What is Liver Disease?
The liver has a host of functions in your pet’s body - it is responsible for building and breaking down fats, carbohydrates and proteins as well as storing vitamins, minerals, glycogen (a form of glucose) and triglycerides (the building blocks of fat). It plays a vital role in the production of red blood cells and produces factors important for the normal clotting of blood.
Additionally, it is an essential part of the immune system; it assists in digestion by producing bile and is essential for detoxification of a variety of toxic compounds that your pet’s body system encounters every day.
This is indeed an impressive list of functions, all of which are important in maintaining your pet’s health. However, in performing these functions the liver may be subjected to damage with resultant poor functioning. When your pet’s liver is not functioning properly, toxins will build up, digestion will be affected and there may be a shortage of essential substances such as glucose, vitamins and minerals.
Liver disease, also known as hepatitis is a broad term for describing a number of conditions affecting the liver. These may include bacterial infections, tumors, blockage of the bile ducts from the gall bladder, circulation disorders of the liver, viral diseases such as infectious canine hepatitis and a variety of toxins that may damage the cells of the liver.
Which pets are affected by liver disease?
All pets can succumb to liver disease but certain breeds are genetically predisposed.
Purebred dogs such as Miniature Schnauzers, Yorkshire Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Maltese, Scottish Terriers, Pugs, Irish Wolfhounds, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, German Shepherds and Poodles have a higher incidence of liver disease. Conversely, in cats, mixed breeds are more predisposed, although among the purebred cats, Persians and Himalayans do develop liver problems.
Your pet may be born with a liver disorder. The most common disorder of this type is known as a portosystemic shunt and is the condition where blood flow is diverted away from the liver. As a result, the liver cannot remove toxins from the blood and classic symptoms of liver disease will appear. Young pets affected in this way will usually start showing symptoms between 6 months and 1 year of age.
Liver tumors tend to occur in older pets, with most animals with liver cancer being diagnosed after the age of 10 years.
What are the symptoms of liver disease?
The onset of the symptoms of liver disease may be very rapid in the case of a poisoning or may take some time to show if the liver is affected by a slow growing tumor. The symptoms that your pet might show include:
- Stomach ulcers
- Nervous signs
- Blood clotting disorders
- Jaundice (yellow gums and eyes)
- Fluid build up in the abdomen
- Excessive thirst and urination
- Weight loss
The nervous signs may include circling, head pressing, aimless wandering, weakness, staggering gait, blindness, aggression, dementia and coma. Your vet may refer to these signs as hepatic encephalopathy.
These signs are due to the build up of toxins in your pet’s brain, especially ammonia which is normally broken down into harmless components by the liver. On blood tests, your pet may have too few red blood cells (anemia) and your vet will probably detect elevated liver enzymes.