The liver works to convert substances in the body to particles it can use. When a dog's liver is malfunctioning, it will cause several symptoms. These symptoms can be mild, masking the liver dysfunction in some instances. When the liver is malfunctioning, the systemic liver values will change. Testing for these values is imperative to the assessment of liver function. Treatment is available and successful in many cases. The causes of liver problems are varied, but will result in similar symptoms.
The liver's function is to metabolize or break down foods into smaller particles that cells can absorb and use. Certain substances, like fat and protein, are harder for the liver to breakdown. The liver also breaks down medications, like antibiotics or pain killers. These substances can be taxing on the liver, though, especially with chronic use. Given some time without these substances, the normal healthy liver can correct itself and return to normal function.
One of the main determinants of liver function is to measure the systemic levels of the enzymes the liver produces. When the liver is malfunctioning, these enzymes are most often elevated. The degree of elevation will tell the vet how sick the dog is and the best course of treatment. The elevated liver enzymes can also indicate when more invasive testing, like a liver biopsy, may be in order. Testing for the level of liver enzymes is also an indicator of how well the dog is responding to treatment of the liver.
There are two principle reasons for abnormal liver function in the dog. The first is liver disease or a problem with the liver function itself. The other is damage to the liver from medications or toxins. Certain viral and bacterial diseases can cause the liver to function incorrectly. Occasionally, the illness will leave permanent damage, forever impairing the liver's ability to function properly. In the case of medication-induced liver issues, often stopping the medication will result in it returning to normal. In the case of toxins or accidental poisoning, supportive care, like hospitalization and intravenous fluids, may be required.
Symptoms of a dog with liver issues are jaundice, fever, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea and anorexia. The malfunctioning liver will often produce excess bile that causes nausea and even vomiting. Over a longer period of time, this will result in weight loss. Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes. It is the result of an increase in bilirubin, a liver enzyme, in the extracellular fluid. Jaundice is typically present with severe liver dysfunction, so if noted, the dog should be seen by a vet immediately.
Treatment for a malfunctioning liver is typically multi-faceted. First, the cause of the dysfunction is addressed. This could mean the use of antibiotics in the case of infection or supportive care in the case of toxins. The dog may also be put on the medication Denosyl, which acts to promote liver health. The dog's diet is typically adjusted to make it lower in fat and protein, which lowers the liver's work load to metabolize the food. Symptoms will often resolve much earlier, then liver enzymes return to normal so treatment should be continued after the dog appears better.
- Small Animal Internal Medicine; Richard W. Nelson DVM, Mosby; 2008
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