Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) happens when the pancreas is unable to produce enzymes that help with digestion.
Both dogs and cats are susceptible to the condition and often experience diarrhea, weight loss, and poor body condition due to their inability to absorb nutrients. Since its symptoms mirror those of other diseases, EPI may go undiagnosed and untreated. Fortunately, once diagnosed, it can be treated with nutritional supplements and dietary modification.
The pancreas is responsible for a variety of functions, one of which is the secretion of enzymes and other factors that aid in the digestion of food. When the part of the pancreas that performs this function is damaged, EPI can occur, disrupting normal digestion in the intestines and leading to bacterial overgrowth, poor nutrient absorption, and changes to the lining of the intestine.
One cause of EPI in dogs is believed to be inherited. In other cases, chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can lead to EPI. EPI in cats is less common than in dogs, and generally results from chronic pancreatitis.
Symptoms and Identification
Pets with EPI typically suffer severe, voluminous diarrhea. The inability to absorb nutrients also results in unthriftiness, weight loss, and poor skin or coat condition. Though most pets will eat ravenously to compensate for a lack of nutrients, cats, in particular, may suffer bouts of anorexia.
Many other diseases (including intestinal parasites and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) cause similar symptoms, which may obscure diagnosis. Veterinarians have to run specific laboratory tests in order to confirm the presence of EPI.
German Shepherds, Collies, and English Setters are predisposed to pancreatic acinar atrophy, an inherited condition that can lead to EPI. In cats, breed predilections have not been determined.
The cornerstone of EPI treatment is a lifetime of pancreatic enzyme supplements to replace those the pancreas fails to secrete. Powdered pancreatic extracts are most common. Your veterinarian may also recommend a prescription diet or dietary supplements to help manage the condition.
Because some pets also suffer small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or inflammatory processes of the intestine, antibiotic and anti-inflammatory drugs are sometimes required on a periodic or ongoing basis for successful EPI treatment.