Have you owned a dog that had liver disease? Does your current dog have liver issues? Or perhaps a friend or family member has had a pet with liver disease. If you’ve experienced this situation, like many others, it can be extremely difficult for pets and their owners to cope with.
Watching your beloved companion become ill and deteriorate is completely devastating. What’s worse is many pet owners like yourself, feel there’s little they can do about it – other than feeding commercial pet food prescribed by their veterinarian and pumping their little guy full of meds.
Unfortunately, this route doesn’t always solve the issue at hand.
It may mask the illness or temporarily sooth symptoms for a period of time but it doesn’t offer a solution. Commercial pet foods are laden with toxins and heavy antibiotic use can be taxing on the body (especially the liver), which is why it’s important to take a holistic and preventative approach to disease.
One of the best defenses against liver disease in dogs is prevention.
Be aware of liver issues and illnesses and what causes them. With this knowledge, you’ll be better armed to prevent the disease entirely or stop it in its early stages. If you suspect your dog is in the early stages of liver disease, be aware of the signs and symptoms, tests and diagnoses, and holistic treatment options.
Overview of Liver Disease
According to the Canine Liver Disease foundation, “one of the top five leading causes of non-accidental deaths in dogs is canine liver disease.”
It’s estimated that roughly 3% of all disease seen by veterinarians are liver based. Because the liver is one of the most important organs in a dog’s body and is responsible for so many essential bodily functions, its health is of utmost importance. If the liver becomes damaged or compromised in any way, your dog’s health could be in danger.
The liver’s main responsibilities lie in:
- detoxifying the blood
- removing waste
- and producing bile to aid in digestion.
This large organ is involved with just about every biochemical process in your dog’s body (providing energy, allowing growth, aiding in reproduction, fighting disease, and supplying nutrients).
Because the liver plays such an important role in your dog’s body, there are many diseases that can affect it. Likewise, liver disease in dogs can also affect many other parts of the body. This makes diagnosis difficult with symptoms that are often unpredictable and non-specific.
Despite the severity of liver disease, the liver is fascinatingly resilient.
Interestingly enough, it’s reserve capacity is quite large. This means it has the ability to perform its duties even during the onset of liver disease. In fact, the liver can still perform even if it has 70-80% of its mass affected by disease. It’s capable of shifting into overdrive in a split second to increase it’s output and efficiency.
If one section (lobe) is infected with cancer, an infection, or traumatized, the remaining sections (lobes) will work harder and compensate to make sure the body’s vital functions are fulfilled. In addition, every section (lobe) of the liver performs the exact same tasks; this makes it possible for the liver to carry out vital functions even if parts of it are affected.
While it’s certainly remarkable that a dog’s liver can keep them alive despite illness…
There’s a catch 22:
The diagnosis of liver disease in dogs is extremely difficult. Not only because dogs can’t accurately tell us what’s wrong, but because it could be advanced or virtually untreatable before symptoms begin to surface.
This is also why finding conclusive results from various liver function tests can be challenging. Sadly, it’s believed that many liver conditions go on for a while before either an owner or veterinarian recognizes signs or symptoms.
Here’s the good news: the liver has the ability to regenerate itself.
Regeneration of body parts is something that is not normally possible in mammals like it is for some reptiles or amphibians.
Except for the liver!
The liver is the only organ in the body that’s capable of complete regeneration. There have been many cases where large parts of the liver are surgically removed, yet within a year or so the organ has regrown to its original size with no loss of function or abilities. Liver regeneration amazes clinicians all the time.
This means if we can successfully treat the disease, there’s hope for recovery.
Canine Liver Function
The liver is the largest internal organ in the body. It’s located at the front of a dog’s abdomen, behind the chest cavity. It looks like a large, red/brown mass and is attached to the gallbladder. Though it may be hard to tell upon examination, it’s comprised of several sections called hepatic lobes.
The liver is an amazing organ. In fact, it’s been said that it performs over 1,000 different tasks all of which could not be carried out else where and are vital to life. To list all of the functions it performs, would fill an entire book. But it’s important for you to understand what it does in the general sense if you hope to prevent liver disease or treat it.
It’s responsible for:
- Waste Removal
The liver aids in several areas of digestion, the first area being the production of proteins.
Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are metabolized in the liver. Some of the important blood proteins manufactured in the liver are “albumin” and “globulins.” Their duties consist of maintaining the pressure gradient in blood vessels, transporting compounds, and performing immune responses to protect the body.
One such example is blood clotting. Amino acids as well as other proteins are not only manufactured but also stored within the liver. The liver manages these protein supplies for efficiency, only storing what is needed, and producing extra when necessary.
Therefore when it comes to proteins, the liver produces, metabolizes, stores, and monitors these substances.
Fat and Carbohydrate Metabolism
The liver is involved in another area of digestion: the metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids. Carbs and lipid (fats) are the energy stores in your pet’s body.
The liver is in charge of the storage and release of these substances. Basically everything that is absorbed by your pet’s digestive tract goes to the liver first. Glucose, one of the main sources of quick energy is extracted from the blood and converted to glycogen. This is stored in the liver until needed.
The liver also stores and metabolizes fatty acids, triglycerides and other fats.
Vitamin, Mineral, and Nutrient Storage
Most vitamins and minerals (A, D, E, K with the exception of Vitamin C) are stored or somehow regulated by the liver.
It’s worth noting the importance of the liver’s storage abilities because some vital substances, like metals (zinc, copper, iron) can be irritating to other types of tissue within the body. The liver pulls through making sure they are always available.
Quantities of valuable vitamin, minerals and other nutrients are always carefully monitored because excessive amounts could also be damaging to cells. The liver also stores a lot of blood, which is why it’s able to transport a large quantity of blood into general circulation if your pet were to lose large amounts of blood.
Approximately 15-20% of all blood in the body is within the liver at any time.
The liver also produces bile, which consists of the compounds that are produced or excreted by the liver. Bile is released through the gallbladder with the bile duct into the small intestines. Bile aids in the breakdown of food. While bile is in fact an accumulation of waste products that will eventually be excreted from the body, it also aids in digestion.
Detoxifying the blood is another main responsibility of the liver.
Thousands upon thousands of miles of blood vessels run through the liver and come in contact with liver cells every day. As this occurs, the liver is constantly taking from, adding to, or changing the blood that passes through it in some way.
Therefore, if your dog’s body needs a compound or substance that is manufactured or stored in the liver, chemical communications tell your dog’s body to release it into the blood stream to be carried to the necessary parts of the body.
On the other hand, other materials are collected from the blood and stored for future need. While this is occurring, potentially harmful substances are filtered and destroyed. To illustrate just how large a role your liver plays in cleaning up and providing valuable substances in your blood, view your liver like a saturated sponge. When squeezed, it would expel large amount of blood. 15-25% of the blood in the body goes through the liver.
The liver is the first tissue that absorbs the nutrients from the stomach and intestines since every blood vessel leaving the gastrointestinal tract goes straight to the liver.
Waste Removal Explained
Another key area of importance in the liver is waste removal.
The liver is able to break down and excrete various compounds. Some result from the by products and waste of normal cellular activities (urea from protein metabolism, worn out hemoglobin, cholesterol, hormones, etc.).
Others are not natural to the body such as (antibiotics, medications, sedatives, anesthetic agents, or other agents administered to pets). This destruction of harmful substances is a serious matter. If the liver cannot eliminate these harmful substances, your pet could die.
Causes of Liver Disease
There doesn’t seem to be a universal or single cause for liver disease in dogs. Trauma, other diseases, poor breeding and genetics, chemicals, drugs and antibiotics, toxins, or a poor diet can potentially damage the liver. Here are some known causes:
Diseases that are known to affect the liver:
- Canine hepatitis
- Cushing syndrome
- Primary and metastatic tumor
- Diabetes mellitus
- Fungal and bacterial infections (including heartworms)
Chemicals known to affect the liver:
- Carbon tetrachloride
- Toxic amounts of lead, phosphorus, selenium, arsenic, and iron
- Bleach and other household chemicals
- Household cleaners
- Paint chips
Drugs known to affect the liver:
- Anesthetic gases
- Anabolic steroids
- Analgesics (including NSAIDs)
- Testosterone preparations
- Chemotherapy drugs
- Certain parasiticides given over extended periods
Toxic Plants and herbs known to affect the liver:
- Certain mushrooms
- Blue-green algae
- Certain molds (aflatoxins)
Liver Disease Symptoms
As mentioned earlier, canine liver disease is hard to spot because the liver is capable of functioning despite a majority of its mass being affected by disease. Early symptoms are usually non-specific since they mimic symptoms of a range of other diseases, illnesses, or ailments.
However, some generally accepted early signs of liver disease include the following. If you begin to notice any of these symptoms, it warrants a trip to the vet and investigation into the matter.
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Chronic intermittent vomiting and diarrhea (vomiting is usually more common)
- Drinking and urinating more often than normal
- Disinterest in normal activities
In the early stages of liver disease, the liver will typically swell and enlarge.
As it progresses, the liver cells being to die and are replaced by scar tissue. This will lead to the liver becoming firm and rubber like. This is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is end stage liver disease and cannot be reversed.
It’s important to get to your dog before he or she reaches this terminal stage. If your dog is before this stage, it’s possible to recover and for the liver to heal itself and regain normal liver function. This means proper treatment needs to be introduced early on. 80% of liver cells must die before the liver will begin to fail, so there’s time!
The signs of liver failure are:
Jaundice – Due to impaired liver function, bile accumulates in the body and blood staining the tissues yellow
- Yellow appearance to the whites of eyes, in mucous membranes like the gums and tongue, or inside ears
- Urine turns dark brown like the color of tea
- Putty colored stools
Hepatic Encephalopathy – Brain dysfunction that is created by high levels of ammonia and other toxins in the blood. Diseased livers have trouble removing ammonia
- Sporadic weakness
- Behavioral changes
- Mental dullness
- Seizures and possible coma
Ascites – the accumulation of leaked fluid in the abdomen due to the lack of albumin which keeps fluid in the blood vessels
- Swollen or bloated look
- Thumping on abdomen produces dull, flat sound
Dependent Edema – Albumin production (which keeps fluid in the blood vessels) diminishes and fluid is leaked
- Swollen lower limbs
Bleeding – spontaneous bleeding can occur as diseased livers have problems with blood clotting
- Found in stomach, intestines, and urinary tract, vomit, stools, or urine
- Punctate hemorrhages on the gums
- Bruises on lips or skin
Liver Disease Diagnosis
Besides receiving a physical exam to look for the above symptoms, blood work and diagnostic testing is often employed.
A CBC (complete blood count) and is usually performed to check for symptoms of liver disease. They look for a decrease in red blood cells (anemia). They also check for elevated or decreased white blood cell counts. Though neither of these necessarily indicates liver disease.
A comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP) is a complete chemistry screen that can be administered to check for the concentration of several enzymes that may indicate alterations in liver health. These can include:
- Electrolyte levels
- Bile acid levels
In addition, a urine analysis, radiograph of the abdomen, ultrasound of the liver, or biopsy of the liver can be performed.
Holistic Treatment Options for Liver Disease
Since canine liver disease is caused by a myriad of different assaults from trauma, injury, disease, toxins, chemicals and drugs – there’s no magical drug or antibiotic that will cure it.
In fact, all of the chemicals and drugs your dog is surrounded by on a daily basis can cause or contribute your dog’s liver disease. This includes any harmful lawn chemicals or household cleaners used on floors and surfaces. It can also include any drugs or antibiotics given to your dog throughout his or her life.
The foundation for preventing and even treating liver disease is proper nutrition.
If you’re dog is in optimal condition nutritionally, then he or she will not need the countless drugs or antibiotics shelled out at your veterinarian’s office every year (which may or may not be contributing to liver dysfunction). If you’re dog isn’t in optimal condition, it’s time to start. There’s no point in only treating early stage liver disease with drugs and antibiotics since they can contribute to liver disfunction.
One of the best ways to stay out of the veterinarian’s office is to feed a species appropriate raw diet. Raw food contains valuable and natural enzymes, vitamins and minerals, which are destroyed in commercial pet foods. It’s also the biologically correct food for your companion. In addition, commercial pet foods are full of chemicals, preservatives and toxins and are the very reason dogs are sick today. Contrary to what many people believe or may have heard, a raw diet can be an appropriate diet for dogs with liver disease.
You’ll also need to work hard to remove dangerous chemicals and toxins from your dog’s environment. You must take a holistic approach to disease by working to prevent it. Even if your dog has already begun to suffer from the early stages of liver disease, monitoring nutrition closely, providing supplementation and removing chemicals and toxins from his environment are of utmost importance and may be the key for recovery.