MSD Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link
Professional Version

Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals


Edward J. Hall

, MA, VetMB, PhD, DECVIM-CA, Langford Vets, Bristol Veterinary School

Reviewed/Revised Jun 2020 | Modified Oct 2022
Topic Resources

Malabsorption is a failure of digestion and is caused by exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) or small intestinal disease. Diarrhea and weight loss despite an increased appetite are the hallmarks of malabsorption. Measuring serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI) will test for EPI, and then, if ruled out, small intestinal disease can be investigated by imaging, measuring serum folate and cobalamin, and ultimately by intestinal biopsy. However, empirical diet trials are indicated before small intestinal biopsy if the patient is still eating. Enzyme replacement is the basis of treatment of EPI, and small intestinal diseases failing to respond to diet may be treated with antibiotics or immunosuppressives.

Malabsorption is the defective uptake of a dietary constituent resulting from interference with its digestion or absorption, due to either exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) or small-intestinal disease.

The primary functions of the exocrine pancreas and the small intestine are the digestion and absorption of nutrients. These occur in sequential phases: intraluminal digestion, mucosal digestion and absorption, and delivery of nutrients to the body. Pancreatic insufficiency and a number of chronic small-intestinal diseases cause malabsorption by interfering with one or several of these processes. Malabsorptive syndromes have been studied in most detail in dogs, but basic diagnostic and therapeutic principles are relevant to other species. Malabsorption typically results in diarrhea, altered appetite, and weight loss, but a number of animals (especially cats) may not have overt diarrhea because of the reserve capacity of the colon to conserve water.

Physiology of Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

The normal digestive processes convert polymeric dietary nutrients (proteins, polysaccharides, and fats) into forms (mainly monomers) that can cross the luminal surface (brush border) of intestinal absorptive epithelial cells (ie, enterocytes). Most digestive enzymes are secreted by the pancreas; EPI is thus a major cause of malabsorption. Terminal digestion of oligopeptides and disaccharides before absorption is performed by brush border enzymes, either at the surface of the enterocyte in association with transport proteins for their specific products or when released into the intestinal lumen through cleavage by pancreatic peptidases or enzymes freed from exfoliated senescent enterocytes.

The main digestible carbohydrates in the diet are starch, glycogen, sucrose, and lactose. Their digestion is summarized as:

  • starch and glycogen are hydrolyzed by pancreatic amylase to the oligosaccharides maltose, maltotriose, and alpha-limit dextrins

  • oligosaccharides and dietary disaccharides (sucrose, lactose) are further hydrolyzed to monosaccharides by enzymes located on the brush border of the enterocytes

  • the final products of hydrolysis (glucose, galactose, and fructose) are actively transported into the enterocyte by sodium-linked carrier-mediated processes, driven by a sodium-potassium ATPase export pump

  • within enterocytes, glutamine and not the glycolytic pathway is used as an energy source: glucose is passed by facilitated diffusion via a transport protein on the basolateral enterocyte membrane down a concentration gradient into the extracellular space, and then by diffusion into the portal venous circulation.

Protein digestion and absorption follows a similar pattern:

  • proteolytic enzymes from the stomach (pepsin) and pancreas (trypsin, chymotrypsin, elastase) degrade protein into a mixture of short-chain oligopeptides, dipeptides, and amino acids

  • oligopeptides are further hydrolyzed by brush-border peptidases

  • dipeptides and amino acids cross the brush-border membrane on specific carrier proteins

The products of fat digestion and fat-soluble molecules (eg, vitamins A, D, E, and K) do not need specific carriers to cross the phospholipid barrier of the enterocyte brush border. However, intraluminal degradation of triglycerides is essential:

  • fat in the duodenum stimulates release of cholecystokinin, which, in turn, stimulates secretion of pancreatic lipase and emptying of bile from the gallbladder

  • after solubilization by bile salt micelles, triglycerides are digested by pancreatic lipase to monoglycerides and free fatty acids

  • at the enterocyte luminal membrane, the monoglycerides and free fatty acids disaggregate from the micelle and are passively absorbed into the cell

  • released bile salts remain within the lumen and are ultimately reabsorbed in the ileum and undergo enterohepatic recycling

  • once inside the cell, the monoglycerides and free fatty acids are re-esterified to triglycerides and incorporated into chylomicrons, which subsequently enter the central lacteal of the villus, being delivered to the venous circulation via the thoracic duct.

  • medium-chain triglycerides (C8–C10) may be absorbed directly into the portal blood, providing an alternative route for fat uptake in case of lymphatic obstruction, but some do normally enter the circulation via the thoracic duct; consequently, they are no longer recommended in management of lymphangiectasia

Etiology and Pathophysiology of Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

Malabsorption is a consequence of interference with mechanisms responsible for either the degradation or absorption of dietary constituents ( see Table: Mechanisms of Malabsorption Mechanisms of Malabsorption Mechanisms of Malabsorption ).


Diseases that disrupt the synthesis or secretion of digestive pancreatic enzymes cause maldigestion with subsequent malabsorption, so that the end result is the same. An important syndrome is EPI Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is caused by decreased production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas. The most common clinical signs are polyphagia, weight loss, and a large volume of loose... read more , which occurs if there is a loss of ~85%–90% of exocrine pancreatic mass. EPI is characterized by severe maldigestion-malabsorption of starch, protein, and most notably, fat. Fat malabsorption may also be seen with a deficiency of intraluminal bile salts due to cholestatic liver disease or extrahepatic biliary obstruction. In dogs, EPI is most commonly due to acinar atrophy. End-stage chronic pancreatitis is less common and is seen in older animals, and pancreatic hypoplasia is a rare congenital cause. Canine EPI is often complicated by secondary small intestinal dysbiosis (disturbance of the normal luminal microbiome), which further disrupts nutrient digestion and absorption. EPI is relatively uncommon in cats and is most frequently due to chronic pancreatitis.

Intraluminal effects of bacteria can have important consequences, and small intestinal dysbiosis is a common consequence of EPI and small intestinal disease. It can also be caused by dietary changes and antibiotic use. Bacterial deconjugation of bile salts interferes with micelle formation, which results in malabsorption of lipid. Deconjugated bile salts and bacterial hydroxylation of fatty acids exacerbate diarrhea by stimulating colonic secretion.

True small-intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can be secondary to:

  • defective gastric acid secretion (eg, atrophic gastritis, proton pump inhibitors)

  • interference with normal motility (eg, inflammatory disease, visceral myopathy)

  • mechanical obstruction of the intestine (ie, partial obstruction by foreign body, stricture, or tumor)

  • interference with the function of the ileocecal valve

  • local immunodeficiency

In other cases of small intestinal dysbiosis, particularly in large-breed dogs, there is no evidence of an overgrowth and no defined cause because there is a lack of overt mucosal damage. However, a positive response to antibiotic therapy indicates that the diarrhea and malabsorption is related to bacteria, perhaps in how the innate immune system (toll-like receptors) respond to bacterial components. Originally called idiopathic SIBO, this syndrome is better termed antibiotic-responsive diarrhea (ARD) and is typically seen in young, large-breed dogs such as German Shepherds. SIBO has never been identified in cats, although chronic enteropathies may respond to metronidazole, and secondary small intestinal dysbiosis is found in a variety of small intestinal diseases in both dogs and cats.

Small-intestinal disease can cause malabsorption by reduction of the number or function of individual enterocytes. Diffuse diseases of the mucosa can result in reduced activities of brush border enzymes, decreased carrier-protein activity, decreased mucosal absorptive surface area, and interference with final transport of nutrients into the circulation. Weight loss may be compounded by reduced nutrient intake due to inappetence in severe inflammatory or neoplastic diseases. In addition, malabsorbed nutrients exert strong intraluminal osmotic effects that diminish intestinal and colonic absorption of water and electrolytes, resulting in diarrhea. This may be exacerbated if mucosal damage is accompanied by intestinal inflammation, which can cause increased intestinal secretion and exudation of fluid.

Histologic changes in chronic inflammatory enteropathies, such as villous atrophy and infiltration with inflammatory cells, indicate intestinal disease but do not identify the underlying cause. For example, lymphocytic-plasmacytic enteritis may be a common response pattern of the intestinal mucosa to different provocative agents, particularly microbial or dietary antigens. Definite associations with parasites, pathogenic bacteria, and dietary sensitivity have been demonstrated in dogs, but in many cases the underlying cause cannot be identified except by the response to empirical treatment trials. Thus, potential causes of mucosal inflammation in chronic enteropathies include idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease, enteric pathogens (eg, enteric viruses, pathogenic bacteria, Giardia, Histoplasma, Pythium), dietary sensitivity, ARD, and intestinal neoplasia (eg, lymphosarcoma).

Mucosal damage may also occur without obvious changes being seen under light microscopy. This is typified by infection with enteropathogenic Escherichia coli (which specifically cause ultrastructural damage to microvilli in an attaching-effacing lesion) and by ARD in dogs, which can cause biochemical damage to the intestinal brush border, interfering with enterocyte function.

Acquired brush border defects may be seen in generalized small intestinal diseases. However, the main inherited brush border enzyme deficiency reported, when no histologic abnormalities are present, is a relative lactase deficiency in cats. Their lactase activity declines after weaning, and they may become lactose intolerant. In both dogs and cats, lactose intolerance may also develop secondarily to nonspecific damage to the brush border, which is why feeding dairy products to animals with diarrhea should be avoided.

Post-mucosal obstruction may be seen with lymphatic obstruction (especially lymphangiectasia) and vascular compromise (portal hypertension, vasculitis). Intestinal lymphangiectasia causes intestinal protein loss as well as severe fat malabsorption, as ruptured lacteals leak lipoproteins and chylomicrons.

Usually, in malabsorption a number of nutrients are affected and consequently diarrhea occurs; malabsorption of a single ingredient without any GI signs is rare (eg, inherited selective cobalamin malabsorption (Imerslund-Gräsbeck syndrome) in Giant Schnauzers, Australian Shepherds, Beagles and Border Collies). Again, it should be noted that the large absorptive capacity of the colon may prevent overt diarrhea in some animals (especially cats) despite significant malabsorption and weight loss.

Clinical Findings of Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

Clinical signs of malabsorption are mainly the result of lack of nutrient uptake and losses in the feces. The primary cause, duration, and severity of mucosal damage determine the severity of clinical signs, which typically include chronic diarrhea, weight loss, and altered appetite (anorexia or polyphagia). However, the absence of diarrhea does not exclude the possibility of severe GI disease. Weight loss may be substantial despite a ravenous appetite, sometimes characterized by coprophagia and pica. Typically, animals with malabsorption are systemically well and hungry unless there is severe inflammation or neoplasia or hypoproteinemia. Nonspecific signs may include dehydration, anemia of chronic disease or SI blood loss, and ascites or edema in cases of hypoproteinemia. Thickened bowel loops or enlarged mesenteric lymph nodes may be palpable, especially in cats.

Diagnosis of Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

Summary of diagnostic approach

  • Rule out other specific causes of the clinical signs

  • Adjunctive tests, intestinal biopsy, and empirical treatment trials may be needed.

Chronic diarrhea and weight loss are nonspecific signs common to a variety of systemic and metabolic diseases, as well as malabsorption, although, typically, systemic diseases cause anorexia. A thorough diagnostic approach in dogs and cats with signs suggestive of malabsorption is therefore needed to help exclude association with possible underlying systemic or metabolic disease. A precise diagnosis is also important to select treatment and assess prognosis.

The diagnosis of small intestinal disease is difficult because of limitations of routine screening procedures, the need for biopsy in many cases, and frequently the absence of pathognomonic histologic changes.


The dietary history is particularly important, because it may suggest specific dietary intolerance, indiscretion, or sensitivity. Weight loss may indicate malabsorption or protein-losing enteropathy (PLE) but may also be due to anorexia, vomiting, or extra-intestinal disease. Small- and large-intestinal diarrhea may be distinguished by a number of features ( see Table: Differentiation of Small-Intestinal from Large-Intestinal Diarrhea Differentiation of Small-Intestinal from Large-Intestinal Diarrhea Differentiation of Small-Intestinal from Large-Intestinal Diarrhea ). This distinction is helpful in identifying differential diagnoses and deciding where to take biopsies. Suspected large-intestinal disease in dogs may be evaluated by colonoscopic biopsy. However, diffuse disease is more common, and if signs of large-intestinal disease are accompanied by weight loss, large volumes of feces, or hypocobalaminemia, then there is almost certainly concurrent small-intestinal disease.

Physical Examination

A thorough physical examination should be performed. Abdominal palpation is essential to identify abnormalities, and rectal examination is required even when no large-intestinal disease is suspected, both to provide a fecal sample and also to identify previously unreported GI bleeding. In older cats, the thyroid should be palpated carefully (and serum T4 assayed), because signs of hyperthyroidism can closely mimic those of primary intestinal malabsorption.

Minimum Database

Initial evaluation should include a minimum database (CBC, biochemical profile, urinalysis, fecal examination) to rule out non-GI disease Hematologic findings in small-intestinal disease sometimes include:

  • anemia of chronic blood loss (microcytic, hypochromic) or chronic inflammation (normocytic, normochromic)

  • neutrophilia and/or monocytosis associated with intestinal inflammation, infectious enteropathies, or neoplasia

  • eosinophilia associated with parasitism and eosinophilic enteritis

  • lymphopenia associated with intestinal lymphangiectasia in dogs

  • lymphocytosis in a sick dog raises the suspicion of hypoadrenocorticism

Biochemical tests and urinalysis help to exclude systemic diseases that cause chronic diarrhea, most notably hypoadrenocorticism, protein-losing nephropathies, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease. Hypoproteinemia is frequently secondary to PLE and is seen more commonly in dogs than cats. In most cases of PLE, serum albumin and globulin are both low, but a low albumin alone does not exclude it; inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and neoplasia are occasionally associated with hyperglobulinemia as well as hypoalbuminemia. Hepatocellular enzymes (ALT, AST) may be increased as a consequence of increased intestinal permeability, allowing more antigens to reach the liver; in such cases, a bile acid stimulation test as well as ultrasonography should be performed to exclude primary liver disease. However, in cats, there may be concurrent IBD and cholangitis (triaditis). Cholestatic enzymes (ALP, GGT) tend to be increased in biliary and pancreatic disease. Urinalysis is important to exclude renal causes of hypoalbuminemia and/or renal disease. However, sometimes both may be seen together (eg, the familial PLE and protein-losing nephropathy of Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers). Hypocholesterolemia may develop with fat malabsorption and is most notable in lymphangiectasia.

Fecal analysis may reveal fat, undigested muscle fibers, or starch. They are indirect evidence for malabsorption, but are nonspecific findings. Fecal analysis is primarily indicated for the identification of infectious agents:

  • Feces should be examined for endoparasitic ova and oocysts (especially hookworms and Giardia in dogs and Tritrichomonas and Giardia in cats). Giardia oocysts can be detected using serial zinc sulfate fecal flotations or a commercially available SNAP or ELISA test; the latter is easier to perform, and its sensitivity is better than fecal flotation performed by inexperienced personnel. Tritrichomonas typically causes colitis in cats rather than malabsorption and is best diagnosed by pouch culture or PCR. Cytology of rectal scrapings may reveal Histoplasma organisms. Cryptosporidium is a rare cause of malabsorption and is best identified in feces by immunofluorescence.

  • Potentially pathogenic bacteria (including Salmonella and Campylobacter) can be isolated by stool culture. However, isolation of pathogenic bacteria is not conclusive proof of causation because such organisms can be found in the stool of clinically healthy animals. Speciation of Campylobacter isolates by PCR allows distinction of the pathogenic C jejuni from the more common and probable commensal C upsaliensis. Some Escherichia coli are potential pathogens, but molecular techniques to identify genes encoding pathogenicity determinants are required for diagnosis.

  • Bacteriologic culture of duodenal fluid obtained endoscopically or at laparotomy has been used to make a diagnosis of SIBO. However, the exact cut-off point at which small intestinal bacterial numbers are considered excessive is a matter of debate, because numbers >105 total or >104 obligate anaerobic colony-forming units (CFU)/mL may be found in apparently clinically healthy dogs, depending on circumstances, including environment, diet, scavenging, and coprophagia.

Specific Rule-outs

Once obvious dietary, systemic, parasitic, and infectious causes of chronic small-intestinal diarrhea have been eliminated, the next step is differentiation of specific non-small intestinal causes of malabsorption:

  • In dogs, EPI should be ruled out before investigating small intestinal causes of malabsorption. The diagnosis of EPI is relatively straightforward, whereas that of small intestinal disease is more complex. Numerous tests have been used for dogs and cats with suspected EPI, but they are too inaccurate or impractical to be recommended. Assay of serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity (TLI) is a highly sensitive and specific test and should be used for the diagnosis of EPI. This assay measures trypsinogen, some of which normally leaks from the pancreas into the blood, thereby providing an indirect assessment of functional pancreatic tissue. In EPI, functional exocrine tissue is severely depleted and serum TLI concentrations are extremely low, clearly distinguishing EPI from other causes of malabsorption. This test requires a fasted serum sample. Species-specific canine and feline TLI tests are available, but EPI is a rare cause of malabsorption in cats.

  • Hypoadrenocorticism and atypical hypoadrenocorticism in dogs can be ruled out by finding a basal cortisol >55 nmol/L, or by an ACTH stimulation test.

  • Hyperthyroidism in cats should be excluded by measuring serum T4 concentrations.

  • Serologic tests for feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency viruses should also be performed in cats, not only because both may be associated with secondary, chronic diarrhea but also because they are important prognostic factors.


Radiography and ultrasonography should be considered complementary. When indicated by clinical signs or abnormal abdominal palpation, plain radiography is used to identify surgical conditions and to provide clues as to the nature of any small intestinal disease. Abdominal radiography can identify foreign bodies, intestinal obstructions, and masses, but is most useful when vomiting is present or palpable abnormalities are detected. Computed tomography provides greater detail of all abdominal structures but is often not available.

Ultrasonography is an important part of the investigation of most small intestinal diseases. Changes consistent with pancreatitis may be observed ultrasonographically, but failure to find a pancreas is an unreliable way to diagnose EPI. It can measure intestinal wall thickness, layering, and luminal diameter and detect other intestinal lesions (eg, masses, intussusception), mesenteric lymphadenopathy (in neoplasia and inflammatory enteropathies), and abnormalities in other organs. A thickened small intestinal wall and loss of layering is highly suggestive of neoplasia. Mucosal striations have been associated with lymphatic dilatation.

Serum Folate and Cobalamin

The assay of serum folate and cobalamin (vitamin B12) concentrations can be a helpful initial test in the assessment of small-intestinal disease. Folate is absorbed primarily by the proximal small intestine (jejunum), whereas cobalamin is absorbed by the distal SI (ileum). As a result, serum folate concentrations can be decreased in proximal SI diseases, serum cobalamin concentrations can be decreased in distal SI diseases, and both can be decreased in diffuse enteropathies. Other factors such as the severity, extent, and duration of a mucosal abnormality; dietary intake; and vitamin supplementation also influence these concentrations.

Hypocobalaminemia is particularly associated with IBD and alimentary lymphoma and results in metabolic changes, including methylmalonic acidemia, that can lead to anorexia. Subnormal cobalamin concentrations are an indication for parenteral supplementation.

In addition, EPI can affect serum folate and cobalamin concentrations, and changes in serum folate and cobalamin concentrations are unreliable for the diagnosis of ARD and secondary SIBO. The validity of serum folate concentrations as a marker of small-intestinal disease in cats is less clear, but hypocobalaminemia is common in cats and may be found in both small-intestinal disease and EPI and when they occur concurrently.

Markers of Protein-losing Enteropathies and Small-intestinal Inflammation

IV administration of 51Cr-labeled albumin (or 51CrCl3 to label endogenous albumin) has been used historically to document PLE in dogs. Measurement of 3-day fecal excretion of this radioactive marker provides an estimation of labeled albumin and hence protein loss into the intestinal lumen. However, its use is very limited because of the need for a radioactive marker.

An alternative approach is the measurement of alpha-1 proteinase inhibitor in the feces. This plasma protein is lost into the intestinal lumen together with albumin, but unlike albumin it is an antiproteinase and is excreted in the feces essentially intact. Species-specific assays have been developed, but only a canine assay is available and only in the USA. Three fresh fecal samples passed by spontaneous evacuation are required; any GI bleeding invalidates the result.

Intestinal inflammation may be identified indirectly by increases in serum C-reactive protein. A more specific test that measures fecal calprotectin is not readily available.

Empirical Treatment Trials

Intestinal biopsy often identifies chronic inflammatory enteropathies but rarely the cause of the inflammation. Although it may be idiopathic (ie, IBD) and require immunosuppression, parasitic infections, food-responsive enteropathies, and ARD may show similar histologic changes. Therefore, sequential empirical antiparasitic trials (ie, a three-day course of fenbendazole) and diet trials are indicated before biopsy if there are no criteria of concern. To avoid inappropriate use of antibacterials and the development of resistance, empirical antibacterial trials before biopsy are reserved for those patients in whom ARD is suspected (eg, young German Shepherds). The presence of anorexia, abnormal abdominal palpation and/or imaging, severe hypoproteinemia, and GI bleeding are all indications to proceed to biopsy.

For an exclusion diet trial, hydrolyzed diets are preferred: it is easier to feed a novel diet than to choose a single protein to remove from the diet, remission is achieved more frequently, and time to relapse is longer. However, hydrolyzed diets may be less palatable, not balanced for growth in young animals, and not in a palatable formulation (most are dried kibble). Curiously, followup studies after successful clinical resolution with a hydrolyzed diet do not show resolution of the histologic changes.

Intestinal Biopsy

Definitive diagnosis of chronic small-intestinal disease ultimately includes histologic examination of intestinal biopsies taken by endoscopy or at laparotomy. However, if there is clinical remission with a prior empirical treatment trial, biopsy is not justified. Histologic examination of intestinal biopsy specimens can identify morphologic changes of intestinal inflammation (including lymphocytic-plasmacytic enteritis and eosinophilic enteritis), intestinal lymphangiectasia, villous atrophy, and intestinal neoplasia. The description of morphologic abnormalities can provide a baseline to evaluate response to treatment if sequential biopsies are possible, although resolution of changes does not always follow clinical remission. Morphologic abnormalities may also provide prognostic information, because more severe enteropathies tend to be more difficult to manage.

Endoscopy is minimally invasive and allows visualization of the mucosa and targeted biopsy sampling. However, endoscopic mucosal biopsies cannot give an adequate representation of deeper disease and are limited to the parts of the SI small intestine (duodenum and sometimes proximal jejunum and ileum) that can be visualized via gastroscopy and colonoscopy. Endoscopic biopsy is preferred initially because the risk of intestinal surgical wound dehiscence can exceed 10% in debilitated, malnourished, or hypoproteinemic animals.

Surgery is the preferred option when there is a concern about deeper or extraintestinal disease or a focal lesion has been identified. Due to the risks associated with enterotomies, empirical treatment trials are usually performed first unless a surgical condition (eg, a focal lesion, partial obstruction) has been identified by palpation or imaging. If a laparotomy is performed and a gross focal lesion is not present, multiple elliptical, longitudinal biopsy samples should be collected from the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum; mesenteric lymph nodes should be biopsied and other organs examined.

However, there may be minimal or no obvious abnormalities in certain malabsorptive disorders (eg, ARD) despite considerable interference with intestinal function. Nevertheless, histologic descriptions alone provide little information on possible etiology or underlying mechanisms of damage, which would assist effective management and determination of prognosis. Furthermore, inconsistencies in histologic descriptions between pathologists is a recognized problem. However, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association GI Standardization Group has published a descriptive template as a basis for concordance.

Treatment of Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

  • Treat primary disorders, then add diet changes if needed and address complications

Treatment of malabsorption involves treatment of the primary cause (if identified) in conjunction with dietary therapy, modification of the microbiome (prebiotics, probiotics, and dietary manipulation) and management of any complications (eg, cobalamin supplementation for hypocobalaminemia).

Dietary Modification

Dietary modification is a critical aspect of the management of small-intestinal diseases both in dogs and cats. Diets generally contain moderate levels of limited protein sources and highly digestible carbohydrates (to reduce protein antigenicity and osmolar effects and to improve nutrient availability) and low to moderate levels of fat. In addition, they are lactose and gluten free, may be fiber-restricted, and may contain increased levels of antioxidants, prebiotics (eg, fructo-oligosaccharides), or omega-3 fatty acids. These additives are thought to modulate the inflammatory response and increase the diversity of the microbiome and health of enterocytes. Prebiotics are digestible fibers that encourage the growth of a healthy microbiome.

Treatment with an exclusion diet consisting of a single novel protein source or a hydrolyzed protein should be used as trial therapy when intestinal inflammation or dietary sensitivity is suspected. Boiled white rice, tapioca, and potato are suitable gluten-free carbohydrate sources, while cooked white fish, lamb, or chicken are often used as a protein source, depending on the dietary history. Cottage cheese, duck, horsemeat, rabbit, or venison may be acceptable alternatives.

Home cooking of diets ensures the ingredients that are being fed and a commercial single protein exclusion diet is not essential during a diet trial; however, they are preferred for maintenance to reduce potential longterm nutritional imbalances. However, commercial protein hydrolysates may be the most effective diets to manage inflammatory enteropathies and identify dietary sensitivities. The response to an exclusion diet is often rapid, but the diet must be fed for at least three and, in a few cases, up to ten weeks before being considered a failure.

Supportive Care

Probiotics. Evidence for the efficacy of probiotics in chronic enteropathies is largely lacking, but hypothetically they help restore a normal microbiome and reduce intestinal inflammation.

Cobalamin and folate supplementation. Hypocobalaminemia is common in both EPI and chronic enteropathies and leads not only to metabolic changes that suppress appetite, but also to histologic small-intestinal changes; the small intestine needs cobalamin to be healthy. Traditionally cobalamin has been supplemented by weekly SC injections. However, recent studies in dogs and cats have shown that daily oral supplementation bypasses the normal absorption pathway and can restore normal serum cobalamin concentrations and correct any metabolic changes. Oral cobalamin has even been shown to be effective in EPI, despite the secretion by the pancreas of intrinsic factor, a protein linked to cobalamin absorption being impaired.

The effect of hypofolatemia has not been elucidated in dogs and cats but leads to anemia in humans. So whether it is simply a marker of small-intestinal damage or actually needs to be supplemented is not yet known.

Antidiarrheals.Oral kaolin and pectin-based suspensions can help solidify diarrhea but are only symptomatic treatments. Similarly, opioids (eg, loperamide) only provide temporary symptomatic relief by modifying motility and decreasing small-intestinal secretion.

Specific Treatments

Effective treatment of EPI and small-intestinal disease depends on the nature of the disorder, but therapy may be empirical when a specific diagnosis hasn't been made.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Management of EPI Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency in Dogs and Cats Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is caused by decreased production of digestive enzymes by the pancreas. The most common clinical signs are polyphagia, weight loss, and a large volume of loose... read more in dogs is relatively straightforward and includes replacing pancreatic enzymes with exogenous enzymes and dietary modification. Feeding a low-fiber diet that contains moderate levels of fat or highly digestible fat, very digestible carbohydrate, and high-quality protein is often recommended. Yet in many dogs and most cats, a standard, good-quality commercial diet is adequate.

Treatment will require lifelong supplementation of each meal with pancreatic extract. Powdered extracts (1 tsp/10 kg body wt) are preferable to tablets, capsules, and most enteric-coated preparations. Fresh or fresh-frozen pancreas can be used as an alternative (100 g/meal for an adult German Shepherd). Treatment of EPI in cats is similar, but cobalamin supplementation is almost invariably required.

The response to pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy may be poor and adjunctive treatments may be necessary:

  • Secondary SIBO may be suspected, and the animal should be treated concurrently with oral antibiotics for ≥1 month (see below).

  • Acid suppressants (eg, H2-receptor blockers such as cimetidine or ranitidine; proton pump inhibitors, such as omeprazole) may be given 20 minutes before a meal to inhibit acid secretion and minimize acid degradation of enzymes in the pancreatic extract, but they are expensive and their value is questionable.

  • Oral multivitamin supplementation should be considered as supportive therapy, but cobalamin (500–1,000 mcg/week until normalized) should be given.

Dysbiosis and antibiotic-responsive diarrhea. In dogs with ARD, a low-fat diet may help by minimizing secretory diarrhea due to bacterial metabolism of fatty acids and bile salts. Oral broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy with oxytetracycline (20–40 mg/kg, PO, every 8 hours for maximum 14 days) has been successful. Metronidazole (10–20 mg/kg, PO, every 12 hours) and tylosin (10–80 mg/kg, PO, every 8–12 hours) are effective alternatives; there is rarely a need to use other antibiotics, and the nontargeted use of fluoroquinolones should be avoided.

Repeated or longterm treatment may be necessary in dogs with idiopathic ARD. Vitamin supplementation may be helpful, particularly for animals with cobalamin deficiency. Secondary ARD usually resolves with appropriate management of the underlying disease (eg, EPI), but idiopathic ARD can be difficult to control, especially in young German Shepherds, which are predisposed to developing the condition.

Inflammatory bowel disease. Treatment of idiopathic inflammatory bowel disease should initially attempt to eliminate or control an underlying antigenic stimulus that may be playing a primary or secondary role in the damage. Treatment should first involve the use of a protein hydrolysate diet. If this is refused by a patient, the diet should comprise digestible carbohydrate (preferably rice, which is most digestible) and a high-quality single protein. Restriction of fat content may also be valuable and can minimize the secretory diarrhea that is a consequence of bacterial metabolism of fatty acids and bile salts. Oral prednisone/prednisolone (1 mg/kg, every 12–24 hours for 2–4 weeks, followed by a reducing dose) is indicated in cases of intestinal disease with an obvious inflammatory component, such as lymphocytic-plasmacytic enteritis and eosinophilic enteritis, and no evident underlying cause. In more severe cases, it may be necessary to add chlorambucil (2–6 mg/m2, PO, every 24 hours until remission, followed by drug tapering) in cats and dogs or ciclosporin (5–10 mg/kg, PO, every 12–24 hours) or azathioprine (2–2.5 mg/kg, PO, every 24–48 hours) in dogs.

Cats are often given adjunctive metronidazole (10 mg/kg, every 12 hours); the beneficial effect of metronidazole may be a result of an inhibition of cell-mediated immune responses as well as anaerobic antibacterial activity. However, the value of metronidazole in combination with prednisolone in the treatment of IBD in dogs has not been shown.

Lymphangiectasia. In lymphangiectasia, a severely fat-restricted, calorie-dense, highly digestible diet that reduces diarrhea has been recommended but tends to exacerbate weight loss. Supplementation with fat-soluble vitamins is advised, and additional medium-chain triglycerides have been recommended as an easily absorbable fat source that bypasses the lymphatics, although this mechanism is now doubted. Prednisone/prednisolone therapy may be beneficial for its anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, especially if there is associated lipogranulomatous lymphangitis. The response to treatment is variable; clinical signs may sometimes abate for months or even years, but the longterm prognosis is grave.

Infectious causes. Giardiasis can be treated with metronidazole or fenbendazole, and histoplasmosis treated with itraconazole (cats) or ketoconazole (dogs), with or without amphotericin B.

Intestinal neoplasia. The treatment of alimentary lymphoma involves an appropriate chemotherapy regimen, but response is very poor in dogs and poor in cats with lymphoblastic forms. In cats, treatment of small-cell villous lymphoma with oral prednisone and chlorambucil has been associated with prolonged remission.

Solid tumors of the small intestine (eg, adenocarcinoma) more typically produce signs of intestinal obstruction and bleeding with diarrhea rather than malabsorption. They are managed primarily by surgical resection.

Prognosis for Malabsorption Syndromes in Small Animals

The prognosis in cases of malabsorption is good if there is a simple solution, eg, 85% of cases of EPI respond well to enzyme replacement therapy. The prognosis is worse the more severe the small-intestinal pathology. A poorer prognosis has been associated with severe intestinal inflammation, neoplastic disease, severe weight loss, hypoalbuminemia and ascites (PLE), anorexia, raised pancreatic lipase, and hypocobalaminemia. More than 50% of dogs with PLE are reported to be dead within 12 months of diagnosis.

Key Points

  • Malabsorption is caused by exocrine pancreatic or SI disease and results in diarrhea and weight loss even if polyphagia occurs.

  • History, physical examination, and a minimum laboratory database help rule out non-GI causes of diarrhea.

  • Pancreatic insufficiency in dogs and hyperthyroidism in cats should be ruled out before investigating small-intestinal disease directly.

  • Serum folate and cobalamin deficiencies are markers of small-intestinal disease and indications for vitamin supplementation.

  • A hydrolyzed diet trial is recommended before intestinal biopsy if the patient is eating and not unwell.

For More Information

quiz link

Test your knowledge

Take a Quiz!