Copper Hepatopathy (Copper Induced Liver Disease) in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Copper Hepatopathy

Copper hepatopathy in dogs is a relatively uncommon disorder that is primarily diagnosed in Bedlington terriers, Doberman pitchers as well as a couple other dog breeds which we will mention below.

What is Copper Hepatopathy? When the liver becomes diseased, we'll often refer to the process as a “hepatopathy” which literally means disease (-pathy) of the liver (hepato-). With copper hepatopathy in dogs, the liver may…harbor an abnormal version of the proteins used to bind copper or…suffer from abnormal bile metabolism.

To understand how these situations cause disease you should know the basics:

  • Copper is taken in through a pet's diet, absorbed by the intestines, and bound in the liver by proteins that allow for its proper excretion through the bile. If either the proteins or the bile are abnormal, the liver ends up accumulating the copper.
  • Because copper is not meant to remain in the liver, its continued presence results in chronic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). This leads to cirrhosis (a sort of scarring of the liver) and eventually, to liver failure. Rarely, necrosis of the liver (cell death within the organ) can take place. This leads to copper toxicity which causes the widespread breakdown of red blood cells.
  • A deficiency in zinc may also cause the disease, though this is considered rare.

The following breeds are predisposed to copper hepatopathy:

In the Doberman, females are overrepresented. In Bedlington terriers, the mode of inheritance is autosomal recessive. For all others the mode is as yet undetermined.

What to Watch For:

Dogs can be affected in one of three ways:

  • Young dogs with acute onset of severe anorexia, depression and vomiting. Sadly, most of these patients die relatively quickly.
  • Middle aged to geriatric dogs with a chronic history of on and off symptoms of lethargy and lack of appetite. Some may drink and urinate more. Others may suffer vomiting and diarrhea. In the end stages of the disease, signs related to liver failure will typically result. These include abdominal distension (ascites), jaundice, clotting problems, and neurologic symptoms (called “hepatic encephalopathy).
  • Some dogs will show no symptoms at all. These are characterized as “subclinical” cases.

Diagnosis of Copper Hepatopathy in Dogs

Diagnosing of copper hepatopathy is multifaceted including this history, breed, physical examination and the following diagnostic tests:

  • Lab work will include CBC, chemistry, bile acid testing, and blood clotting times.
  • To screen for copper hepatopathy, a stool test demonstrating the high presence of copper.
  • Abdominal radiographs (X-rays) may either show a large liver (typically with acute disease), a small liver (usually seen in the chronic form's later stages) or, more commonly, nothing at all.
  • Ultrasound testing may be performed to evaluate for other possible types of liver disease but is often unremarkable in dogs with copper hepatopathy.
  • A fine needle aspirate of the liver (less invasive than a biopsy) can be very helpful in the diagnosis and is often performed under ultrasound guidance.
  • Most importantly a liver biopsy demonstrating high levels of copper is considered diagnostic for copper hepatopathy in dogs.

Treatment of Copper Hepatopathy in Dogs

Treatment of copper hepatopathy is depending upon the clinical signs and severity of the disease in the individual dog.

  • For chronic and subclinical forms, treatment revolves primarily around copper chelation, a drug therapy used to bind the copper before it makes it to the liver. This is a lifelong approach for all.
  • For acute sufferers, supportive care with fluids, antibiotics, anti-nausea drugs and other medications is required.
  • For liver failure patients, the goal of treatment involves ridding the body of toxins the liver leaves behind in its inability to clear them. It also requires antibiotics to aid in the infections the liver can no longer keep at bay. For more information – lease read "Liver Failure in Dogs".
  • Lower protein diets are imperative for liver failure patients. Lower copper diets are indicated for all.

Veterinary Cost

The cost of diagnosis can be quite high, unless it is performed as a screening test (for potentially subclinical breeding dogs), in which case the liver can be sampled at the time of a spay or neuter. Basic liver biopsy for otherwise healthy dogs is a relatively simple procedure. It can even be performed laparoscopically. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 (as an add-on to a spay, for example) to $1,000 or more for very sick dogs.

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