A liver shunt, also known as a portosystemic shunt, is an irregular blood vessel that shortens or “shunts” blood across the liver instead of taking a regular course through the liver. The liver is important for eliminating contaminants from the blood, and when the liver is bypassed, toxins and waste begin to spread in the body, triggering clinical symptoms.

There are two types of shunts, extrahepatic and intrahepatic. Though most portosystemic shunts are present from birth, in certain cases, portosystemic shunts may develop as a result of acquired shunt. Signs frequently occur at a young age in dogs with congenital shunts.

Signs Of A Shunt

Symptoms of a liver shunt are exactly like a damaged or non-functioning liver. The role of the liver is to disperse protein so that the puppy can expand and detoxify its blood. A puppy with shunt will exhibit symptoms of central nervous system depression.

Symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and stupor. In very severe cases, toxins in the blood breach the blood brain barrier, resulting in epilepsy and other major effects of the central nervous system.

Another sign that a puppy has a liver shunt is a failure to survive, including a lack of physical development, weak muscle mass, and an unhealthy need for sleep. These pups tend to be lethargic and underdeveloped relative to their litters.

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How To Diagnose Liver Shunts?

There are a number of tests that may be performed to detect a shunt of the liver. Ultrasound may help to locate the shunt. Blood checks may also serve to assist this diagnosis. However, the most common procedure used to detect a shunt of the liver is the bile acid test.

How Is Liver Shunts Treated?

Medical treatment requires low protein diet, antibiotics, and lactulose. This procedure is usually begun  prior to surgery. Single, extrahepatic and intrahepatic shunts are treated by surgery to reduce or bind the shunt vessel. This procedure typically needs to be performed progressively. This procedure forces the blood to pass out of the intestines and into the liver until it enters systemic circulation. If there are no other complications with the liver, it will develop to a more normal size and the other health symptoms will change or resolve.

What Is The Prognosis After Surgery?

In most cases, the surgical treatment of the congenital liver shunt will result in the complete closing of the shunting vessel and the return of natural blood supply to the pet’s liver. These cases should be expected to lead a normal life, needing no treatment and with normal life expectancy.