Dietary and Medical Management of Dogs with Liver Shunt

By Tess Thompson

Out of the numerous liver functions, blood filtering is perhaps one of the most important and crucial components of a dog’s health. After the food has been digested in the intestines, it is absorbed into the portal blood stream and carried to the liver. The liver then performs the following actions:

  • Stores part of the food for energy.
  • Filters bacteria, chemicals, toxins and nutritional byproducts.
  • Produces proteins and other substances necessary for vital functions.

A liver shunt is a condition where the portal blood vessel carries the blood around the liver instead of through it. In dogs with a liver shunt, the unfiltered blood is carried into the body and toxins accumulate in the blood stream and kidneys, a condition that ultimately causes serious health problems.

There are reasonable indications that suggest that liver shunt is a congenital liver disease in dogs and most young puppies with this condition die within weeks of birth. Some dogs survive for years before showing symptoms of liver disease.

In certain cases liver shunt is acquired later in life because of organ mal function that is due to disease or injury.

A liver shunt cannot be diagnosed with routine blood and urine tests. When laboratory tests show an increase in either blood urea nitrogen or levels of liver enzymes like ALT and AST, and red blood cells appear smaller than normal, the veterinarian will probe further using with procedures such as ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, or even exploratory surgery.

The best way to help manage your dog’s liver shunt is with dietary modifications and medication.

Most diagnosed dogs respond well to special diets that restrict protein intake. The usual recommendation for dog food consists of 25% to 29% protein content. Ideally it should be reduced to 18%, ensuring that protein sources come mainly from milk and vegetables.

Lactulose, a synthetic sugar, also produced some positive results by changing the pH levels in the intestines. The raised ph levels make it difficult for toxin producing bacteria to survive and also inhibit absorption of ammonia. Lactulose also aids in easy elimination but the dose should be strictly monitored to avoid side effects such as diarrhea. Some dogs do not respond to a modified diet or lactulose and have to be treated with antibiotics in order to restrict the number of toxin producing bacteria.

Statistically, only 50% of dogs experience a substantial increase in survival time after treatment. Dogs with a liver shunt are usually put to sleep usually within ten months of diagnosis and treatment either because the neurological signs become uncontrollable or due to the progression of liver disease. Although older dogs have a better chance of responding to treatment, surgery is said to provide the best chance for dogs with liver shunt to restore overall health.

Feline liver disease due to a liver shunt requires similar treatment but is less common.


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