Managing Liver Disease in Dogs with Corticosteroids

Liver disease in dogs is a general term that describes a series of medical conditions that affect the liver, which range from hepatitis and hepatic lipidosis to cancer. Despite featuring similar symptoms, these canine health problems have different causes and hence, are treated in different ways.

What Are Corticosteroids?

Corticosteroids represent a group of steroid hormones released by the adrenal cortex that play a very important role in the control of inflammation, and in the metabolism of various organic compounds. There are two categories of corticosteroids, namely glucocorticoids and mineralocorticoid. Glucocorticoids are involved in the metabolism of protein, carbohydrates and fat, as well as in the control of inflammation. The anti-inflammatory effect is achieved when the eosinophil action is reduced and when the release of phospholipid is prevented. Mineralocorticoids, on the other hand, are used in the management of electrolyte and water levels. This is achieved by accumulating sodium in the kidneys.

How Can Corticosteroids Help?

Some of the liver diseases in dogs that can be treated with corticosteroids include, but are not limited to to:

  • Chronic active hepatitis
  • Cholangiohepatitis
  • Immune-mediated hepatopathies

One of the main reasons why corticosteroids are preferred in the treatment of such canine liver diseases is that they reduce the inflammation that characterizes each of these conditions. More than that, corticosteroids are able to reduce tissue lymphocyte, as well as the number of plasma cells. As a consequence, hepatocytes are destroyed and the symptoms of immune-mediated hepatopathy and chronic active hepatitis are improved.

Additional effects that may occur while treating a liver disease in dogs with corticosteroids are:

  • Bile flow increase
  • Serum albumin levels increase
  • Serum transaminase levels decrease

The corticosteroids of choice are usually prednisolone and prednisone. Since the metabolism of corticosteroids takes place in the liver before being excreted by the kidneys, it's very important to calculate the dosage precisely. Otherwise, some of the side effects presented below may occur.

Corticosteroid therapy may need to be followed for prolonged periods of time, if the dog suffers from chronic active hepatitis. If the treatment is interrupted, the effects of corticosteroids will seem to decrease, compared to the ones observed during the initial therapy.

In order to monitor symptom improvements, liver biopsies may need to be performed periodically. Bile acid assays and blood chemistry profiles also need to be checked from time to time.  

Side Effects of Corticosteroid Therapy

After prolonged administration of corticosteroids, some dogs may develop glucocorticoid hepatopathy. This rare condition is characterized by an abnormal sensitivity to glucocorticoids that leads to scarring in the liver. After the therapy based on corticosteroids ceases, the symptoms affecting the liver tend to improve. However, the healing time for the lesions ranges between several weeks and a few months.

Corticosteroids can also determine an enlargement of liver or impairment in the function of this organ. This usually happens when the corticosteroid therapy is inadequate, meaning that the dose, potency, duration or frequency of administration is mistaken. In order to prevent this, dog owners have to talk to a veterinarian in order to find out all the details about appropriate corticosteroid therapies.