Liver Shunt in Dogs

icon May 30, 2024

Liver problems in dogs can manifest in various forms, with liver shunt being one of the most significant conditions affecting this vital organ. A liver shunt, also known as a portosystemic shunt (PSS), is a congenital or acquired condition where blood bypasses the liver, leading to a range of health issues. This article delves into liver shunts in dogs, including symptoms, treatment options, life expectancy, dietary considerations, and diagnostic methods.

Liver Problems in Dogs

The liver is crucial for various metabolic functions, including detoxification, protein synthesis, and digestion. Liver problems in dogs can arise from infections, toxins, metabolic disorders, tumors, and congenital anomalies like liver shunts.

Common Liver Problems in Dogs

1. Hepatitis:
Inflammation of the liver caused by infections, toxins, or autoimmune diseases.

2. Cirrhosis:
Chronic liver damage leading to scarring and impaired liver function, often resulting from prolonged hepatitis.

3. Liver Shunts (Portosystemic Shunts):
Abnormal blood vessels that bypass the liver, leading to toxin buildup.

4. Hepatic Lipidosis:
Excessive fat accumulation in liver cells, often seen in obese dogs.

5. Liver Cancer (Hepatic Neoplasia):
Tumors in the liver, which can be benign or malignant.

6. Leptospirosis:
Bacterial infection that can cause severe liver and kidney damage.

7. Cholangiohepatitis:
Inflammation of the bile ducts and liver, often due to bacterial infections.

8. Toxin-Induced Liver Damage:
Ingestion of toxic substances, such as certain medications, plants, or chemicals.

9. Copper Storage Disease:
Genetic disorder leading to excessive copper accumulation in the liver, primarily affecting breeds like Bedlington Terriers.

Symptoms of liver disease in dogs include:

  • jaundice
  • lethargy
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • increased thirst and urination
  • changes in behavior

Early detection and management are vital to prevent severe complications.

What is a Liver Shunt in Dogs?

A liver shunt is an abnormal blood vessel that allows blood to bypass the liver. Normally, blood from the intestines, pancreas, and spleen is filtered through the liver before circulating to the rest of the body. In dogs with a liver shunt, this process is disrupted, leading to the accumulation of toxins in the bloodstream.

There are two main types of liver shunts in dogs:

♦  Congenital shunts: Present at birth and often seen in certain breeds like Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, and Irish Wolfhounds.

♦  Acquired shunts: Develop later in life, often as a result of chronic liver disease causing increased blood pressure in the liver (portal hypertension).

Liver Shunt in Dogs Symptoms

Symptoms of a liver shunt can vary but often include:

  • Poor growth: Puppies may fail to thrive or grow at a normal rate.
  • Neurological signs: Disorientation, head pressing, seizures, and lethargy, especially after eating.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Vomiting, diarrhea, and poor appetite.
  • Urinary problems: Increased frequency of urination and presence of crystals or stones in the urine.
  • Behavioral changes: Pacing, circling, and excessive drooling.

Can a Liver Shunt Be Treated Without Surgery?

While surgical correction is often the best option for long-term management, some dogs may be managed medically if they are not surgical candidates or if the shunt is inoperable. Medical management includes:

1. Dietary changes: Low-protein diet to reduce toxin production.

2. Medications: Lactulose to reduce ammonia absorption and antibiotics to alter gut flora.

3. Supplements: Zinc and antioxidant vitamins to support liver health.

Medical management can improve quality of life and control symptoms, but it may not be as effective as surgical intervention in providing a long-term solution.

Dog Liver Shunt Life Expectancy Without Surgery

The prognosis for dogs with a liver shunt depends on the severity of the condition and whether it is treated surgically. Without surgery, dogs may have a reduced life expectancy due to the progressive nature of the condition and the accumulation of toxins in the body. Many dogs with untreated liver shunts may live only a few months to a few years, depending on the severity of their symptoms and the effectiveness of medical management.

Dog Food for Dogs with Liver Shunts

Dietary management is crucial for dogs with liver shunts. The goal is to reduce the amount of ammonia and other toxins produced by the gut that the liver would normally detoxify. 

Key considerations for choosing the ingredients:

  • Protein: Low-protein diets are recommended to minimize ammonia production. Proteins should be high-quality and easily digestible, such as those from dairy, soy, or egg sources.
  • Fiber: Increased dietary fiber helps trap ammonia in the intestines and promotes its excretion.
  • Fat: Moderate to high levels of fat provide energy while reducing the need for protein.
  • Vitamins and minerals: Supplementation with zinc and vitamins E, C, and B-complex can support liver function.

Commercial diets specifically formulated for liver issues, such as Hill's Prescription Diet l/d, are often recommended. Homemade diets should be formulated under the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist.

How to Help a Dog with Liver Shunt

Managing a dog with a liver shunt involves a combination of dietary management, medical treatment, and, in many cases, surgical intervention. Here are steps to help a dog with a liver shunt:

Regular veterinary check-ups:
Monitor the dog’s condition and adjust treatments as needed.

Lactulose and antibiotics like metronidazole or neomycin can reduce the production and absorption of toxins.

Dietary management:
Follow a low-protein, high-fiber diet as recommended by your veterinarian.

Surgical correction, such as ameroid constrictor placement or cellophane banding, may be necessary to close the shunt and restore normal liver function.

Are Liver Shunts in Dogs Fatal?

Liver shunts can be fatal if left untreated due to the buildup of toxins that can lead to severe neurological and systemic symptoms. However, with appropriate treatment, including surgery and medical management, many dogs can live relatively normal and healthy lives.

How to Test for Liver Shunt in Dogs

Diagnosing a liver shunt involves a combination of clinical signs, blood tests, imaging, and sometimes more invasive diagnostic procedures. Common diagnostic methods include:

♦  Blood tests:
Elevated bile acids and ammonia levels can indicate liver dysfunction.

♦  Imaging:
Ultrasound, CT scans, and MRI can visualize the shunt and assess liver structure.

♦  Portovenography:
A specialized X-ray technique that involves injecting contrast dye to visualize the blood vessels.

♦  Nuclear scintigraphy:
A diagnostic test that uses radioactive material to track blood flow through the liver.

Can a Liver Shunt Cause Seizures in Dogs?

Yes, a liver shunt can cause seizures in dogs. The accumulation of toxins, particularly ammonia, affects the brain and can lead to hepatic encephalopathy, a condition characterized by neurological symptoms such as seizures, disorientation, and changes in behavior.


Liver shunts in dogs are a significant health issue that requires careful management and often surgical intervention. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial for improving the quality of life and life expectancy of affected dogs. Dietary management, regular veterinary care, and, when possible, surgical correction can help manage this condition and ensure that dogs with liver shunts lead healthy, fulfilling lives. Understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options empowers pet owners to make informed decisions about their dogs' health and well-being.

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