What are digestive enzymes and how do they work?

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Digestive enzymes are substances that begin the chemical reactions in the stomach needed to break down food. They unlock vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients from the food for better absorption, and they are able to do it while remaining unchanged.

Your vet may prescribe them for your cat, because a lack of digestive enzymes could result in incomplete digestion. This would allow partially digested food particles to enter the bloodstream directly from the large intestine, and the less-than-optimal health may be at least partially due to your pet’s body’s response to undigested food particles circulating in the bloodstream.

The process starts with the pancreas, which produces insulin, and regulates the body’s blood sugar levels; it also produces digestive enzymes, which help metabolize the starches, fats, and proteins.

Sometimes, the pancreas fails to continue producing enough enzymes. When this happens, it’s called Exocrine Pancreatic Insuffiency (EPI), which results in diarrhea and weight loss, lack of proper absorption and other GI Tract problems. While it is more common in dogs, cats can also be affected by EPI. Older cats affected by EPI will usually develop the disease as a consequence of end-stage chronic pancreatitis. Digestion is considered to be all-important, as well as a task critical to survival. The problem is, if all of the enzymes are used for digestion, there won’t be any left for other important tasks, such as fighting allergies or even recovering from a simple cold, let alone surgery.

Enzymes are present in every cell in both plants and animals, but they are highly specific in their function and work only on a certain function. For example, the enzyme protease only works to digest protein, and lipase only works to digest fat, so your vet may prescribe a few different types.

The most common types of digestive enzymes are:

  • Protease – helps break down and digest protein
  • Amylase – helps break down and digest carbohydrates and starches
  • Lipase – helps break down and digest fat
  • Cellulase – helps break down fiber

You’ll also most likely be advised to avoid diets high in both fat and fiber for your cat, because they are difficult for it to digest. You should discuss this thoroughly with your vet.

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