Liver Disease in Dogs

Anyone who is the proud owner of a dog knows that sometimes a dog gets very, very sick before their owners become aware of any underlying health concerns. It would be great if your canine BFF could tell you what is going on and if they hurt anywhere, but since they can’t it’s up to us to be aware of even the slightest changes in our dog’s behavior, eating or even sleeping habits. Liver disease in dogs can be life threatening if not caught early on so it is up to us to know the warning signs and symptoms in order to get veterinary help as soon as possible.

Canine Liver Disease Warning Signs and Symptoms

Perhaps the first signs of liver disease in dogs would be excessive thirst and urination. Bear in mind that the liver is a filter for literally every known toxin that enters the circulatory system and if the liver is diseased it will try to cleanse itself by frequent flushing with water. This is common in humans as well as in dogs but the difference is that your dog won’t be able to tell you it is inordinately thirsty or in need of relieving itself. Your dog’s abdominal area may swell due to a build-up in fluid (inordinate thirst = excess water build-up) and you may notice a marked decrease in appetite for food.

Some dogs become lethargic while others are prone to vomiting and/or diarrhea. Again, just like in humans, dogs will become jaundiced too. Of course you won’t be able to see their skin tone under all that fur but you will be able to observe their eyes. One symptom that you may not immediately recognize, not being a veterinary professional, is an enlarged liver. Usually this symptom is noticed after the owner takes a dog to the vet due to any of the above symptoms.

Veterinary Diagnostics and Common Types of Canine Liver Disease

When you bring your dog to the vet the first thing he/she is likely to do after you explain what you have been observing is a physical examination. If you notice your vet feeling the stomach area you can probably guess that the size of the liver is being determined. Even if the liver ‘appears’ to be normal in size your vet will most likely order a number of laboratory tests including blood tests, x-rays and/or ultra sound. Once the lab work is in your vet is in a better position to provide an accurate diagnosis.

Common liver diseases in dogs include infectious canine hepatitis, chronic active hepatitis, Porto-systemic shunt, hepatic microvascular dysplasia, liver fibrosis, copper toxicosis and cancer. Some of these diseases are more common in certain breeds such as a genetic defect in West Highland Terriers, Bedlington Terriers and sometimes Dobies and Skye Terriers can cause an accumulation of copper in the liver. Your vet will discuss the specific canine liver disease (if any) that you are dealing with and at that time should also present at least a few alternatives for treatments.

Treating Liver Diseases in Dogs

Some of those diseases can be easily treated while others may have an extremely poor prognosis. One thing to keep in mind is that the liver is the one organ that is able to regenerate itself even if much of the diseased portion has been cut away! Although veterinary surgery can be costly, most of us would give an arm and a leg to save our beloved canine friends if that is the only alternative. However, that is a worst case scenario. On the other end of the spectrum, some canine liver diseases can be treated with supportive care such as increased nutritional support through diet or supplements.

Sometimes supportive care requires IV therapy to rehydrate a dog that has been vomiting excessively while other times corticosteroids are used to reduce inflammation. Since secondary infections are common in some types of canine liver disease a course of antibiotics might be prescribed. Many times your vet will also request that you change your dog’s diet significantly to eliminate certain foods that can exacerbate the underlying problem. Some vets may prescribe vitamin therapy to build-up immunity and assist in the healing process.

Preventing Liver Disease in Dogs

There are times when it doesn’t matter what you do as your dog may have a predisposition to canine liver disease as in the case of the dogs mentioned above that have a genetic defect which can cause copper toxicosis. Other times there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of your dog falling prey to liver disease. Diet and nutrition is a huge concern and many pet owners aren’t aware of just how vital proper nutrition is in respect to their pets.

Dogs require much less fat than do cats and some diets are just too rich in saturated fats for the dog’s wellbeing. The liver filters toxins out of the body and part of the problem with fatty diets is that the liver simply isn’t able to filter toxins that are a byproduct of digesting fatty foods. Make sure to provide plenty of fiber for your dog just as you would for yourself and your family. Fiber helps to move toxins through the system which in turn takes some of the burden off the liver.

It cannot be emphasized enough that prevention is the best medicine. However, in the event that your dog is diagnosed with liver disease then your vet will suggest possible treatments. It is not always something which can be prevented but most often some form of treatment is available, if only supportive. The key is to get immediate veterinary attention the moment you notice something is wrong. Early diagnosis can be the key to successful treatment.

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