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What are Icterus?

Icterus or jaundice is usually noted in the gums of the canine, the whites of the eyes and the flaps of the ears.  If your canine family member has darkly pigmented skin, there is a good chance you won’t notice this yellow color at all.  Just as in humans, the yellow pigment comes from a digestive process that takes place in the liver which isn’t working as it should.

Icterus is also known as jaundice or yellow jaundice.  It is a condition in which excessive yellow pigment is noted in various types of tissue as well as in blood.

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Symptoms of Icterus in Dogs

As noted above, the yellow pigment in the gums, eyes and ears of your pet may not be immediately apparent if your dog has darkly pigmented skin.  There are, however, other symptoms which you might notice to some degree if your family canine is suffering from icterus:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Increased thirst
  • Lack of stability when walking
  • More frequent urination
  • Confusion
  • The above mentioned yellow discoloration of various tissues
  • Signs of weakness
  • Blood present in excrement or urine
  • Bloating in the belly

Types 

Icterus is basically a signal that the liver is not working as it should.  The types of liver failure or liver disease come down to these:

  • Genetic - Genetic liver disease is in the animal’s DNA
  • Acquired - Acquired liver disease can come from damage from certain medications, herbs, plants, contaminants in their food, other diseases like diabetes, cancer and pancreatitis
  • Infectious - Can be brought on by the presence of an infection in the body like , heartworms and other parasites
  • Trauma  - Can result from a trauma to the liver area

Causes of Icterus in Dogs

The causes of icterus or jaundice are liver disease or failure.  There are many ways liver dysfunction can occur, but the pathological causes of icterus have been placed in three categories:

  • Destruction of red blood cells - The destruction of red blood cells is called hemolysis and can take place within the blood vessels themselves, in the spleen and/or liver
  • Liver disease - Liver disease is defined as any disease or condition that damages or destroys liver cells, inhibiting the function of the liver
  • Obstruction of the bile duct - Since bile (a digestive juice) is stored in the gallbladder and released as needed into the small intestine via the bile duct, if the bile (produced by the liver) gets too thick, or gallstones form from the gallbladder, or the liver swells or if the bile duct gets blocked for any reason, the flow of bile becomes constricted or obstructed

Diagnosis of Icterus in Dogs

Diagnosis of icterus in your canine family member will likely be a multi-step process which will involve you initially.  Your complete history is always welcomed and needed by your veterinary professional.  It is quite likely that, if you’re not noticing the symptoms noted above or if the symptoms are fairly vague, it is possible that you won’t even know that your dog has icterus (especially if he is dark skinned/coated).  The presence of icterus may become known during a routine examination and blood work evaluation done by your vet.  If icterus is discovered, remember that it is a symptom not the disease process.  Your vet will need to determine the disease process behind the symptoms and this will require finding out which of the three classifications of jaundice (prehepatic, hepatic and posthepatic) into which your canine’s icterus falls.  Blood testing, biopsies and radiographic imaging are testing processes which may be utilized to determine the cause of the icterus or jaundice.  

The exact cause can be determined by the various types of blood testing and cultures and other testing modalities noted above.  For example, if liver disease is found or suspected, a biopsy of the liver may be required to confirm the type of liver involvement (see above). Or, to determine if the bile duct blockage is the cause, a radiograph (x-ray) may be utilized to physically look at the bile duct work to identify a blockage.   Once all of these avenues have been investigated and the data collected, an appropriate treatment plan will be developed and initiated for your canine family member.

Treatment of Icterus in Dogs

When it comes to the treatment of icterus, it is important to remember that icterus is a symptom of a disease process, not the disease process itself.  Accordingly, once the definitive diagnosis has been developed, the disease process will be more apparent and the treatment for that disease process can be applied.  Once the underlying disease process is treated, the icterus will resolve as part of the process.  

It is also important to note that some of the disease processes which could be responsible for the icterus can ultimately be fatal for your pet, like cancer for an example.  But, take heart, because many of the other potential causes are quite treatable and the treatments provide a good prognosis with full recovery for your family pet.  Treatment options might include nutrition, fluid and electrolyte balancing if your pet is in a critical state, treatment of any existing anemia or internal bleeding which may be present (causing some of the anemia) and rest and gentle handling in a quiet environment while healing takes place.

Recovery of Icterus in Dogs

The ultimate prognosis and recovery of your canine family member is dependent upon the underlying cause/disease process responsible for his icterus.  Since there are many possible causes and factors, it would be impossible to provide a complete list of treatments and their recovery prognoses.  But, your veterinary professional can make this information available to you once more information on your pet’s condition is known.  It would be prudent to expect that, unless the diagnosis is cancer of some type, generally the prognosis is good and a full recovery can be expected with appropriate care and treatment of your family pet.