What is Liver Disease?
Generally, the liver can still function effectively even when it is partially diseased or damaged. A highly diseased or damaged liver can be a very serious problem for your horse. Liver disease can cause significant health problems for your horse.
The liver is a vital organ within the body and plays a vital role in the equine digestive system as well as their immune and endocrine systems. The liver also is important for coagulation or clotting within the body. The primary function of the liver is to rid the body of toxins. It also aids in protein synthesis and the production of biochemicals that are necessary for digestion.
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Symptoms of Liver Disease in Horses
Symptoms of liver disease in horses will vary depending on the progression of the disease. Most symptoms will not present until at least 75% of the liver is affected. If you notice any symptoms that could potentially mean there is a problem with your horse’s liver, contact your veterinarian for a full medical assessment and diagnosis of the problem. Early detection and treatment are very important to the overall health of your horse.
- Weight loss
- Hepatic encephalopathy
- Hepatogenic photosensitization
- Bilateral laryngeal paralysis
- Abdominal edema
- Endotoxic shock
- Gastric impactions
- Neurological deficits
Causes of Liver Disease in Horses
Liver disease is most likely to occur when a horse or foal has a pre-existing condition such as septicemia, hypoxic, toxicity, neoplastic or some form of metabolic condition. There are actually multiple causes of liver disease in horses.
Certain grasses and clovers can cause your horse to develop liver disease, such as alsike clover, Panicum grasses, ragwort, fiddleneck or hound’s tongue. Inflammation or an infection in the bile duct can also cause liver disease. Other causes include serum hepatitis, chronic active hepatitis, biliary stones, hepatic lipidosis, torsion or twisting of the liver, and excessive ammonia within the blood.
The actual progression of liver disease to liver failure in horses is rare, but it can occur. Quick treatments can help keep your horse from going into complete liver failure.
Diagnosis of Liver Disease in Horses
Diagnosing liver disease in horses is relatively straightforward and your veterinarian will be able to quickly begin treatments once the definitive diagnosis is made. Your veterinarian will begin by completing a physical examination. This will include a rectal palpation as well as asking you a series of questions aimed at learning more about the onset of your horse’s symptoms.
Biochemical testing is now available. The results are helpful in determining the differential diagnosis for liver disease and liver failure. It will also help predict a prognosis for your horse. Biochemical testing is used to detect liver specific enzymes and metabolites within the bloodstream. If these are abnormally high, it is an indication that your horse is suffering from liver disease.
Once it has been determined that your horse is suffering from liver disease, an ultrasound examination and a liver biopsy will be used to identify the type of liver disease as well as the progression of the disease. Many times, your veterinarian will be able to tell exactly what has caused your horse to develop liver disease.
Treatment of Liver Disease in Horses
Your veterinarian will set up a treatment plan for your horse that is tailored to the actual cause of the liver disease. In most cases, this means that your horse will be checked into the veterinary hospital to receive supportive care. IV fluids, sugars and several meals per day consisting of a low protein diet will be given.
The goal of any treatment for liver disease is to decrease the intestinal ammonia production, potassium, and vitamins within your horse’s body. Most cases of liver disease will require specific medications that treat the cause of the disease. Speak with your veterinarian regarding the medications being given and follow all instructions exactly as given. Be sure to direct any questions or concerns to your veterinarian regarding your horse’s treatment.
Recovery of Liver Disease in Horses
Once your veterinarian sees how your horse responds to the treatments being given, they will be able to give you a more accurate prognosis. Most horses do not recover from liver disease, the disease is simply managed. In mild cases, treatments can stop the progression of the disease quickly with no lasting effects on your horse.
Your horse’s recovery will depend on the cause, how well they respond to treatments and the amount of scarring that has occurred on the liver. Horses that develop liver failure are generally euthanized.