Liver Shunts in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Care

Liver Shunts in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Care

Liver Shunts in Dogs: A liver shunt is a condition where blood flow bypasses the liver. In dogs, this usually happens because of an abnormal blood vessel that allows blood to flow around the liver instead of through it. The medical term for a liver shunt is portosystemic shunt (PSS).

How Does It Happen?

Puppies are born with a shunt, known as a congenital shunt, that fails to close as they develop. The shunt can be inside the liver (intrahepatic) or outside the liver (extrahepatic). An intrahepatic shunt is more common in small breeds, while extrahepatic shunts tend to appear in larger breeds.

Liver Shunts in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Care

Signs Your Dog May Have a Liver Shunt

Dogs with a liver shunt often show signs as puppies, usually before they’re 6 months old. Watch for poor growth, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive thirst, and neurological problems like seizures, circling, blindness, or unsteadiness. You may also notice your pup has a potbelly, bad breath, or excessive drooling.

Diagnosing and Treating a Liver Shunt

Your vet will diagnose a liver shunt with blood tests, an ultrasound, and other tests to find the shunt’s location and blood flow. Surgery is typically needed to close or remove the shunt. Without treatment, liver shunts can cause life-threatening complications, but with surgery, most dogs go on to live long and healthy lives. You’ll need to feed a special diet and give medications to support your dog’s liver health for life.

With treatment and proper care, a liver shunt does not have to be a death sentence. While it’s not an easy condition to manage, many devoted owners are able to provide their dogs good quality of life for many years. The key is catching it early and being dedicated to lifelong support for your dog’s special needs.

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Symptoms of Liver Shunts in Dogs

Liver shunts in dogs prevent the liver from filtering toxins from the blood properly. This can lead to several symptoms that alert you to this issue. Pay close attention if your dog shows any of the following signs:

Digestive problems

Because the liver isn’t breaking down nutrients and toxins efficiently, dogs with liver shunts often have digestive issues like vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and weakness. Their stools may be loose, greasy, or bloody. They tend to eat less or show little interest in food because their body isn’t absorbing nutrients.

Stunted growth

Puppies with liver shunts usually experience stunted growth. Their body isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to support proper development. If you have a puppy who isn’t gaining weight or growing at the expected rate for their age and breed, it could indicate a liver problem.

Neurological symptoms

Toxins may build up in the blood and brain of dogs with liver shunts, causing neurological problems like confusion, depression, circling, blindness, seizures, or coma in severe cases. You may notice your dog acting disoriented, detached, or walking into things. These signs require emergency vet care.

Excessive drinking/urination

In an attempt to flush toxins from their system, dogs with liver shunts often drink and urinate more than normal. While occasional increase in thirst or urination isn’t usually a cause for concern, if your dog’s habits seem markedly increased, it’s a good idea to have their liver function tested.

The symptoms of a liver shunt can appear at any time, though they tend to become more severe as a dog ages if left untreated. Early diagnosis and surgical treatment give dogs the best chance at a normal, healthy life. If you notice any symptoms in your dog that could indicate a liver shunt or other liver disease, consult your vet as soon as possible for diagnosis and advice. Timely treatment can make a lifesaving difference.

Treatment Options for Liver Shunts in Dogs

Once diagnosed, there are a few options for treating a liver shunt in dogs. The goal of treatment is to correct the abnormal blood flow and encourage normal liver development. The specific treatment recommended will depend on your dog’s symptoms, age, and overall health.

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Dietary Changes

For some dogs, especially young puppies, dietary changes may be tried first before pursuing surgery. A special diet low in protein, fat, and sodium can help reduce the workload on the liver. Your vet may prescribe liver supplements, such as SAM-e or milk thistle, to provide additional liver support. If symptoms improve over 4 to 6 weeks on this diet, lifetime management with diet and supplements may be sufficient. However, most dogs will need surgical treatment for the best long-term results.

Surgical Shunt Ligation or Closure

Surgical shunt ligation or closure is the most common treatment for liver shunts. In this procedure, the shunting vessel is either closed off or tied off, allowing portal blood flow to return to normal through the liver. Following surgery, most dogs require a stay in the hospital for several days to monitor liver function. Lifelong follow-up will be needed to monitor for any complications. While surgery is invasive, over 90% of dogs experience significant improvement in liver function and clinical symptoms.

Shunt Reduction Procedure

In some cases, a shunt reduction procedure may be performed instead of complete shunt closure. This involves placing a narrowing device around the shunting vessel to reduce but not eliminate blood flow through the shunt. This approach may have lower risks than full shunt ligation but is not as effective at restoring normal portal blood flow and improving liver function. Shunt reduction may need to be combined with dietary changes for the best results.

With treatment and proper care, dogs with liver shunts can live long and happy lives. Close monitoring and follow-up with your vet, especially in the months after diagnosis and treatment, is key to managing this lifelong condition. Be sure to follow all post-treatment recommendations from your vet regarding diet, activity, and medication to keep your dog as healthy as possible.

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Caring for a Dog With a Liver Shunt

Once your dog has been diagnosed with a liver shunt, the vet will determine the best course of treatment. In many cases, surgery is recommended to correct the abnormal blood flow and allow the liver to function properly. After surgery, you’ll need to provide special care for your pup to support their recovery and long-term health.

Dietary Changes

Switching to a high-quality, liver-friendly diet is key. Look for a prescription diet formulated for liver health that is high in protein but low in copper, as too much copper can damage the liver. Wet or canned food may be easier for your dog to eat after surgery. You should also avoid treats, table scraps, and supplements unless approved by your vet.

Medications and Supplements

Your vet may prescribe several medications after surgery to help your dog’s liver heal and function better. Antibiotics, anti-seizure medications, and steroids are commonly used. Supplements like SAM-e or milk thistle may also help support liver health. Be sure to give all medications and supplements as directed by your vet.

Recovery and Monitoring

The recovery process can take weeks to months. Limit activity and walks, especially right after surgery. Monitor your dog for loss of appetite, diarrhea or vomiting, jaundice, seizures or other unusual behaviors and contact your vet right away. Follow-up blood tests and ultrasounds will be needed to check how well the liver is working and make any adjustments to treatment.

Long-Term Care

Once recovered, you’ll need to provide lifelong care and monitoring. Follow the recommended diet and medication regimen from your vet. Limit stress on the liver by avoiding toxins, drugs, and environmental pollutants. Have your dog’s liver function tested regularly to catch any issues early on. With proper treatment and care, dogs with liver shunts can live happily for many years.

By making the necessary changes and giving your dog the best care and support, you’ll help promote their comfort and quality of life despite this serious health condition. With time and patience, you’ll become an expert in caring for a dog with a liver shunt.