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Liver disease in pets

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Liver disease in your pet can be a serious condition. The liver performs many necessary functions in your pet, making it one of the most important organs in the body. It plays key roles in digestion and metabolism for your pet. It helps clear the body of toxins, poisons, and waste material. It is also involved in production or storage of protein, vitamins, and blood cells.

Viral or bacterial infections can cause inflammation of the liver, which is a condition known as hepatitis. Certain chemicals, toxins, and drugs can also damage the liver. Severe damage can cause the liver to scar, so that it can no longer function as it should, which is a serious condition known as cirrhosis. Other causes of liver disease in pets include cancer, parasites, and metabolic conditions such as diabetes.

Pets with mild liver problems may show no obvious signs of illness. However, in more severe liver disease, signs can vary widely and include loss of appetite, vomiting, fluid buildup in the abdomen, bleeding problems, yellow coloration of the eyes and gums (jaundice), and possibly nervous system problems. Diagnosis is based largely on blood tests that measure enzymes released during liver inflammation, the bile acids that cause jaundice, and the levels of protein in the blood.

Treatment depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the problem. In mild cases, your pet may respond well to rest, proper nutrition, and appropriate medications to treat infection or inflammation. In more serious disease of liver disease, your pet may need to be hospitalized and receive fluids intravenously. In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend changes to your pet's diet. Special diets for liver disease are very nutritious but low in fat and protein, so that your pet's liver does not have to work as hard in digestion and metabolism.

Q&A

What does the liver do for my pet?

The liver is a vital organ that plays key roles in digestion, metabolism, detoxification, and protein and vitamin production. 

What causes liver disease in pets?

Liver disease can be caused by many things, including viral or bacterial infections, toxic chemicals or drugs, cancer, parasites, or metabolic disorders (eg, diabetes).  Liver inflammation is called hepatitis, and severe inflammation that leads to scarring is called cirrhosis. 

How is liver disease diagnosed in my pet?

Liver disease is strongly suggested by signs such as jaundice, but definitive diagnosis is based largely on tests that measure enzymes, bile acids, and protein levels in the blood.

How is liver disease treated in pets?

Treatment depends on the underlying cause and the severity of the problem, but can include rest, proper nutrition, and appropriate medications for infection or inflammation.  Your veterinarian will generally recommend a special diet for your cat or dog that is very nutritious but low in fat and protein, so that the liver does not have to work as hard in digestion and metabolism.
 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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