Liver shunts, whether congenital or acquired, can pose significant health risks to dogs. In this article, we will delve into the details of liver shunts, including their causes, symptoms, and available treatment options.
What is a Liver Shunt?
The liver plays a crucial role in processing nutrients, hormones, and waste materials in the body. Blood from the digestive tract is supposed to enter the liver through the portal system, where it is detoxified and purified before traveling to the rest of the body. However, a liver shunt, also known as a portosystemic shunt, is an abnormal blood vessel that bypasses the liver, connecting the portal system directly to the systemic circulatory system.
Causes of Liver Shunts in Dogs: Liver shunts can be categorized as congenital or acquired. Congenital shunts are present at birth and account for approximately 80 percent of cases. Some breeds, including Yorkshire Terriers, Dachshunds, and Maltese, are genetically predisposed to this condition. Acquired shunts, on the other hand, develop later in life, often as a result of liver diseases causing scarring (cirrhosis). Dogs with acquired shunts tend to exhibit symptoms at an older age compared to those with congenital shunts.
Symptoms of Liver Shunts in Dogs:
Identifying liver shunt symptoms is crucial for timely intervention. Dogs with liver shunts may display a combination of the following signs:
- Poor growth (congenital shunts)
- Poor appetite and eating unusual objects
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst and urination
- Difficulty urinating or blood in the urine due to bladder stone formation
- Vomiting, sometimes with blood
- Diarrhea, sometimes with blood
- Behavioral changes like mental dullness, unsteadiness, circling, and head pressing
Diagnosing Liver Shunts in Dogs:
While the symptoms mentioned above can indicate liver shunts, a comprehensive diagnostic process is necessary to confirm the condition. A veterinarian will consider the dog’s health history, conduct a physical examination, and perform basic tests like blood work and urinalysis. If a liver shunt is suspected, further tests such as bile acid tests, blood ammonia levels, abdominal X-rays, abdominal ultrasound, and advanced imaging studies may be required to reach a definitive diagnosis.
Treatment for Liver Shunts in Dogs:
The treatment for liver shunts depends on the type of shunt, the dog’s age, and overall health. In most cases, surgical correction is the preferred option, especially for small breed dogs with a single abnormal blood vessel located outside the liver. Large breed dogs often have a single shunt within the liver, which can be more challenging to treat surgically. Dogs with acquired shunts, characterized by multiple abnormal vessels and underlying illness, may be less suitable candidates for surgery.
It’s worth noting that approximately one-third of dogs with liver shunts can be managed successfully through dietary changes and medications, as stated by Dr. Karen Tobias, a board-certified surgeon and professor of small animal soft tissue surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.
Liver shunts in dogs can have serious health implications, but with early detection and appropriate treatment, affected dogs can lead fulfilling lives. If you suspect your dog may be experiencing symptoms of a liver shunt, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian who can provide a proper diagnosis and recommend the best course of action. With proper care and management, we can ensure the well-being of our beloved pets and provide them with a high quality of life.