Hi stranger! Signing up for MypetMD is easy, free and puts the most relevant content at your fingertips.

Get Instant Access To

  • 24/7 alerts for pet-related recalls

  • Your own library of articles, blogs, and favorite pet names

  • Tools designed to keep your pets happy and healthy

or Connect with Facebook

By joining petMD, you agree to the Privacy Policy.

petMD Blogs

Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

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 / (8) 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

Comments  8

Leave Comment
  • Liver Disease
    08/09/2013 09:04pm

    "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 07:45pm

    All liver diseases. The condition is called hepatic encephalopathy.

  • 02/02/2014 08:35pm

    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 08:37pm

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

  • 02/03/2014 04:13pm

    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!

  • Great Dane killed by Cu
    08/16/2016 07:08pm

    My Great Dane suddenly swelled up in the abdomen one day. Took her in and her liver numbers were sky high. Took her to Michigan Stage Vet school and had liver biopsy - cirrhosis caused by high copper. It cost us over $1000 per month for her care. The chelator therapy is very expensive and cannot reverse damage already done. She lived 16 months on the lowest copper dog food i could find - lower than any of Rx brands. The Vets at MSU did not expect her to live 2 weeks or 2 months. So all the other help we did was just as important as the chelator therapy. No dog needs added copper in their food. It should be controlled to the lowest value - only what is supplied by the meat content. She died just after her 6th birthday. Too young even for a Dane. i will read copper levels on every food before i ever buy pet food again.

  • 02/04/2017 02:21pm

    My Boxer/Lab has copper storage liver disease and won't eat just anything and is therefore pretty much under weight. She hates the recommended Rx dog foods.
    Could you please tell me what dog food you were able to find and use with your dog?
    With all my research, anything I find including the Rx dog foods contain pork and/or everything else they shouldn't eat.
    Thank you

  • Copper Storage Liver Dis
    02/04/2017 02:31pm


    Thank you for having this website. What I do not understand is why you don't give suggestions as to what kind of diet people can make or buy to help their dogs with copper liver storage disease?
    My vet tells me to look up what I can and can not give my dog on the internet, but like your website, I can't find any useful information.
    I think there should be some recommendations or suggestions you can make to help us.
    My I baby girl is on the necessary medications, but refuses to eat the Rx dog food and has lost a lot of weight. I have started making her meals, but it is hard because I know that she is not getting ALL of the nutrition she needs. I hate seeing her suffer because there are no sample diets or suggested dog foods online.