Liver Shunts in Dogs

The liver is a vital organ.  It acts as a filter that removes blood borne toxins, synthesizes and distributes proteins for the body to use, and stores sugar for energy.  A liver shunt is a blood vessel, either inside or outside the liver that causes blood to bypass the liver, therefore greatly reducing liver function.  With the liver compromised, toxins will build up in the bloodstream or kidneys; and the dog will lack protein and energy to grow strong or even sustain life.

Shunts inside the liver develop naturally in puppies while they are in the womb.  During gestation, the mother’s liver works for her and her babies.  The puppies’ livers are not functional.  However, the shunt is supposed to close before birth, allowing the liver to be functional.  Sometimes this doesn’t happen.

Shunts outside the liver also develop while the puppy is in the womb, although this is a genetic anomaly.  In this case, a puppy may have a shunt inside the liver and outside the liver in the womb.  Even though the internal shunt closes before birth, the external shunt will remain open causing blood to bypass the liver.

Liver shunts are a very serious medical condition.  Unfortunately, over half of the dogs diagnosed are euthanized within 10 months due to uncontrollable neurological issues, such as seizures and behavior changes, or progressive liver damage.

Some dogs can survive with a special diet and medicine.  Although surgery is ultimately the best treatment. External shunts are easier to operate on and have a better prognosis than internal shunts.  Internal shunts are difficult to correct and have more post-surgical secondary complications. Either way, a specialist is usually called in for the surgery.