EPI or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is a condition that can affect the gastrointestinal tract of the dog, leading to severe weight loss, diarrhoea, and a failure to maintain weight and condition.
It occurs in the pancreas of the affected dog, the pancreas being the organ that is responsible for the production of digestive enzymes and insulin, required to regulate the blood-sugar balance of the body. If the pancreas does not produce sufficient digestive enzymes to allow the dog to properly digest their food and get the full benefit out of their meals, EPI, or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency will develop. Left unchecked, the condition will literally lead to starvation of the affected dog.
While any dog can theoretically develop the condition, it is much more prevalent in some breeds than others. The German Shepherd is the breed of dog most likely to be afflicted with the condition, and it is estimated that over half of all cases of the condition are found in German Shepherds.
The usual cause of EPI in dogs is a condition called PAA, or (idiopathic) pancreatic acinar atrophy, which means that the cells responsible for the normal functions of the pancreas malfunction. These cells are important for the digestions of fats, starches and proteins, and are known as the acinar cells.
Another but rather less common cause of EPI in dogs is pancreatitis, or a chronic inflammation of the pancreas, which often accompanies diabetes.
EPI can cause a whole range of problems related to the digestive system of the dog, such as improper absorption of the important nutrients required for health, which in turn leads to serious malnutrition.
Common symptoms of EPI include sudden and inexplicable weight loss despite eating normally or in some cases, eating more than normal, chronic diarrhoea, wind, and increased faeces production. Coprophagia sometimes accompanies the condition too, which is the term used for a dog that eats their own stools.
If your vet suspects that your dog is suffering from EPI, they will run a range of tests to check how the pancreas is functioning. This may involve taking a serum sample to measure the levels of trypsinogen in the blood, a chemical that is released by the pancreas naturally when healthy. Reduced levels of trypsinogen in the sample may indicate EPI.
Blood tests, stool tests and urine panels may also be used, as a range of other gastrointestinal problems and infections may sometimes be confused with EPI, and produce similar symptoms.
While EPI is a serious condition that can literally lead to the dog starving to death if left untreated, fortunately, treatment and management of the condition can return your dog to good health.
After diagnosis has been confirmed, the usual course of treatment involves feeding a dietary supplement to the dog that contains an enzyme designed to replace the missing pancreatic enzyme. Generally, this supplement comes in powder form, for addition to the dog’s normal meals.
If the dog is very underweight or malnourished as a result of EPI prior to diagnosis, additional vitamin supplements might be recommended too, to allow the dog to return to good health.
Generally, EPI in the dog cannot be cured per se or reversed, and so this means that the dog in question will require special care with their diet and the addition of the enzyme supplement for the rest of their life.
It is important to manage and monitor your dog’s weight and progress after a diagnosis of EPI, in order to ensure their recovery. Diarrhoea should stop within a week of diagnosis and beginning treatment, and your dog should soon begin to regain the weight that they lost.
Once your dog is on the mend, you will need to work with your vet to reduce the amount of enzyme supplement your dog receives to a maintenance dose, which supports their pancreatic function and allows them to maintain their weight.
It is also recommended to avoid foods high in fibre, grains or fat after diagnosis, as these elements are more challenging for the pancreas to digest, and cause it to work harder than it needs to.
As EPI is considered to have a genetic element to it and is prevalent within certain pedigree breeds, after a diagnosis of EPI is given, it is strongly discouraged to use the dog in question for breeding.
Puppies of parents with EPI are exponentially more likely to develop the condition themselves, passing on the condition in perpetuity to future generations of dogs.