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Understanding liver disease in dogs and how to treat it

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A healthy liver is essential to your dog’s wellbeing, so being able to spot the signs and symptoms of liver disease – and seeking prompt treatment, is important. Here’s what to watch for.

What is the liver’s function?

Much like the kidney, heart, lungs, and brain, the liver is an essential organ for humans and canines alike. A large, mud brown wedge of tissue located in the abdomen, your dog’s liver is responsible for a range of processes, one of them being the production of bile. Bile aids fat digestion and helps your pooch’s body remove waste. The liver is also a key player in filtering out any toxins found in food and medications. The liver is also the hub for metabolising fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. It also storing vitamins and glycogen, and manufactures important proteins necessary for blood clotting.

When the liver is diseased, it struggles to perform the various processes it is responsible for. Not to mention, it creates a flow on effect to other organs in the body, making it harder for them to do their jobs too. Spotting the signs and symptoms and getting Fido to the vet for prompt diagnosis and treatment is therefore vital to their continued wellbeing.

Signs and symptoms of liver disease in your dog

As is the case with humans, jaundice is one of the most common signs of liver disease. Jaundice means a yellowish tinge to the eyes, gums and other mucous membranes. This occurs because the liver is responsible for excreting bilirubin, a by-product of red blood cell breakdown. When liver disease disrupts this function, the bilirubin builds up in the blood and creates the yellowish tinge.

Other signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fluid retention in the belly
  • Gastrointestinal changes- decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea, weight loss, increased drinking and urination, and changes in stool colour
  • Hepatic encephalopathy- a collection of neurologic signs including seizures, disorientation, depression, head pressing, blindness, or personality changes
  • If you notice any of these signs, take your dog to their vet immediately. They will likely carry out a range of diagnostic tests; including blood tests, abdominal ultrasounds and urine tests, to evaluate your pet’s liver function and potentially diagnose the cause of liver disease.

    Types of liver disease

    Given the central roles the liver plays to the body, it is frequently the site of disease and damage. There are several types of liver disease, some age related, others genetic, breed or lifestyle related. They include:

  • Vessel abnormalities - The most common liver disorder in puppies and young dogs is a called a portosystemic shunt. Essentially, this means they have a blood vessel that has bypassed the liver. This in turn causes a build-up of toxins that the liver would normally filter. Older dogs on the other hand may develop an ‘acquired’ shunt, where new vessels grow and bypass the liver. This is usually an attempt to bypass an obstructed area caused by blood pressure backing up around the liver.
  • Endocrine diseases - diabetes mellitus, hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease), and hyperthyroidism can all cause impaired liver function.
  • Infectious diseases - caused by the entire blood volume passes through the liver, it is especially susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases.
  • Liver toxicity - as the place all toxins go to be filtered by the body, your pet’s liver can be damaged or compromised by many toxins found in the environment or their diet.
  • Cancer – both primary (originating) in the liver and secondary tumours.
  • Copper storage disease - a metabolic defect causing copper to accumulate in the liver, leading to chronic hepatitis. This is a genetically linked disorder known in certain breeds including  Bedlington terriers, Doberman pinschers, Skye terriers, and West Highland white terriers.
  • Amyloidosis - a malformed protein that accumulates in the cells and is a disease seen occasionally in Chinese Shar-peis.
  • Treatments

    The first step is to treat the underlying cause of the liver disease, which may take a variety of forms including medication through to surgery. Depending on the severity of the condition or disease, and whether or not the underlying cause can be treated or eliminated, the prognosis for canine liver disease varies.

    You vet will usually recommend varying their diet to support the liver. They may also be given antioxidants, vitamin supplements, lactulose, antibiotics in the face of infections, or vitamin K if there are bleeding problems.

    Preventing is better than cure

    While not all causes of liver disease can be successfully prevented, there are things you can do to reduce your dog’s risk of liver disease in general. Adhering to recommended doses of supplements and medications, as well as keeping them away from potential toxins is crucial. Knowing the signs and symptoms of liver disease and taking them to the vet as soon as you notice anything unusual is also important – the quicker an issue is diagnosed, generally speaking, the better the outcome. And as always – a healthy diet with plenty of good quality food, fresh water and exercise will help keep their whole machine running as smoothly as possible!

    Protecting your pets’ liver

    Healthy liver cells are able to protect themselves from damage by producing S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), the precursor to the potent antioxidant glutathione. Therefore, supplementation with SAMe is commonly recommended if the liver is not functioning adequately. PAW Denosyl and PAW Denamarin contain SAMe as an adjunctive treatment for liver disease and dysfunction by:

  • Increasing the hepatic levels of glutathione
  • Protecting liver cells from oxidative damage
  • Aiding in the liver detoxification mechanisms and dogs
  • Protecting against the negative effects of some medications.
  • Related products

    PAW Denosyl® aids in liver detoxification mechanisms in dogs and cats and may protect against negative effects on the liver caused by some medications.

    PAW Denamarin® provides enhanced support to aid in liver detoxification mechanisms with two active ingredients SAMe and silybin.