I have a young six-month-old Dachshund. Recently, someone at training class mentioned a thing called a liver shunt that this breed can be prone to. The breeder didn’t mention it as a problem and when I emailed her about it, she told me not to worry. Should I be concerned and what do I need to watch for?

James Farrell advises…

A liver shunt is where blood from the intestines bypasses the liver and goes straight into the circulation. Usually, blood that contains nutrients absorbed from the intestines goes through the liver to be processed before being released into the body’s bloodstream. During development, when the puppy is still growing in the mother’s uterus, if the blood vessels do not join up correctly, then a shunt can be created where the liver is bypassed.

This is not uncommon in Yorkshire Terriers and Dachshunds, and often the signs involve erratic behaviour. Sometimes fits occur and dogs experience a rush of excitement after eating (all the absorbed food nutrients flood the brain). This can be managed with diet sometimes, but if the abnormal vessel can be located, then usually surgery is the best cure to shut it off.

Diagnosis and finding the vessel usually require specific equipment (X-rays with contrast and ultrasound) and is quite difficult. Surgery is also tricky and so both of these procedures would normally be performed by an experienced vet in this field.

Surgery involves using a special band that is put round the vessel. It slowly expands over time, gradually closing off the vessel and giving the body time to get used to the changes. Most dogs respond well to this and dietary therapy. Occasionally, if the fits cannot be controlled, the dog’s quality of life may suffer.

If your young pup is growing well and putting on weight normally, then you should not be concerned, as most dogs with this problem will be very thin and not fill out during their first few months of life.

Other breeds, including Bedlington Terriers and Springer Spaniels, can suffer from different liver conditions. For example, Bedlingtons get an overload of copper, as they cannot store or deal with it. Copper-associated hepatopathy is caused by a recessive gene and careful breeding programmes, guided by liver biopsy and genetic testing, have remarkably reduced its frequency.

Signs often associated with liver disease include a swollen abdomen, vomiting, lethargy, anorexia, jaundice and weight loss. In mild, early cases only elevated liver enzymes on a routine blood test indicate any sign of a problem and because the liver has such a high reserve capacity of coping, sometimes no changes are evident on initial tests, so further investigations are required.

If you are ever concerned, ask your vet to check out your pet.

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