The pancreas is a small pink organ located under the stomach and next to the upper small intestine. It plays an important role in various processes in your pet’s body, including glucose regulation and digestion.
One part of the pancreas, the endocrine pancreas, secretes hormones like insulin and glucagon that work to regulate blood sugar levels. Another part of the pancreas, the exocrine pancreas, aids in digestion by releasing digestive enzymes into the small intestine.
In some pets, the cells responsible for releasing digestive enzymes are damaged or inadequate. This is what is referred to as Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). When the pancreas is not able to release sufficient enzymes, it means that nutrients cannot be absorbed, and malnutrition may set in even if the pet is eating enough food.
In most cases of EPI, only the exocrine pancreas is affected, and the endocrine pancreas involved in blood sugar regulation remains intact. In rare cases, however, the endocrine pancreas may be concurrently damaged, and the pet may develop diabetes.
Causes of Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats
The most common cause of EPI in dogs is pancreatic acinar atrophy. Pancreatic acinar atrophy is a condition that causes the pancreas to become shriveled and the size and number of pancreatic cells responsible for producing and releasing enzymes to decrease. This condition is most likely the result of a genetic predisposition that causes immune-mediated destruction of the pancreas. It can show up at any age, and the most commonly affected breeds include the German Shepherd, Rough Collie, and Chow Chow.
Dogs can also develop EPI as a result of chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer.
In cats, the most common cause is chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms of Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats
The symptoms of EPI will depend on the pet’s diet and how long the condition has been present.
Common symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Large amounts of light-colored diarrhea
- Increased gas
- Rumbling abdomen sounds
- Poor coat and skin condition
- Bouts of anorexia, especially in cats
- Once the disease has progressed, the pet may appear extremely hungry and attempt to eat their own feces or other materials.
Treatment for Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats
EPI is diagnosed through blood or fecal testing that reveals a lack of certain digestive enzymes in the bloodstream or feces. The fecal test is only available for dogs.
Treatment for pets diagnosed with EPI generally involves some combination of the following:
- Pancreatic Enzyme Supplements: These supplements can partially replace those that the pancreas is failing to secret. Powdered enzymes -- such as Pancrezyme and Viokase-V -- work well. Most animals with EPI will take enzyme supplements for the rest of their lives.
- Modified Diet: Some cases of EPI may improve with a modified diet that is highly digestible and low in fiber. Ask your veterinarian to recommend an appropriate food for your pet. Many animals will need to eat larger portions in order to maintain a normal weight. If the pet has lost a great deal of weight as a result of EPI, additional meals may be added in the short-term to get the pet back to their normal weight faster.
- Antibiotics: Due to problems with digestion, pets with EPI commonly have more bacteria than normal in their intestines. This is what is referred to as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, and it is commonly treated with a course of antibiotics.
- B12 & Other Vitamins: Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth can result in a B12 deficiency because the bacteria in the intestines consumes the vitamin before the pet is able to absorb it. This problem is commonly treated with periodic B12 injections. Other nutrient deficiencies that can result from EPI -- folate, Vitamin E, and Vitamin K -- are usually treated with supplements.
Many pets respond well to continued treatment and can live a comfortable life. Others may not respond, and may never return to their normal weight. Keep a close eye on your pet and contact your veterinarian if you notice weight loss or any other symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency.
More on Pet Health
My Dog Has Pancreatitis: What Should I Do?
Treating Pancreatitis In Cats
Causes Of Diabetes In Your Cat Or Dog