably. If you suspect there is a problem with your pet's digestion, we recommend speaking with your veterinarian to see if you can get to the heart of the problem. When a dog begins having recurring digestive issues, it may be a sign of a serious condition, such as insulinoma, inflammatory bowel disease, or gastrointestinal lymphoma, which digestive enzymes will not address. Or your dog may simply have an imbalanced gut microbiome.
A dog’s gut microbiome (bacteria found in the digestive tract) has a big influence on gut function. Some dogs may be missing key beneficial gut bacteria that are found in healthy dogs. Those missing bacteria often perform crucial roles in the digestive system, like supporting digestion. You may consider testing your dog’s gut function with a microbiome test kit and sharing the results with you veterinarian. Learn more about testing your dog's gut microbiome.
Let us know if you have any questions or comments about this article and please consider sharing it. If you liked this article you may enjoy reading, How to Support Your Pet During and After Antibiotics.