By Hanie Elfenbein, DVM
Protein, fat, and carbohydrates are the three macronutrients that together make up all foods. Each is important for your dog’s health. Macronutrients must be broken down into pieces that the body uses to fuel itself. Digestion starts with chewing (or swallowing, in the case of some dogs), which triggers the body to release digestive enzymes into the mouth, stomach, and intestines. Digestive enzymes come in three varieties: proteases to digest proteins, lipases for fats, and amylases to digest carbohydrates.
Dogs make enough of their own digestive enzymes once they are old enough to be weaned off their mother’s milk. They also get additional enzymes from food, especially any fruits and vegetables you may give them. Unless your dog has very specific types of disease, he will not need enzyme supplements. However, if your dog’s digestion isn’t perfect, there are some steps you can take to help improve it.
Treating Digestive Upset in Dogs
If your dog has occasional digestive upset, he or she may benefit from some help. The medical mantra of “first, do no harm” extends to pet parents doing at-home treatments. If your dog’s digestive upset is mild enough to not need veterinary attention, the treatments should not pose any risks. However, diarrhea lasting more than 24 hours that is associated with changes in your dog’s behavior (such as lethargy, inappetence, or vomiting) or has any blood or mucus is a real medical concern, and you should see your veterinarian immediately.
If your dog simply has occasional loose stool, home remedies might be appropriate. Before you start considering digestive enzymes, there are several options to help regulate digestion that are safe, inexpensive, and may help restore your dog’s intestinal health.
If your dog’s intestinal upset is not due to changing or adding food (in which case, change back or stop giving the new item), additional fiber is the best first treatment. A tablespoon or two of canned pumpkin added once a day to your dog’s meal is safe and effective. Fiber is a prebiotic, or a “non-digestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines.” Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of fiber, including dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, and carrots. It is better to give your dog fibrous food rather than a fiber supplement, unless under veterinary supervision.
Probiotics are another option for treating occasional digestive upset. Probiotics are specially selected bacteria that promote a healthy digestive system. It’s best to choose a probiotic that’s formulated for your dog’s needs. Using a human probiotic for dogs may worsen their digestive upset.
Some dogs may benefit from vitamin supplements to improve digestion. Vitamins are important digestive co-factors. A co-factor is something that is required for an enzyme to function. One vitamin in particular that is associated with improved digestion is B12. B12 can be administered as an injection by your veterinarian.
If your dog’s diet is not formulated to meet his full nutritional needs, he may benefit from a multivitamin. When home-cooking for your dog, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to perfectly balance all the micronutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, that your dog needs. A vitamin supplement may help fill any gaps and improve your dog’s health. Ask your veterinarian which one is right for your dog’s age and health status.
Enzyme Supplements for Dogs
Rarely, dogs have a very serious condition that makes them unable to digest food and extract the necessary nutrition from it. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is a disease where dogs cannot make their own digestive enzymes. Dogs with EPI are unable to gain weight despite a big appetite and have loose or greasy stool or diarrhea. These dogs must be fed powdered pancreatic enzymes before each meal. This rare disease is heritable in German Shepherd Dogs. If you are concerned that your dog has EPI, see your veterinarian and have tests performed so that you can get your dog on the path to health.
While it might seem like these added enzymes would benefit all dogs with digestive irregularity, that is not the case. For most dogs, pancreatic enzyme supplementation is not necessary or beneficial. At first, supplemented enzymes will pass through them. With chronic use, they may suppress the pancreas so that your dog relies on the supplement, turning a healthy dog into one who requires medication at every meal. If your dog suffers from chronic pancreatitis, reducing the workload of the pancreas sounds like it could help, but there is no evidence that enzyme supplementation reduces recurrence of illness.
Before you risk disrupting your dog’s natural digestive balance by adding digestive enzymes, talk to your veterinarian if your dog has digestive irregularity. If your dog eats his food well and has regular solid bowel movements, don’t mess with a good thing.