When it comes to excess copper build-up, “while Bedlington terriers are the breed that comes to mind first,” Dr. Heinze says, Dalmatians and Labs and a number of other breeds also may be prone. So there’s some sort of genetic predisposition to being unable to get copper out of the liver, causing it to build up over time and kill liver cells.
End-stage liver disease not having to do with copper can occur in any breed whatsoever. A lot of older dogs may fall prey to liver disease; it doesn’t discriminate by type of dog. But one of the most common causes of protein intolerance by the liver often hits younger, small dogs like Yorkshire terriers, maltese, and shih tzus.
The problem in such dogs is frequently a liver shunt. A shunt is a large abnormal blood vessel that goes around an organ instead of through it, as it should. In the case of the liver, the shunt diverts most of the blood that normally goes from the intestine and then through the liver around the liver instead. That means toxins in the blood that the liver normally filters don’t get removed and remain in the body, making the dog sicker and sicker.
“If you’re only running a quarter of your pool water through your filter, your pool’s going to get pretty dirty,” Dr. Heinze says by way of analogy. The liver itself will suffer, too, because it needs its full supply of blood for proper nourishment and function.
If untreated, a dog with a liver shunt can develop irreparable liver disease. However, some of these dogs don’t get diagnosed right away because their clinical signs may be subtle. “We see some cases where the owners remember that the dog was so quiet as a puppy in the pet store or at the breeder,” Dr. Heinze says, “the one who was quiet and well behaved compared to her littermates — the assumption may be that she was just a ‘good puppy.’ But maybe she was quiet because her liver wasn’t functioning normally for her entire life so far. She comes in months later to be spayed and we see abnormalities in her blood work.”
The good news is that a liver shunt can in many situations be fixed with surgery and even treated medically. If that’s the case, says Dr. Heinze, “we may need to start out with a therapeutic diet for liver disease, but then we may be able to get the dog on a diet that’s more normal in terms of protein, and sometimes on a regular over-the-counter diet.”
The copper problem, she adds, is not fixable. You have to have the dog on a reduced-copper diet for life. But therein lies the silver lining. At least there’s a dietary treatment.
“The thing to emphasize,” says Dr. Heinze, “is that unless the dog has severe liver disease or excess copper storage or a shunt that could lead to severe liver disease, there’s no known benefit to changing the diet. The vast majority of dogs with liver problems should remain on a well-balanced diet that would suit a healthy dog.”