Digestive enzymes can be useful when the gastrointestinal system, particularly the pancreas, is compromised due to disease. Veterinarians most often recommend digestive enzymes for dogs with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, a disease process where the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes.
Digestive Enzymes Break Down Food
Digestive enzymes are made and secreted by the body to break down and digest food. They are secreted from glands in the mouth (salivary), the stomach (gastric), and the pancreas (which is a gland). Supplemental digestive enzymes for dogs might be recommended when their body makes insufficient levels of enzymes.
Common Uses for Digestive Enzymes in Dogs
Digestive enzymes are used in malabsorptive gastrointestinal diseases like exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, because they replace the digestive enzymes that may be missing.
Veterinarians may also use digestive enzymes during pancreatitis flare ups.
Digestive enzymes would be beneficial in a cancer case that destroys the pancreas, such as pancreatic cancer, or other cancers that secondarily result in pancreatic compromise and digestive issues.
They may also provide general digestive support in products that include probiotics.
Lipase, Protease, Amylase
The main digestive enzymes in dogs are lipase which digests fat, protease which digests protein, and amylase which digests starch.
The most common source of digestive enzymes is porcine (pig) pancreas. If your dog has food allergies check the labels for the protein source. These can be supplemented by giving them in a powder or tablet form with a meal.
Natural digestive enzymes for dogs are also plant based and may contain foods that are naturally high in enzymes such as papaya. Plant based digestive enzymes are also available in over-the-counter formulations but may not be as useful for more severe diseases like exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
The most common veterinary brands of digestive enzymes are Pancrezyme, Epizyme, Panakare, and Viokase-V.
The Evidence for Efficacy of Digestive Enzymes in Dogs
The efficacy for digestive enzymes for dogs is strong in the treatment of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, a disease that causes atrophy (decline) of the acinar cells of the pancreas leading to bad digestion.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is easily diagnosed with bloodwork and the clinical signs we see in dogs. Clinical signs include weight loss despite a normal appetite and soft, greasy looking stools. German Shepherd Dogs are predisposed to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
There is limited evidence for their use in other maldigestive (bad digestion) disorders in animals, however, researchers are looking at the use of digestive enzymes in human malabsorptive diseases such as celiac disease.1,3,7
A recent study added digestive enzymes to the food of healthy dogs and then measured any change in digestibility of food. No increase in digestibility was found.6
Digestive Enzymes Do Not Help Cancer Itself
In the early 1900’s an embryologist, John Beard, theorized that proteolytic enzymes (enzymes that break down protein) could be used as a treatment for cancer. It was dismissed and disproven later but some scientists are still investigating the claim.
None of those additional studies have yielded useful results. At this point in time, there is only anecdotal evidence that digestive enzymes may be useful to treat cancer itself.2
Safety and Side Effects
The most common side effects of digestive enzyme for dogs are gastrointestinal upset including diarrhea and nausea.
They can cause irritation or ulceration to the mouth or esophagus if they have prolonged contact with those tissues. To reduce this risk, follow administration with food or water to ensure it is washed down.
Do not inhale powdered version, because it can cause respiratory irritation.
Overdose will cause intestinal upset.4
Using Digestive Enzymes with Other Treatments
Please ask your oncologist if using in conjunction with chemotherapy is allowed as studies on this are minimal.
When to Not Use Digestive Enzymes for Dogs
Antacids (calcium carbonate etc.) or acid reducers (famotidine etc.) may influence pancreatic enzymes, so do not give these medications at the same time as digestive enzymes or ask your veterinarian about dose and timing.4
If your dog does not have do not have gastrointestinal disease, do not use digestive enzymes.
How to Give Digestive Enzymes
- Put the powder on food and mix it together, then feed it to your dog.
- Some products advise you to wait 15 minutes before serving.
- Be aware of the amount of fat in a diet as high fat levels may cause the enzymes to be less effective.
- Use the amount as dictated by product based on weight of your dog.
- Give with each meal.
What If I Miss a Dose?
Give at the next meal, but do not double the dosage.
Storage and Handling
Store at room temperature and keep in a dry and well-sealed container.
Our Take on Digestive Enzymes for Dogs
These enzymes are essential if your dog has exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Otherwise, there is not much evidence that it is promising for their use as an alternative cancer treatment.
There is also minimal evidence for their use as a digestive support in animals with healthy gastrointestinal systems.1
- Cailin R. Heinze, V.M.D. (2022) Digestive enzyme supplements: Breaking down the evidence, Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School. Available at: https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2017/10/digestive-enzyme-supplements/ (Accessed: December 1, 2022).
- Gonzalez NJ, Isaacs LL. Evaluation of pancreatic proteolytic enzyme treatment of adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, with nutrition and detoxification support. Nutr Cancer. 1999;33(2):117-124. doi:10.1207/S15327914NC330201
- Ianiro G, Pecere S, Giorgio V, Gasbarrini A, Cammarota G. Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Curr Drug Metab. 2016;17(2):187-193. doi:10.2174/138920021702160114150137
- Plumb’s veterinary drugs. Available at: https://app.plumbs.com/drug-monograph/yd9au143ndPROD?source=search&searchQuery=digestive%2Benzymes (Accessed: December 1, 2022).
- Steiner JM. Pancreatitis in dogs and cats – digestive system. Merck Veterinary Manual. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/the-exocrine-pancreas/pancreatitis-in-dogs-and-cats. Published November 10, 2022. Accessed December 1, 2022.
- Villaverde C, Manzanilla EG, Molina J, Larsen JA. Effect of enzyme supplements on macronutrient digestibility by healthy adult dogs. J Nutr Sci. 2017;6:e12. Published 2017 Apr 18. doi:10.1017/jns.2017.10
- Westermarck, E. and Wiberg, M. (2012) “Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in the dog: Historical background, diagnosis, and treatment,” Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, 27(3), pp. 96–103. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1053/j.tcam.2012.05.002.
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