Dog Liver Shunt Surgery

Learn why surgery remains the best option to treat a canine liver shunt. Discover the breeds most susceptible to this condition, key symptoms, pre-surgery dietary restrictions and common surgical methods.

Liver Shunt in Canines

Canine liver shunts occur when a major blood vessel skips the liver. The liver's function is to remove toxins and bacteria from the bloodstream before blood travels to other organs. In some cases, the blood bypasses the liver filtration cause serious health problems.

In the womb, a puppy receives blood through the liver shunt. Because the mother dog's liver filters the blood, the liver shunt's job is simply to get that blood to the puppy's heart. In some cases, the shunt fails to close after birth. When this happens, malnutrition and infection are likely.

Symptoms of liver shunts include:

  • Depression

  • Diarrhea

  • Disorientation

  • Increased weight

  • Lethargy

  • Seizures

  • Slow growth

  • Vomiting

Because these symptoms appear with many other illnesses, your vet will need to do testing to rule out similar diseases. Liver shunts are usually found by testing liver function and taking abdominal x-rays to check liver size.

Liver shunts can appear as a birth defect or develop later on in life. It's most important to know the symptoms. Most dogs survive liver shunt surgery without any lasting complications. The earlier your dog is treated, the better his odds of survival.

Breeds Susceptible to Liver Shunts

There are many breeds susceptible to liver shunts. They include many toy breeds, particularly:


  • Yorkshire Terriers
  • Australian Shepherds

  • Irish Wolfhounds

  • Labradors

Surgical Correction of a Liver Shunt

Before surgery, the dog's diet must be changed to a low-protein diet and medications are given to remove any infection. Because bacteria and toxins grow best with high protein levels, cutting back on proteins is necessary. If this improves the dog's health, surgery may be skipped. In most cases, surgery to close the liver shunt is necessary.

The goal of a veterinary surgeon is to find the liver shunt's location and seal it off. Once this happens, blood starts flowing into the liver again. This procedure is riskier because the main blood vessel into the liver may require time to open properly. Stress on the liver is problematic because the liver must go from not working to working in a matter of minutes.

It's important to know that surgery can only partially close the shunt. It's difficult to completely close a shunt when the liver hasn't developed properly. Despite this, partial closure proves to be and effective treatment in 8 out of 10 dogs.

Many veterinarians prefer using an Ameroid Constrictor. This device is placed around the blood vessel and slowly narrows over a five week span. This gives the liver time to gradually accept blood flow and begin functioning properly. The success rate on surgeries using the Ameroid Constrictor is 95 percent.

Following liver shunt surgery, dogs should remain on a low-protein diet for two months. After that, liver function is tested again to make sure the liver is functioning properly. If the liver is working, the dietary restriction is lifted. If not, the liver function will be retested in a few months and the dog should remain on a low-protein diet.