Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, a very large organ found in the front part of the abdomen. Hepatitis comes in two forms, acute and chronic. Inflammation leads to a loss of liver function, and over time, liver cell death, which is called cirrhosis.

Several potential toxins can cause hepatitis in dogs, but often no specific cause is found. Some dog breeds are especially at risk, such as Doberman pinschers, Labrador retrievers, cocker spaniels and German shepherds, but this disease can affect any breed or mixed-breed dog. It is most common in middle-age to older dogs.

The causes of hepatitis in dogs are many, from viral disease to leptospirosis, to long-term exposure to various drugs, such as antifungal and anticonvulsant medications. Sometimes the immune system attacks the liver for reasons no one understands.

The clinical signs of hepatitis are loss of appetite and weight loss. Often occurring is jaundice, a yellowing of the gums and whites of the eyes, because of an increase in bilirubin in the body. Most of the time, the diagnosis is not certain until blood tests are performed.

There are many specific blood tests, X-rays and ultrasounds to assess liver function. Your veterinarian will guide you through these. Ultrasound examination is particularly useful, because it allows biopsy samples of the liver to be obtained. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to biopsy the liver. Biopsy is tantamount to diagnosing the cause of hepatitis! Results of biopsy can also be extremely valuable in guiding the types of therapy used.

If a cause of the hepatitis is identified, specific therapy is prescribed. If no specific cause is identified, the goals of therapy are to reduce inflammation and decrease hepatic cirrhosis.

If active inflammation is noted on biopsy samples, then cortico-steroids are administered. A large number of nutraceutical and vitamin supplements are available for dogs with liver disease, many of which may potentially be beneficial. Dietary modifications are also commonly recommended by veterinarians, especially a low-protein diet. Many of these diets help promote regeneration of healthy liver tissue. Periodic laboratory tests are necessary to assess progression of disease and/or response to therapies.

Canine chronic hepatitis can be irreversible and can worsen over time. Some dogs with this condition eventually die or are euthanized because of the severity of physical problems that liver failure can cause. If your pet’s eyes look yellow, or gums look yellow, seek veterinary care.

Dr. Karsten Fostvedt is a veterinarian at St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum.

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