Problem: Your young dog has a huge appetite, but can’t seem to keep any weight on. What could be the cause?

If the pup in question is a German Shepherd or a Rough Coated Collie, the culprit may be a problem with the pancreas.

Pancreas problems in dogs

A pet’s pancreas has two functional parts, and each performs different duties. The endocrine pancreas secretes insulin (important in the regulation of blood sugar), while the exocrine pancreas secretes enzymes that digest starches, fats and proteins.

These enzymes are secreted into the small intestine to break down food so that the major nutrients can be absorbed. In the medical condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), the pancreas fails to produce those enzymes, and without them, pets can’t properly digest food.

EPI can be a primary condition (meaning that there is no underlying cause) or may be secondary to chronic pancreatitis. Primary EPI generally occurs in young dogs, and more than 90% of cases are found in German Shepherds and Rough Coated Collies, where the disease is inherited from affected or carrier parents.

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Signs to watch for

Clinical signs of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency are exactly what you would imagine in the case of a dog who is unable to properly digest and absorb nutrients. Weight loss combined with a voracious appetite is the number one clinical sign. In addition, a brittle, dull coat and dry skin occur when fats cannot be absorbed. Those unabsorbed fats show up in the stool, resulting in pale, greasy fecal matter that is often quite loose.

Testing for EPI is relatively easy. Your veterinarian may already have an inkling of what is going on if you show up with a young German Shepherd who has been losing weight, but a blood test will confirm the diagnosis. Because EPI is often accompanied by abnormal levels of vitamin B12 and folate, often these are checked at the same time.


Once EPI has been confirmed, treatment should begin immediately. Pancreatic enzyme insufficiency is counteracted by adding the missing enzymes back into the diet. This can be done either by adding commercially available pancreatic enzyme powder to your pet’s food, or by providing chopped, raw pancreas as a supplement to your pet’s normal diet. If vitamin B12 or folate levels are abnormal, supplementation of these will also start.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can cause alarming clinical signs, but luckily the treatment is highly effective and will have your four-legged friend back to normal in no time! Talk to your vet immediately if you think your dog might be having problems with his pancreas.

To help manage the health care costs from inheritable diseases such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, consider protecting your pet with a dog insurance policy from Petplan, which covers hereditary and chronic conditions like EPI.

May 31, 2012
Pet Health

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