One of the biggest challenges veterinarians face is diagnosing liver disease in dogs. The liver is a multidimensional and a multi-functional organ in the body that has an immense reserve capacity and self-regenerative properties. During the course of performing its functions, the liver aids and is aided by quite a few other organs in the body. Due to this inter-relationship, it can be affected with primary as well as secondary diseases.
Usually most of the ailments have specific symptoms that make it easy to identify the disease easily. The symptoms of liver disease in dogs, however, present two major problems:
- They surface very late, often when the disease has progressed to an extent that treatment poses a major challenge.
- They duplicate with symptoms of other minor conditions, which often lead to confusion over whether it is liver disease or any other disease that is manifesting itself.
One of the indicative signs of liver failure is the yellow appearance of gums and mucous membranes, observed in jaundice. Jaundice is associated with excess levels of bilirubin, an orange-yellow bile pigment.
Bile is a digestive juice secreted by the liver. It is primarily responsible for counteracting acidity in the stomach, emulsion of fats and preventing decay of digestive materials.
Bilirubin is a toxic pigment of bile derived from the breakdown of hemoglobin. The liver excretes it after binding it to an amino acid of a water soluble protein, albumin, which makes it harmless. This union compound enters the digestive system and is broken down by intestinal bacteria into a harmless chromogen called urobilinogen. After complete digestion it is brown in color, which eventually gives feces its color.
A malfunctioning liver is unable to perform this important function which results in less production of albumin and therefore, in poor processing of bilirubin. Excessive free floating and conjugated bilirubin accumulate in body tissues resulting in:
a) gums and whites of the eyes turming yellowish
b) pale colored feces.
Apart from jaundice, liver failure is also caused by major hormonal imbalances, abnormalities in red blood cell structure, anemia, and excessive bleeding due to inability to coagulate. Most of these causes along with a high level of liver specific enzymes are revealed during investigative procedures that involve laboratory tests and imaging techniques such as ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI.
Diagnosing pet liver diseases including feline liver disease is a complex procedure. Since pets are unable to talk to us, it is imperative that we understand the anatomy, physiology, and functions of the biggest organ in the body.