Q. My dog has a liver problem, and one possible diagnosis is copper storage disease. What is that?
A. Copper in very small amounts is an essential nutrient for body functions such as energy production, antioxidant defense, connective tissue formation, and many others. The dog will get this mineral through his food and water. Once eaten the copper is absorbed through the intestines and moves into the liver where it is stored until the body needs it for repairs and energy. The copper that is not absorbed goes out in Fido’s poop. Copper storage disease is the excess accumulation of copper in the liver. This happens when the dog has a genetic disease or too much copper in the diet. It may be both.
When there is too much copper stored in the liver, it becomes toxic and causes tissue damage. There are breeds that are genetically prone to developing copper storage disease. Bedlington terriers, West Highland White terriers, Skye terriers, Doberman pinchers, Labrador retrievers, Keeshond, and American Cocker spaniels are the breeds known to carry a genetic predisposition for the disease. It is usually diagnosed at about the age of 7 years but can be found in dogs as young as 2 years. Both boys and girls can develop the disease.
Because copper at toxic levels cause liver cells to break, the symptoms seen are related to liver damage. Generally, the dog is brought into the veterinarian for loss of appetite and weight loss, reduced activity, diarrhea, increased thirst and peeing, pain in the abdomen and vomiting, and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
Your veterinarian will take a thorough history and physical exam. From there, your vet will do blood tests and a urinalysis to help diagnose your best friend’s problems. The blood tests will show elevated liver enzymes, and liver function tests will be abnormal. The liver has factors to help blood to clot when necessary. As this disease progresses, these blood clotting properties are diminished and can cause bleeding. There are many reasons for the liver to become inflamed and damaged. The only way copper storage disease can be definitively diagnosed is by a liver biopsy.
Treatment is geared to removing the excess copper from the body. This is done by changing the diet to a low copper diet and chelating medicines, which are medicines that bind with the copper and allow it to pass out in the urine. Fido is put on a special diet and medicine after the diagnosis is made. Your veterinarian will use blood tests and liver biopsies to monitor the progress of treatment. Your dog will remain on the special diet for the rest of his life. If it goes untreated, the liver will fail from the damage.
It has become a concern that commercial diets may have excessive copper added. There is a minimum amount of copper allowed in dog food but no upper limits. Historically, there was an upper limit of the amount of copper allowed in commercial dog food. This was eliminated when a different type of copper was recommended that is in a more bioavailable form. Because dogs without the genetic predisposition of copper hepatopathy are more commonly being diagnosed, the alarm has been raised by specialists. Research is being done at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University on this subject.
The commercial liver diets may be too low in protein for these dogs. There are diets with low copper. Homemade diets may be the best bet to get proper nutrition for your best friend. Talking to a specialist in nutrition is the best way to get a balanced diet. It is also recommended if you have copper pipes to flush out the pipes before filling Fido’s water bowl.
Researchers from Cornell are asking anyone with a dog diagnosed with copper hepatopathy to contact the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Dr. Sharon Center, the James Law Professor of Internal Medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, “asks that if your dog has been diagnosed with copper hepatopathy, please complete the FDA questionnaire at: https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/report-problem/how-report-pet-food-complaint. Ask your veterinarian to do the same, as entries from veterinarians are taken very seriously. You start by selecting “Safety Reporting Portal’” and identify yourself as a guest. Then select, “Start a New Report.” For the title for your FDA report, Dr. Center recommends “Dog Food Copper Over-Supplementation.” Fill out the form to the best of your ability, trying not to leave any entries blank. The entry mark “Problem Summary” is the most important entry, says Dr. Center. Make it clear to the FDA that your dog was affected by copper overdose through dog food and add personal commentary regarding your experience.”
Judith K. Herman, DVM, CVH
Animal Wellness Center