Enzymes are used for a variety of functions in the pet’s body. Cellular processes, digestion, and absorption of dietary nutrients are dependent upon the proper enzymes. Most commonly, owners often think of enzymes as necessary for digestion of food. In fact, enzymes produced by the pancreas are essential for digestion of nutrients in the diet. Once properly digested by pancreatic enzymes, the dietary nutrients can be absorbed by the pet.

The pancreas produces amylase, lipase, and various proteases. Amylase is used for digesting fats, and proteases are used by the body to digest proteins.

While it is true the pancreas produces enzymes to aid in food digestion, additional enzymes found in the diet contribute to digestion and absorption as well and may enhance feed efficiency (maximizing the utilization of nutrients in the diet). Natural raw diets contain a number of chemicals including enzymes not found in processed diets. Processing often alters the nutrients found in a pet’s food, depleting it of important nutrients and enzymes. Enzymes are broken down in the presence of temperatures in the range of 120 to 160 degrees and in the presence of freezing temperatures. Supplying additional enzymes through the use of supplementation can replenish enzymes absent in processed foods. Even pets on natural raw diets can often benefit from additional enzymes, which is why they are often recommended as a supplement.

Additionally, various stressors such as illness, stress, allergies, food intolerance, age (older pets may have reduced digestive enzyme capability), and various orally administered medications (antibiotics) can decrease gastrointestinal function. This results in poor digestion and absorption of the nutrients in the diet. Supplying digestive enzymes at these times can improve digestion and absorption.

How Do Enzymes Work?
How do enzymes actually work? There is nothing magical about the enzymes themselves. They only work by liberating essential nutrients from the pet’s diet. While we don’t know all the wonderful things enzymes do, it is known that certain enzyme supplements can increase the absorption of essential vitamins, minerals, and certain fatty acids from the diet. Increased absorption of zinc, selenium, vitamin B6 and linoleic acid have been detected following plant enzyme supplementation (specifically in a small study using a plant enzyme product called Prozyme). Doctors can prescribe either pancreatic enzymes, microbial enzymes, or plant (vegetable) enzymes. Pancreatic enzymes are adequate for pets with pancreatic disease where enzyme production and function is inadequate.

Proteolytic enzymes are one class of enzymes that help your pet digest the proteins in food. Although the pet’s body produces these enzymes in the pancreas, certain foods also contain proteolytic enzymes.

Papaya and pineapple are two of the richest plant sources of digestive enzymes. Papain and bromelain are the respective names for the proteolytic enzymes found in these fruits.

Therapeutic Uses of Enzymes For Pets
Enzymes have been recommended for treating pets with various disorders, including arthritis, allergies, poor coat condition, bowel disease (especially inflammatory bowel disease), and coprophagia (the condition where the pet ingests its own or another pet’s feces). To date, only the plant enzymes seem to be particularly helpful in some pets with medical problems such as arthritis. (Pancreatic enzymes are only recommended for pets with the rare condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, although due to the cellulose activity seen in plant enzymes, many holistic doctors recommend plant enzymes for pancreatic insufficiency as well as other medical problems.) The plant enzymes are active over a much wider pH range (pH3–9) than pancreatic enzymes and are the preferred enzymes for most patients. Plants contain the enzyme cellulose. Dogs and cats do not normally have cellulose in their bodies, and that’s why they can only digest some of the plant material in their diets. Supplementation with enzyme products that contain cellulose in addition to the normal lipase, amylase, and proteases found in many supplements seems to be more advantageous to pets with medical problems as it liberates chemicals such as zinc, selenium, and linoleic acid that might be bound by fiber.

In one study, supplementing the diet with additional zinc did not confer the same benefits (improved growth rate and efficiency) as supplementing with plant enzymes. Apparently the plant enzymes liberated other nutrients in the diet in addition to zinc, resulting in positive benefits that did not occur simply by increasing the nutrient zinc.

In people (and possibly pets), enzymes have been shown to reduce pain after exercise or soft tissue trauma. Papain, the plant enzyme extracted from papaya, has been shown to be as effective as aspirin in several studies. Bromelain, the plant enzyme extracted from pineapple, was shown in one study to decrease the spread of implanted lung cancer in mice. Bromelain has also shown to be anti-inflammatory and has been suggested for treating inflammatory conditions including skin allergies (atopic dermatitis) and arthritis. It appears to inhibit pro-inflammatory prostaglandins.

Enzymes are recommended for use in cancer and immune diseases in people, including AIDS, although good studies are lacking. Since zinc deficiency impairs immunity, it may be the increased zinc levels in the blood that occur after plant enzyme supplementation improve the functioning of the immune system in people and pets. Aging decreases immune function and zinc status. Supplementing with plant enzymes may be indicated in older pets to correct this. Supplementing with zinc is not indicated for two reasons: first, other nutrients in addition to zinc are absorbed as a result of enzyme supplementations that are beneficial for pets; second, excessive zinc levels can actually impair the immune system.

Using plant enzymes also increases selenium absorption. Selenium is an antioxidant that works with vitamin E. There is a link between selenium and thyroid hormones. Specifically, selenium appears to be an essential component of the enzyme, which converts the inactive form of thyroid hormone (T4) to the active form (T3) in rats and possibly other pets. This link might explain the enhanced hair growth and increased energy levels in pets supplemented with plant enzymes.

Anecdotally, pets taking plant enzyme supplements have been shown to have reduced levels of fleas, improved skin conditions (in pets with dry flaky skin), and improved energy levels (of socalled “poor-doers”).

Since response is variable regarding the product used, if one supplement does not help, another might.

Since enzymes are inactivated by heat, they cannot be added to warm food or mixed with warm water. Rather, they are simply sprinkled onto the food (at room temperature) at the time of feeding.

Enzyme supplementation for pets is inexpensive, safe, and easy to administer in pill or powder form. Your doctor can help you decide which product is best for your pet’s condition.

Bromelain for Pets One popular enzyme is bromelain, a collection of proteindigesting enzymes found in pineapple juice and in the stem of pineapple plants.

Bromelain is actually thought to be useful for a variety of conditions. In Europe, it is widely used to aid in recovery from surgery and athletic injuries, as well as to treat osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. Bromelain is also useful as a digestive enzyme. Unlike most digestive enzymes, bromelain is active both in the acid environment of the stomach and the alkaline environment of the small intestine. This may make it particularly effective as an oral digestive aid for those pets that do not digest proteins properly. Since it is primarily the proteins in foods that cause food allergies, bromelain might reduce foodallergy symptoms as well, although this has not been proven.

While most large enzymes are broken down in the digestive tract, those found in bromelain appear to be absorbed whole to a certain extent. This finding makes it reasonable to suppose that bromelain can actually produce systemic (whole body) effects. Once in the blood, bromelain appears to produce mild anti-inflammatory and “blood-thinning” effects. There is at least one experimental report of bromelain inhibiting the spread of implanted lung carcinoma in mice.

Papain for Pets
Papain is a popular digestive enzyme that has been shown to be as effective as aspirin as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory agent in a variety of medical conditions.

The primary use of proteolytic enzymes is as a digestive aid. There is some evidence proteolytic enzymes can be absorbed whole and may produce a variety of effects in the body. As mentioned earlier, many practitioners of complementary medicine believe proteolytic enzymes can be helpful for a wide variety of other health conditions, especially food allergies (presumably by digesting the food so well that there is less to be allergic to), atopic (allergic) dermatitis, hairballs, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune diseases. Theoretically, arthritis and autoimmune diseases (including inflammatory bowel disease) may be made worse by whole proteins from foods leaking into the blood an causing and immune reaction. Digestive enzymes may help foil this so-called “leaky gut” problem. While there are many anecdotal reports of enzymes helping pets with a variety of medical problems, there are few controlled studies to show they really work for these problems. (In people, two small double-blind studies, involving a total of more than 50 athletes, found treatment with proteolytic enzymes significantly speeded healing of bruises and other mild athletic injuries, as compared to placebo.)

Pancreatic enzymes are specific extracts of the pancreas used to help pets with digestive disturbances, most commonly a very rare condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). EPI, when it occurs, is seen in dogs (usually German Shepherds). Administering pancreatic enzymes can help increase the digestion and absorption of nutrients in the food (plant enzymes can also be used in place of pancreatic enzymes). Unlike plant enzymes, pancreatic enzymes have no other health benefits as they are not absorbed by the pet.

Safety Issues
Proteolytic enzymes are believed to be quite safe, although there are some concerns they might further damage the exposed tissue in an ulcer by partly digesting it. For this reason, they are often not recommended for people and pets with gastrointestinal ulcerative disease.

Bromelain appears to be essentially nontoxic, and it seldom causes side effects other than occasional mild gastrointestinal distress or allergic reactions. However, because bromelain “thins the blood” to some extent, it shouldn’t be combined with drugs such as Coumadin (warfarin) without a doctor’s supervision. Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with liver or kidney disease has not been established; similar precautions are probably warranted in pets as well.


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Shawn Messonnier, DVM

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Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!

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