The liver has an enormous number of functions in the body of your dog or cat. It is involved with digestion, detoxification of the bloodstream, and clotting of the blood, to name a few. The liver is a very forgiving organ, so If it suffers an acute insult it is possible for your pet to totally recover and return to 100% health. Sometimes though, there are underlying problems that lead to long term problems in the liver that require long term management.
Symptoms of liver disease are mostly non-specific and include loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting and/or diarrhea, increased thirst and need to urinate, and generalized weakness. Sometimes the classic sign of yellowing of the mucous membranes known commonly as “jaundice” can be present, but not all pets with liver disease show this classic sign. In less common circumstances, a pet suffering from liver disease may show blood in his urine or feces, fluid build-up in his belly, and even seizures or other neurologic signs.
Liver disease can occur in any age dog or cat. A pet can actually be born with certain abnormalities that will cause them to develop signs when they are still puppies or kittens. There are some infectious diseases that your pets can contract such as Feline Leukemia Virus or Canine Leptospirosis that can attack the liver. Blunt trauma suffered by an event such as being hit by a car can impact the liver, and there are even some common medications that can have adverse effects on the liver in certain animals. Less commonly we see liver disease as a result of the ingestion of certain toxic substances including certain chemicals, plants, and molds. Untreated heart worm disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, and cancer can also damage the liver. Like all organs, sometimes the liver just gets tired out as a result of old age.
A diagnosis of liver disease can usually be easily made based on results of routine lab work including a complete blood count, a general chemistry panel, and a urinalysis. To begin to narrow down the possible cause of the liver disease, we often need to do x-rays to evaluate the basic size and shape of the liver, ultrasound examination to evaluate the internal architecture of the liver, and sometimes a fine needle aspirate of the abnormal section of the liver or a biopsy performed through the skin and into the body of the liver itself. If we suspect an infectious source of the problem, further blood testing might be suggested.
Once the diagnosis and cause of the liver disease is determined, your pet’s treatment plan is put into action. Depending on the severity and the underlying cause, your dog or cat may require hospitalization with supportive care for several days. Alternatively, if the pet is less severely affected, these cases can be handled long term at home, with owners administering appropriate medications, nutritional supplements, and special diets.