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Dog getting treated for hepatitis
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Severity: i High
Life stage: All

You may be familiar with the effects of hepatitis in people, but have you ever wondered about hepatitis in dogs and whether our canine friends can also be affected by this condition? 

The word hepatitis literally means “inflammation of the liver.” Hepatitis isn’t a single disease – instead, the term is used to describe a variety of conditions that cause liver inflammation in dogs, humans, and other species. 

Can Dogs Get Hepatitis?

Dogs can develop hepatitis, just like their human companions. And, just like in the case of humans, canine hepatitis can have a variety of potential causes. 

One key difference, however, lies in treatment. While humans with severe hepatitis may receive a liver transplant, this surgery is rarely performed in dogs. Instead, medical treatment is used to manage canine hepatitis. 

Can dogs get hepatitis A, B, C, D, or E from their human owners? Fortunately, the answer to this question is no. The viruses that cause hepatitis in humans are not transmissible to dogs.

Canine hepatitis is not a single disease. There are several forms of canine hepatitis, each with its own unique cause and its own course of disease. 

Most cases of canine hepatitis fall into one of two broad categories: infectious canine hepatitis or canine chronic hepatitis.

Infectious Canine Hepatitis

Infectious canine hepatitis is caused by an adenovirus in dogs, canine adenovirus type 1. (This virus differs from canine adenovirus type 2, which causes respiratory disease in dogs.) 

Dogs with infectious canine hepatitis can rapidly become very sick. They may even experience sudden death with minimal signs of illness. Fortunately, this condition is relatively rare in the United States due to widespread vaccination. 

Canine Chronic Hepatitis

Chronic hepatitis refers to chronic (long-term) inflammation of the liver. This condition can have a wide variety of underlying causes and it can take on a variety of clinical appearances. 

Some dogs with canine chronic hepatitis have a low-level, smoldering hepatitis with minimal signs. In other dogs, however, chronic hepatitis can cause visible signs of illness and may even progress to liver failure. 

How Do Dogs Get Hepatitis?

Infectious canine hepatitis is caused by a viral infection. Infected dogs shed large amounts of the virus in their saliva, feces, and urine, and this shedding can continue for several months after infection. Your dog could become infected through direct contact with an infected dog or by coming in contact with a contaminated surface or object. 

Infectious canine hepatitis is most common in young puppies and unvaccinated dogs, due to their lack of immunity against this virus.

Chronic hepatitis in dogs can be caused by anything that results in liver damage. In most cases, it is impossible to identify what caused a particular case of chronic hepatitis. However, potential causes include: 

  • Prior liver damage caused by infectious canine hepatitis
  • Prior bacterial or fungal infection of the liver
  • Ingestion of a toxin that affects the liver
  • Autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own liver
  • Abnormal copper accumulation within the liver 
  • Long-term use of certain medications (NSAIDs, phenobarbital)

Chronic hepatitis is usually diagnosed in middle-aged and older dogs. Breeds that may be at higher risk include Bedlington Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, Standard Poodles, Beagles, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.

Hepatitis in Dogs Symptoms 

Sick Dachshund looking up

Dogs with infectious hepatitis are typically very ill. Signs, which develop within one week of exposure to the virus, include vomiting, bloody diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss, and lethargy. Yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes (also known as jaundice or icterus) may occur. Less common signs may include coughing, respiratory distress, eye abnormalities, and neurologic signs. In some cases, sudden death is the first sign of illness.  

Chronic hepatitis, in contrast, progresses slowly. These dogs may appear normal early in the course of disease, with symptoms only developing as their liver damage worsens. With advanced chronic hepatitis, signs may include weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst/urination, lethargy, abnormal bleeding, and yellow discoloration of the skin or gums. Hepatic encephalopathy in dogs, a brain condition that occurs when the liver is unable to remove toxins from the bloodstream, may also result in seizures.

Regardless of the underlying cause, a dog’s hepatitis symptoms may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Yellow discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes
  • Seizures 

Diagnosing Dog Hepatitis

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough physical exam, looking for jaundice and other signs that suggest the presence of liver disease. They will obtain a thorough medical history for your dog and likely question you about possible exposures to infections and toxins.

Next, your veterinarian will likely recommend blood tests and a urinalysis. Abnormalities in your dog’s laboratory tests may suggest liver dysfunction, making hepatitis a more likely diagnosis. 

If your veterinarian suspects infectious canine hepatitis, PCR testing can be used to identify the virus in your dog’s bodily fluids. 

A definitive diagnosis of chronic hepatitis in dogs requires a liver biopsy. Biopsy samples can be collected using a large-bore needle (under sedation, with ultrasound guidance) or via surgery. Your veterinarian will talk to you about the best option for your dog. 

Hepatitis in Dogs Treatment

Infectious canine hepatitis is a viral infection that must run its course. However, hospitalization is often required for supportive care. Your veterinarian will administer fluids to prevent dehydration, give medications to control nausea and diarrhea, and administer antioxidants to reduce permanent liver damage. 

The treatment of chronic hepatitis largely depends on its suspected underlying cause. If an identifiable underlying cause is found (such as abnormal copper accumulation), treatments may be given to address this underlying condition. Bacterial hepatitis in dogs may require antibiotic therapy. Steroids or other immunosuppressive drugs may be used to reduce inflammation within the liver. Your veterinarian may also prescribe a therapeutic diet, specifically formulated to support your dog’s liver function.

Cost to Treat a Dog for Hepatitis 

The cost to treat hepatitis can vary significantly, depending on the cause of your dog’s hepatitis and the severity of their illness. 

If your dog requires hospitalization for infectious canine hepatitis or a severe case of chronic hepatitis, this could cost several thousand dollars. 

If your dog’s chronic hepatitis can be treated with outpatient therapy, the cost of medications and a prescription diet may be less than $100 per month. 

Hepatitis in Dogs: Life Expectancy

Infectious canine hepatitis is a serious condition that is fatal in up to 30 percent of cases. Even if your dog survives this disease, permanent liver damage may occur. Your veterinarian will help you determine what treatments and monitoring may be necessary if your dog recovers from infectious canine hepatitis.  

In most cases, chronic hepatitis is a condition that is managed, not cured. Your dog may require lifelong medications and dietary modifications, along with frequent veterinary rechecks. In general, your dog’s prognosis will correspond to their degree of illness at the time of diagnosis. Dogs that are very sick at the time of diagnosis may survive just days to months, while dogs that are asymptomatic may go on to lead relatively normal lives with treatment. 

How to Prevent Hepatitis in Dogs

Vaccination is the best way to prevent infectious canine hepatitis The “distemper-parvo shot” or DAPP/DHPP vaccine includes an adenovirus vaccine for dogs. As long as your pet remains up to date on this vaccine, their risk of infectious canine hepatitis is extremely low. If your puppy has not yet completed their puppy vaccine series, keep them away from other dogs and potentially-contaminated environments to prevent infection. 

Given the variety of potential causes involved in chronic hepatitis, prevention is rarely practical. Feeding a balanced diet, avoiding moldy foods, limiting your dog’s access to potential toxins, and keeping your dog’s vaccines up to date will protect against some potential causes of hepatitis, but the risk of chronic hepatitis cannot be entirely eliminated.  

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