Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, commonly referred to as EPI, is a disorder in which the body fails to produce sufficient amounts of pancreatic enzymes. Because of this lack, the body is then unable to properly digest foods. EPI is common to dogs and most especially in German Shepherds. Whether your dog has been diagnosed with this disease or you notice any of the following signs and symptoms, this information may help to better understand the causes, treatments and prognosis of EPI.
Common Causes for EPI in German Shepherds
While humans and cats can fall prey to EPI, it is more commonly found in dogs of which 70% are German Shepherds. There are several known causes of EPI in Shepherds, but the most common cause is pancreatic acinar atrophy. However, the cause of the atrophy itself may be elusive. There are times when it is caused by infections while other times this atrophy is the result of a blocked pancreatic duct. Sometimes genetics comes into play as well, as appears to be the case with German Shepherds.
Signs of EPI in German Shepherds
Unfortunately, EPI is not readily apparent until at least 85% of pancreatic enzymes are no longer being secreted by the pancreas. Once the disease has progressed this far you will notice your dog perhaps will have lost a significant amount of weight and will be extremely flatulent. While you notice that your dog has a marked increase in appetite it will still continue losing weight. If you become aware of these signs then it would be a good idea to check the stools as you might find that your dog either has diarrhea or the stools are yellow-gray and quite oily. Another symptom which may disgust you is that your dog may suddenly begin eating his/her own feces or those of another species. This is referred to as coprophagia.
Diagnosing EPI in Dogs
After you have discussed with your vet the signs and symptoms you have become aware of, your Shepherd will probably be given at least one of the two most reliable diagnostic tests used for dogs and cats. The first is called a serum trypsin-like immunoreactivty (TLI) and is the most reliable of all diagnostics. Other diagnostic evaluations might be to check for undigested foods in the dog’s feces, an assay of fecal proteolytic enzyme activity, assessment of fat absorption and a starch tolerance test. Unfortunately, these tests are not as accurate and can be misleading. As a result, if there is any question, your vet will most certainly order a TLI.
Treatments for EPI in German Shepherds
Most often treatments for German Shepherds include supplementing the diet with extracts of dried bovine (cow) pancreas. It is felt that pork pancreas should not be used as this can lead to the transmission, although rare, of pseudorabies. Symptoms will usually be significantly improved within just a few days but your dog will also need to be treated for the rest of his or her life. Also, because of the improper digestion and/or malabsorption of nutrients, your vet may prescribe treatment with supplements such as B12, vitamin E. Sometimes a dog (or cat for that matter!) may also have an overabundance of bacteria in the intestinal tract which would then be treated with a course of antibiotics. This is more common when a Shepherd eats feces, which is one of the more common signs of EPI.
Since your dog will need to have treatment such as dietary changes and supplements for the rest of his or her life, it is pretty safe to assume that this condition will never totally resolve itself. However, with proper and consistent treatment, your dog can actually live a normal lifespan. Keep in mind that some of the signs of EPI in the German Shepherd dog could also be indicative of a number of other illnesses as well. If you are ever in doubt as to exactly what your dog is suffering from, then it is always safest to consult a veterinary doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.
Numbers would be helpful, such as percent of the breed affected, average age of onset, percent of misdiagnoses, and numbers of affected dogs in other breeds. The TLI test only tells you that the pancreas is not working, but does not tell you why. The only way you can presently confirm EPI is post mortem. EPI is a genetic disease. The method of transmission is polygenic, rather than autosomal recessive. This means a threshold level of a number of different genes must be reached before a dog shows symptoms. It also means that the severity and onset of the disease can vary. Don't breed or buy dogs that have shown EPI on both sides of their lines. Hip dysplasia is also a polygenic defect. The same rule applies.