Liver Disease in Pets

The liver is one of the body’s greatest multi-taskers; it commands the majority of metabolic functions in the body, manufactures proteins and glucose, metabolizes waste products in the blood, and produces the contents of the gall bladder to aid in digestion. With such a critical role in maintaining health and well-being, it is no surprise that when the liver is injured, the results can be serious and far-reaching.

Acute and chronic liver diseases are commonly encountered in veterinary medicine. Acute liver disease is usually the result of ingesting toxins (certain species of mushrooms, xylitol, Sago palm– for a full list of household and environmental toxins, drug reactions, or infectious diseases, please visit the ASPCA’s website.These conditions can present as a general illness with relatively non-specific signs like vomiting, fever, lethargy, loss of appetite, diarrhea, or neurological problems like stumbling and loss of balance. Your veterinarian can run a blood panel to check for elevation in liver enzymes and determine if your pet’s signs are a result of liver injury. As soon as liver injury has been identified supportive care will be started. In most cases, the severity of the injury will dictate the aggressiveness of the treatment. The liver has a tremendous capacity for regeneration, but time is needed for it to recover so acute liver injury often involves lengthy hospital stays, serial blood testing, intravenous fluids, medications, and special feeding procedures.

Chronic liver disease is becoming more common as the life span of the pet population increases. Signs of chronic liver disease are similar to acute liver disease but are slower in onset and may appear gradually over the period of several months; weight loss, increased thirst, and increased urination may also indicate chronic liver problems. Identifying chronic liver disease often entails a full work-up including blood and urine testing, abdominal ultrasound, and even liver biopsies and culture, in some cases. Treatment for chronic disease focuses on supporting the liver with antioxidants like milk thistle extract, vitamin E, and SAMe. Because many chronic liver diseases have a strong immune-mediated component treatment may require immunosuppressive drugs, like cyclosporine or prednisone. Your veterinarian may also recommend special prescription diets that are lower in protein and copper than commercial dog food, which lessens the metabolic burden on the liver and reduces the amount of waste products in the bloodstream.

Since organ transplants are not commonly performed in veterinary patients, early diagnosis and liver specific supportive care makes the largest impact on extending these patients lives. The veterinary community will continue to pursue new and innovative treatment options for patients with liver disease. Currently, there is research being conducted on the efficacy of stem cells in treating chronic liver disease, and we are interested to see the results. If your pet is suspected of having liver disease or has been diagnosed with liver disease our internal medicine and emergency medicine team at Pet Specialists of Monterey is here to help.