Understanding Proper Dog Nutrition: Digestive Enzymes 101

Did you know that you and your dog may have more in common than you realize? Interestingly enough, both you and your furry best friend share many commonalities all wrapped up internally. Certain aspects of a dog’s digestive system work incredibly similarly to a human’s. Your veterinarian may be suggesting supplements or nutritional concepts for your pooch that might also be a good idea to implement for yourself. Digestive enzymes are one of those things.

It is important to note here that digestive enzymes are killed at 118-170 degrees fahrenheit, so they are unavailable in commercial dry or canned dog food.

Digestive enzymes are a protein that has a very special job, a job that impacts hundreds of areas of the body. According to Wendy Volhard, enzymes control, promote and guide all of life’s vital processes including muscle movement, energy storage, breathing, digestion, reproduction etc.

Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down complex nutrients into their subunits which are then absorbed in the intestine. The main digestive enzymes in pets are lipase (for fat), protease (for protein), and amylase (for starch). These enzymes are made in the pancreas and released into the intestine after meals. If there is a deficit of digestive enzymes, a dog can eat all day and not actually effectively absorb the nutrients that are needed; meaning they could starve!

The majority of digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas, however there are three types of digestive enzymes, which are produced in different parts of the body and all have unique functions.

The pancreas makes and adds enzymes to the food as needed, and does not run out of them.

Types of Digestive Enzymes:

1. The first type of enzyme is called Amylase.

This enzyme is created in the pancreas and the salivary glands (humans). Depending on the location the enzyme is produced in, it has a specific role. Amylase created in the salivary glands begins the breakdown of starchy foods while in the mouth, and continues to attack particles even after the food is swallowed. Amylase that is produced in the pancreas is sent to the small intestine, where it’s job is to transform the molecules of starch into what ultimately becomes glucose. This (with the aid of some other types of digestive enzymes) is absorbed into the bloodstream through the wall of the small intestine. Compared to people, dogs are not nearly as skilled at breaking down carbohydrates, because their bodies produce only small amounts of amylase.

2. Lipase is the second type of digestive enzyme.

It is produced in the pancreas and small intestine. This enzyme targets fats, and enables sources of energy to be stored in the body over a long period of time, in addition to supporting a healthy cell life.

3. Finally, Protease is the third type of enzyme.

It is created in the stomach as well as the pancreas and small intestine. Protease works to convert proteins into amino acids, a component usable by the body. 

Should your Dog’s digestive enzymes be used for human consumption?

Quick answer is no- they should be formulated for the dog’s needs and the dog’s digestive system. This includes enzymes from animals not just plants.

Enzymes should be added to the food right before feeding it to the dog. Plant enzymes (protease, amylase and lipase) break down food in the acidic environment of the stomach. Pancreatin - the pancreatic enzyme derived from an animal’s pancreas breaks down food in the alkaline environment of the small intestine. Having pancreatin in the digestive enzyme is important and Volhard’s digestive enzymes have that ingredient!

Other digestive enzymes are acidophilus (found in some yogurts, milk and kefir), bromelain (from pineapple) and Papin (from papaya). The action of bromelain and Papain is different from other enzymes. They are best known as digestive aids that selectively digest tissue that is dead. For example, both bromelain and papain are helpful in getting rid of scar tissue!

Quick fact: Use Papaya and Vitamin B6 to help some dogs overcome stool eating!

It is impossible to overstate how necessary the role digestive enzymes play in breaking down food is. Without digestive enzymes doing their part, critical nutrients go unabsorbed or unused, and this can have a massive impact on immune systems, energy, weight gain or loss, and countless other aspects of the body. So how can you be sure your canine’s body contains the digestive enzymes it needs?

The important thing to note about digestive enzymes is that while they are produced by the body, they are microorganisms that need to be fed, and can be destroyed. One way to support your dog’s enzyme population is to feed them foods that are high in enzymes. Foods like papayas, fermented foods, raw dairy, and other fresh foods will support your dog’s natural production of enzymes. For most dogs, simply adding certain whole, raw foods to their diet will be enough to keep their digestive enzyme population happy, thriving, and effective.

If your dog is experiencing specific health issues or is at a certain stage of life, a digestive enzyme supplement may be helpful. One of the biggest indicators that your dog may benefit from a digestive enzyme supplement is that they are suffering from pancreatitis. Pancreatitis occurs when the pancreas is severely inflamed, stunting many of the functions of the pancreas. This may reduce the amount of digestive enzymes being produced within. Another sickness of the pancreas, called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, or EPI has such a severe impact on the pancreas that it loses its ability to produce enzymes altogether. Signs your dog may be suffering from EPI is swift weight loss without a loss of appetite, or other digestive issues including severe gastrointestinal discomfort and vomiting. German shepherds and some Collie breeds are more inclined to contract EPI.

As your dog advances in years, they may be a good candidate for some enzyme support as the production of enzymes can slow down over the years. A lack of digestive enzymes can contribute to the acceleration of age-related sickness and other losses of quality of life. 

Digestive enzymes are crucial to the digestive process of both canines and humans. Even if your dog has not been diagnosed with a specific pancreatic disease, it may be helpful to speak to your veterinarian about your dog’s diet to ensure that they are receiving all the enzyme-rich foods they need. And it wouldn't hurt to check with your doctor that the same is true for you!