Clues to Liver Disease

Recent research has revealed the first firm evidence for what may cause chronic hepatitis, a progressive and potentially fatal condition that affects many dogs. The cause of chronic hepatitis, for example, an inherited defect, a drug-related reaction or an infection, is identified in relatively few cases. Most cases are idiopathic - the cause remains unknown. For years, researchers suspected an underlying autoimmune disorder, that is, the body's immune system attacks its own liver cells.

A recent study identified a group of dogs with chronic hepatitis that has specific antibodies against the liver. This is the first definitive evidence that supports the autoimmune theory. While this information is preliminary, further research is underway that may reveal whether a test can identify dogs with chronic hepatitis caused by an autoimmune disorder. If reliable tests for autoimmune hepatitis can be designed then treatment, monitoring and predicting a prognosis may be more specific and more accurate, and therefore, more successful.

Symptoms of chronic hepatitis range from none to weight loss, anorexia, lethargy, jaundice and death. The disorder may remain stable throughout a dog's life or may be progressive and fatal.

Diagnosis begins with routine blood work that should reveal abnormalities in liver values. X-rays may reveal an increase or decrease in liver size. Ultrasound is the most valuable technique for evaluating liver size and texture. Ultrasound also allows guided biopsies with little or no anesthetic, eliminating the need for exploratory surgery. Treatment and prognosis depend on whether a cause is identified.

by Cynthia Smith, DVM. 

reprinted from the ASTC Bulletin, Post National 1996 Issue

(Advances in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, November 1995)