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digestion dilemma: exocrine pancreatic insufficiency

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

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.

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.

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 or cat insurance policy from Petplan, which covers all hereditary and chronic conditions as standard for the life of your pet. 

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Posted by Erich
on June 02 2012 14:04

Our adoption group took in a German Shepherd with EPI. Weight 55 pounds. After 2 months was up to 85 pounds. The dog is now fed the same as all the other dogs - a raw diet - with a fraction of a teaspoon of enzymes. One trick to gaining weight was feeding 4 smaller meals per day, apparently it is a tip used to increase weight on puppies as well. The first time we went to a vet people asked what type of dog he is, more recently everyone simply comments he is handsome. This is how we treated him. It was stressful for a couple months, with a couple weeks with only a couple pounds gained. http://iowapetadoptions.com/epi It is unfortunate some people spend hundreds to diagnose and $100 or more per month to treat.

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