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Why should I feed a dog with liver problems a special diet?

The liver is an extremely important organ in all mammals and it has many vital functions (over 500!) including digestion and removal of toxins from the bloodstream. ‘Liver disease’ refers to several conditions that can affect and damage the liver and there can be multiple causes. If your dog has liver disease, your vet may advise you to transition your dog onto an exclusive liver (hepatic) specific diet. But, why is this? This article will discuss and explore the benefits to feeding a special diet to dogs with liver disease.  

What is liver disease?

Liver disease occurs in dogs due to a variety of causes. This article will not explore in depth these causes and how they come about, but it is useful to understand that various causes can lead to liver damage/failure. Some of the more common conditions which occur in dogs include hepatitis, porto-systemic shunts (PSS), copper storage hepatopathy. 

The liver is a unique organ as it has an incredible ability to regenerate and recover from damage. Due to its huge functional reserve, this means that you only start to see clinical signs and evidence of illness in dogs that have fairly severe or advanced liver disease. Clinical signs (depending on the severity) can include weight loss, jaundice (yellow mucous membranes), vomiting, ascites (fluid build-up in the abdomen), anorexia, seizures and altered mental state (hepatic encephalopathy). 

The liver also has a function to break down proteins and ammonia into a product called urea. Following breakdown in the liver, urea is then released by the liver into the bloodstream to be excreted by the kidneys. However, in dogs with severely compromised liver function this breakdown process is very poor. This results in a concerning build-up of ammonia in the bloodstream which leads to hepatic encephalopathy. This condition can be fatal.

Why does my vet recommend a special diet?

Once your vet has made the diagnosis of liver disease, they may advise that you slowly transition your canine friend onto an exclusive hepatic diet. ‘Exclusive’ means that this is the only food that you should feed your dog to achieve maximum benefit. Therefore, it is not advised to mix the special liver diet with their ‘normal’ food once the transition period is complete.

Some of the main goals of feeding a specific liver diet is to ensure maximum support by maintaining normal digestive function and energy, reducing further liver damage, promoting liver regeneration and avoiding an excessive build-up of toxins in the bloodstream (a term sometimes called detoxification).

Of course, dietary management is not the only method of managing liver disease in your dog. And it is often used in combination with other treatments. Depending on the underlying cause and severity of your dog’s liver disease, your vet may also suggest medications and liver support supplements.

It is important to understand that liver specific diets are used as a way of controlling a disease rather than treating the underlying cause (Norton et al, 2015). Below is a list of some of the important properties of a hepatic diet to help to support patients with liver disease: 

Reduces the build-up of dangerous toxins in the blood. 

Liver diets have a reduced protein content because this will limit the build-up of toxins in the blood. When these toxins build up, they can make your dog feel very sick. Additionally, despite the protein quantity being lower, the quality is high, so it still contains an adequate amount of all of the key amino acids needed for normal function and balance.

Reduced copper content which aids in the reduction of copper accumulation in the liver. 

Lower dietary copper intake is particularly beneficial in patients with copper storage disease; where they experience a dangerously high accumulation of copper within the liver. 

Higher energy content and good caloric density 

Good energy and weight maintenance is important in dogs with liver disease. Weight loss is often one of the clinical signs of liver disease. Dogs with this condition can also lose muscle mass. As a result of this, liver specific foods have a higher calorie content to try to help with weight gain, maintenance and overall body condition.

High digestibility and palatability 

This is extremely important for dogs with liver disease as often they can experience nausea and be reluctant to eat. Therefore, by having a food which is more palatable it encourages eating in anorexic patients. As much as it is important feeding liver disease patients a specific diet, it is equally as important that they are eating in the first place. Nutrition plays an enormous role in healing and recovery. Liver diets are often highly digestible. This is also important because dogs with liver disease may have a reduced ability to digest foods. This is because another important role of the liver is to make and excrete bile acids; a product which is used to break down foods in the small intestine. 

What diets are available?

The pet food industry is continuously expanding and developing specific formulations which target certain conditions to maximise your pet’s health. We are very fortunate nowadays in that we have specific diets now formulated which target specific disease processes. Liver diets often come in a variety of forms including dried kibble vs wet food. Having this option is beneficial if your dog has a preferred type or texture of food.

To conclude, liver specific diets are more important than some people initially think and I would highly recommend one of these special diets for any dog with liver disease. I hope that this article has summarised the reasons why you should feed a dog with liver problems a special diet. The liver is such an important, multi-functional organ and the hepatic diets provide support in various ways with an aim to reduce further liver damage. Please speak to your vet to discuss the most appropriate diet for your dog.

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