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Nutrition Nuggets
Your dog's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your dog, how much food to feed, and the differences in dog foods, so your dog gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Diets for Dogs with Copper Associated Liver Disease

August 09, 2013 / (5) comments

Copper is not a nutrient that many owners contemplate, until it is associated with disease. In health, copper plays a role in the formation of a dog’s bones, connective tissue, collagen, and myelin (the protective covering of nerves). Copper also helps the body absorb iron, making it an important part of red blood cell function. It also acts as an antioxidant, is a part of many enzymes, and is necessary for the formation of melanin, the pigment that darkens hair and skin.

Copper is found in meat, liver, fish, whole grains, and legumes and is typically added as a supplement to commercially prepared foods. Copper deficiency is extremely unlikely if a dog eats a nutritionally balanced diet. Problems are most often associated with copper excess, not generally from an improperly formulated diet but instead due to inborn errors of metabolism that eventually cause too much copper to accumulate in the liver. At excessively high levels, copper results in oxidative stress, inflammation, and eventually to liver scarring (cirrhosis) and failure.

Liver disease associated with abnormal copper metabolism has a strong genetic component and is seen most frequently in Bedlington Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Skye Terriers, Dalmatians, Labrador retrievers, and possibly Doberman Pinschers. Symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, jaundice, vomiting, diarrhea, increased thirst and urination, accumulation of fluid within the abdomen, and behavioral changes. Liver disease can usually be diagnosed based on the results of blood work but determining that copper is responsible requires liver biopsies that are evaluated using special stains

Treatment for this type of liver disease centers on reducing the amount of copper that gets stored in the liver. Chelating agents like trientine or D-penicillamine bind to copper and aid in its excretion from the body. Zinc changes the way in which copper is absorbed and metabolized and ameliorates its toxic effects. Zinc supplements are often prescribed for maintenance after a dog has been decoppered (I love that word) with chelating agents. Generalized liver support is also important and can include antioxidants like Vitamin E and S-Adenosylmethionine.

Dietary therapy plays an important role in managing copper associated liver disease. The ideal food is low in copper, high in zinc, high in B-vitamins (which are often deficient with liver disease), and contains adequate but not excessive amounts of high quality protein since eating too much protein can adversely affect brain function in dogs with liver disease. The diets should be tasty enough to encourage dogs to eat and nutrient dense so that pets with marginal appetites don’t have to take in large volumes. Feeding multiple meals throughout the day is often necessary to maintain a dog’s body condition.

Prescription “liver diets” are available that meet most if not all of these parameters. Homemade diets prepared according to a recipe designed by a veterinary nutritionist familiar with the dog’s case are another good option, particularly for dogs with poor appetites. It is also important to avoid feeding these dogs foods that are high in copper, including shellfish, liver, and mineral supplements that have not been prescribed by the pet’s veterinarian.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Penelope Malby Photo / Shutterstock

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Comments  5

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  • Liver Disease
    08/09/2013 05:04pm

    "too much protein can adversely affect brain function in dogs with liver disease"

    Is that true of any liver disease or just one caused by too much copper?

  • 08/10/2013 03:45pm

    All liver diseases. The condition is called hepatic encephalopathy.

  • 02/02/2014 03:35pm

    Dr. Coates, My daughter's lab/chow mix, age five was diagnosed with copper storage disease. Historically, her ATL hovered around 100 since birth, but spike in the high 300s in November. To this day, she never presented with any clinical symptoms, but this diagnosis was confirmed by liver biopsy and the lab test. She has been on Hill's L/D diet since November, but has gained five pounds fast. Is there any other food that she can eat that might have the lower protein content and also less fat?

  • 02/02/2014 03:37pm

    Correction... I mean ALT. So sorry for the typo.

  • 02/03/2014 11:13am

    Your veterinarian is in the best position to make specific dietary recommendations since he/she has all the pertinent information on hand re. the details of your dog's case. Several pet food manufacturers make "liver diets" so another brand or combination of foods might make sense for your dog. A veterinary nutritionist could also design the "perfect" diet for your dog after reviewing the case. Best of luck!




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.