By Emma Peniston
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are necessary to break down food’s smaller building blocks in order to facilitate their absorption into the body. They are found in food and in your cat’s body. The organ responsible for producing enzymes in the body is the pancreas.
The main digestive enzymes are:
Protease – which breaks down and digests protein
Amylase – which breaks down and digests carbohydrates and starch
Lipase – which breaks down and digests fats
Cellulase – which break downs and digests fibre (not to be confused with cellulose)
Enzymes are fragile and are depleted by heat, pesticides, preservatives, additives, color and flavor enhancers in food. Enzymes in the body can be depleted by environmental toxins, air pollutants and medications and naturally become depleted in older age. Digestive enzymes digest the cat’s food and are critical to nutrient absorption. They break down the food into essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Cats are particularly dependent on certain enzymes to maintain normal levels of cholesterol and other blood fats and are necessary for respiratory health and the proper function of the immune system.
The science bit
Food enters the stomach complete with the digestive enzymes already in the food. The stomach churns the food, pre-digesting up to 75% of the meal. Hydrochloric acid which is produced by cells in the stomach wall is introduced and temporarily inactivates all food-based enzymes and breaking down what is left of the meal. Acid-resistant Pepsin is introduced. The digestive enzymes are therefore not destroyed by the acid but are re-activated when they enter the more alkaline environment of the digestive tract.
Nutrient rich partially digested food then moves to the small intestine (duodenum) where enzymes produced by the pancreas are responsible for the final digestion of proteins, carbs and fats. Liver secretions neutralize the acidity of the gastric juices and bile emulsifies the fats for better digestion and absorption. Nutrients absorbed along the surface of the intestine and into the blood which flows to the liver which filters to prevent undesirable substances and toxins into the body. Waste and undigested food and bacteria moves to the colon to be eliminated.
Lack of Digestive Enzymes in your cat
When we talk about a lack of digestive enzymes in cats we often refer to a disease called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or EPI, which requires animal-based enzymes, more often called pancreatic enzymes. I will refer to this again later on as it is a recognised separate disease. EPI will not be helped by plant-based enzymes.
We should maybe become more used to referring to the enzyme supplements as either “plant-sourced” or “animal-sourced” enzymes as this is where much confusion can arise when they are simply referred to as “digestive enzymes”. If your cat has a lack of digestive enzymes it can put the pancreas and other organs of the endocrine system under much stress. The body will rob critical metabolic enzymes from important tasks such as the immune function. Incomplete digestion of her food could allow partially digested food to enter the bloodstream direct from the large intestine.
If your cat eats a largely processed or cooked food diet then it is likely that receives little or no enzymes from the food, and will have to rely on her body to manufacture many or all of the enzymes she needs. Almost all dry cat food/kibble will be devoid of any digestive enzymes. The working pancreas does produce protease, amylase and lipase, but not likely enough to completely digest the food.
Feeding fresh, raw food is one way to ensure that your kitty is getting sufficient digestive enzymes from her food. If you feed any other diet, then consider supplementing daily with a plant based digestive enzyme as a matter of routine. Even if you feed a frozen or freeze-dried raw diet, still consider supplementing with plant-based enzymes. Of course if the pancreas is compromised that means it will not be producing any or little enzymes itself.
For more on raw food and a cat’s digestive process see About Raw: https://www.ibdkitties.net/about-raw/
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency
If the pancreas is completely compromised and is not producing any or very little enzymes at all (EPI) then kitty will need separate treatment with animal-sourced enzymes (usually known as pancreatic enzymes). These should only be given with the knowledge and consent of your vet and under their supervision as they are very strong and can do damage if the body doesn’t need them.
Cats with EPI can often literally starve to death because although they may have a ravenous appetite they are not absorbing any food and it passes through the body totally unabsorbed. The test for EPI is called TLI and is usually carried out under a blood panel referred to as GI 2 panel.
Please see the article on the website for further information on EPI and animal-sourced enzymes by Rosie Raddatz https://www.ibdkitties.net/EPI
Benefits of supplementation with Plant-sourced Digestive Enzymes
There are many benefits to adding a plant-based digestive enzyme to your (even healthy) cat’s diet. As well as breaking down and absorbing vitamins and minerals from your cat’s food, they support the immune system, support respiratory health, reduce minor food sensitivities, promote normal cell growth, promote healthy teeth and gums, reduce occasional bloating, gas, heartburn and constipation, lessen skin irritation and shedding, provide more energy due to better utilisation of nutrients, helps remove toxins and assist with comfortable movement of joints.
Animals with digestive upsets (gas, diarrhea, vomiting), yeast overgrowth, or sluggish metabolism would benefit, as do stressed/anxious animals, or older animals as the older they get the enzymes become depleted naturally. Antibiotics or medications can interfere with the microbiome and enzyme function so both digestive enzymes and probiotics are helpful in these situations.
Plant based digestive enzymes can be given orally with meals to aid digestion. Plant sourced enzymes are more stable than animal sourced and are therefore active across the entire digestive system from the mouth, through the stomach and to the intestines and can range the full range of food groups. Pancreatic enzymes usually target protein and only work in one area of the digestive system (stomach and intestines).
Glandular Therapy is based on the theory of “like supports like”. An animal eating a piece of liver is taking in nutrients that closely resemble his own liver. It refers to the practice of using animal tissues to support or promote the normal function of the body’s internal organs. This is why pancreatic enzymes are given to an animal with EPI. The animal-sourced enzymes support the compromised pancreas.
Most commercial processed pet foods do not contain glandular tissues. The animal tissue in those foods is mostly muscle meat. Recipes for homecooked or raw feeding contain a very carefully balanced inclusion of glandular tissues such as liver, kidney, spleen. This replicates a more ancestral diet and there is suggestion that the lack of these organs in processed foods may be contributing to the growing number of chronic health conditions seen in pets today.
We urge you not to feed organs to your cats unless they’re part of a carefully balanced diet or a very occasional treat. Feeding too many organs to your cat can lead to various health issues in itself such as vitamin D toxicity from too much liver.
Glandular therapy should be ALWAYS discussed with your vet.
For further information see https://ivcjournal.com/glandular-therapy