Pet Talk: Diets For Pets With Liver Disease

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Have you ever been in a restaurant and noticed a strange dish on the menu? You may have seen the word “liver” and cringed with disgust. Though there are many benefits in consuming liver, it is not a common meal that you might serve during family fun night. You may find this part of the digestive tract unappealing on the dinner table, but have you ever considered all the important functions of this organ? Like humans, pets depend on their livers to clean their blood and regulate their metabolism. Pets are susceptible to a variety of liver diseases that can be caused by birth defects or can develop with age. Fortunately for Fido, a change of diet can help manage some of these diseases and regulate the animal’s metabolism again.

One of the many roles of the liver is to regulate the body’s metabolism by cleaning the blood. After digestion, nutrient-rich blood passes through the liver, where the blood is filtered. The good stuff, like vitamins and minerals, is processed into forms the body can use and store. The bad stuff, like toxins, is transported back to the intestine and will be excreted from the body. Since the liver plays a very important role in the regulation of the body’s metabolism, disorders of the liver can be very serious.

Dogs and cats can develop a wide variety of liver disease. Dr. Jonathan Lidbury, assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explains some of the most common forms of liver disease our pets are susceptible to getting.

“Common liver diseases in dogs include chronic hepatitis (chronic inflammation of the liver) and portosystemic shunts (abnormal blood vessels that bypass the liver). Common liver diseases in cats include feline hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), cholangitis (inflammation of the bile ducts) and portosystemic shunts,” said Lidbury.

Early in the course of liver disease many of these dogs and cats will not show symptoms. Other pets experience symptoms that are not specific to liver disease, such as weight loss, decreased appetite, decreased activity, vomiting and diarrhea. At a later stage in the disease, symptoms like jaundice (yellow discoloration of the gum, the whites of the eyes and sometimes the skin), a distended, fluid-filled abdomen, and unusual behaviors (such as walking in circles, pressing of the head against walls, or apparent loss of vision) can occur. Lidbury encourages pet owners to seek veterinary attention if their dog or cat experiences any of these signs.

If their pet develops liver disease, owners should work with their veterinarian to formulate a treatment plan. Sometimes nutritional supplements are recommended, while other situations require a change in diet to help regulate your pet’s disease. “Diet can play a very important role in the management of liver disease, but it is important to realize that the nutritional needs of patients with these different diseases vary,” Lidbury explained. “For example, some dogs develop chronic hepatitis due to accumulation of copper in their livers. These dogs are sometimes started on medications to reduce the amount of copper in their livers, but feeding a copper-restricted diet can also be beneficial.”

“Dogs with congenital portosystemic shunts are at risk of developing hepatic encephalopathy, which is a syndrome of neurological dysfunction due to liver disease,” Lidbury continued. “These patients may benefit from being fed a moderately protein-restricted diet.” Though he uses this example in dogs, Lidbury discourages pet owners from feeding cats protein-restricted diets, even while they are living with liver disease. “Cats have a higher dietary protein requirement than dogs, so they should not be severely protein restricted or fed a non-meat protein-based diet,” he explained. “The provision of adequate nutrition, especially protein, is essential for the treatment of cats with feline hepatic lipidosis. These cats are often anorexic which can mean possible tube feeding.”

Your pet’s liver disease should be discussed with a veterinarian before you make any changes to their diet. A number of commercial prescription liver diets are available for your pet, as well as the option to cook meals at home for your pet under the supervision of a veterinary nutritionist. An improvement in your pet’s health can be observed in as little as a day to several months. Though liver disease can have a negative impact on your pet’s life, a change in diet can help monitor the disease and help improve your pet’s health.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.

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