The liver is a very important organ, with many different jobs. So when it goes wrong, it can have a wide range of effects on the body.
Hepatitis = inflammation of the liver
This inflammation may be acute (started recently, got worse quickly) or chronic (started a while ago, gradually got worse)
Acute hepatitis is less common in dogs, and when it does occur is often infectious - CAV1 is the main cause, and can be prevented with vaccination
Chronic hepatitis is much more common, and there are several different diseases that can cause it
Because the liver has many different jobs, hepatitis can cause a wide range of symptoms
Your vet will need to do several tests to reach a diagnosis
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis, and some dogs require long term management. Severely ill dogs need intensive treatment
What is hepatitis?
The liver is responsible for many tasks in the body, making it one of the most important and necessary organs. It breaks down toxins (and medicines), gets rid of waste, helps with blood clotting and digestion, and stores vitamins and nutrients.
Hepatitis means “inflammation of the liver”. There are two types of hepatitis that we talk about in dogs:
Caused by canine adenovirus 1(CAV1). Dogs are usually infected by eating faeces (poo), urine, nasal discharge or saliva from an infected dog. Young dogs are at higher risk of infection. In the UK CAV1 is part of our vaccination programme, and infection is much lesscommon in areas where these vaccinations are used.
Leptospirosis can also cause hepatitis - the bacteria are spread in urine and dogs can be infected via the mouth, nose or through a wound. Fortunately we can also vaccinate against leptospirosis
This is the most common type of hepatitis in dogs. Damage occurs over an extended period of time due to repeated or ongoing bouts of inflammation and cell death. This leads to scarring, or fibrosis, of the liver. It can be a result of infectious hepatitis, but can also be caused bymany other disease processes, such as copper accumulation, drug toxicities, genetic and autoimmune disease. The West highland white terrier, Labrador retriever, Sky terrier, Cocker spaniel, Standard poodle and Dobermans are predisposed to chronic hepatitis.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis?
Symptoms of infectious hepatitis include:
Jaundice (yellow skin and gums)
Red dots on skin or bruises
Watery discharge from eyes, or ‘blue eye’
Chronic hepatitis may also include:
Round, distended abdomen (pot belly)
Neurological symptoms (acting strangely)
How will my vet know if my dog has hepatitis?
They will examine your dog thoroughly, and if they suspect hepatitis, recommend blood and urine tests. These alone are not enough to diagnose hepatitis but will show if the liver is functioning properly or not. Your vet may recommend an ultrasound scan of the liver too. The only way to achieve a complete diagnosis of hepatitis is to take a biopsy of the liver. This is where we take a sample of tissue, either during an exploratory surgery, or ultrasound-guided through the skin using a special needle.
Can hepatitis be treated?
There is no specific treatment for infectious hepatitis, so the treatment is supportive, managing the symptoms until your dog begins to improve.
In severe illnesses, your dog may need to be hospitalised and given intravenous fluids.
Sometimes additional measures such as blood transfusions and feeding tubes may be required. Broad-spectrum antibiotics may be given to control secondary bacterial infections, and your vet may recommend pain relief medication or drugs to suppress the immune system.
Your dog will need intensive nursing, and repeated tests to monitor them. Unfortunately, 10-30% of affected dogs won’t make it. The sooner your dog gets treatment, the better though.
Chronic hepatitis can be more challenging, simply because it is more difficult to identify an underlying cause of the disease. Treatment is aimed at giving the liver a helping hand at functioning properly, which may include antibiotics to help clear infections, supplements to help support the liver, and drugs to reverse some side effects seen in the body. This may include anti-sickness medication, or drugs to reduce fluid build-up in the abdomen.
What does hepatitis mean for my dog in the long-term?
This depends on the underlying cause, and how severe the hepatitis is. In any case we’d recommend regular monitoring blood tests, to check for improvement or deterioration in liver function, and to monitor for kidney damage. Your dog may need ongoing supportive treatment much as supplements and/or a special diet.
Viral hepatitis may lead to long-term symptoms including clouding of the cornea (the surface of the eye) and damage to the kidneys. Recovered dogs shed the virus in the urine for 6-9 months after infection, making them hazardous to other dogs. For this reason, vaccination is vital for prevention, and the viral hepatitis component is included in the primary vaccinations given to puppies, and in their ongoing routine boosters.
It’s worrying when your dog has a serious illness. It can also be quite confusing, and there’s so much to take in. The vets at MyDogDoc will be happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have, and reassure you at this time.