As pet parents, we worry about our dog’s health.
We do everything we can to keep them healthy, including feeding a healthy diet, making sure they get adequate exercise, and bring them to the veterinarian for regular wellness checks.
Unfortunately, things can wrong even with the best of intentions. There are many causes and types of liver disease in dogs, with copper storage disease being just one.
In some cases, dogs with this disease may appear perfectly healthy.
It’s only after bloodwork comes back with high liver enzyme readings when the veterinarian suspects something is up. Other dogs may show signs of obvious sickness.
They may even have jaundice (yellow eyes or skin).
In this post, we’ll define copper storage disease for you. We’ll cover signs of the disease, diagnosis, and treatment options as well.
Defining Copper Storage Disease in Dogs
Copper is an important micronutrient in your dog’s diet.
It’s a component of various enzymes in the body that work to support everything from skeletal system formation to immune system and heart function. Copper excretion occurs naturally in a healthy dog.
Unfortunately, if something prevents the excretion of copper from the body, it will build up and cause liver damage.
Where does my dog get copper?
Dogs get copper from their diet where it’s absorbed from the intestine after ingestion. It binds to protein once in the bloodstream and is carried throughout the body.
It’s interesting to note that copper absorption from the intestines may be different for different dogs, depending on their needs.
Your dog only needs small amounts of copper. Excess copper is normally excreted from the body. In some dogs, something stops that normal process and develops an abnormal accumulation of copper.
This can lead to serious health problems for your dog.
What Causes Copper Accumulation?
There are a few known causes of copper storage disease in dogs with genetic mutation being the main one.
A rise in cases may point to excessive copper found in commercial dog food.
Commercial Dog Food
According to Dr. Sharon Center, James Law Professor of Internal Medicine, Cornell University, commercial dog food may be a contributing factor.
The incidence of CAH is increasing at a rate that’s causing alarm among veterinarians and dog owners, with one study showing that 30% of canine liver biopsies have evidence of CAH.The Looming Concern About Copper in Dog Food: Copper Overload Is Quietly Killing Our Dogs. (2022, January 28). Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.vet.cornell.edu/news/20220128/looming-concern-about-copper-dog-food-copper-overload-quietly-killing-our-dogs
Don’t bother checking the label on your dog’s food.
Copper is rarely listed, although you can call the dog-food manufacturer to request it. At one time, there was a limit on the amount of copper that could be included in commercial dog food.
Unfortunately, that guideline was discontinued when type of copper used was changed to a more bioavailable form.
There’s no need to change your dog’s diet unless it is recommended by a licensed veterinarian.
There are other potential causes of copper storage disease that you can’t control, including gene mutations.
It can occur as a primary disease or can be secondary to another condition.
Dog Breeds Susceptible to Copper Storage Disease
The following breeds may be more susceptible to copper storage disease. However, it can occur in any breed and appears to be more common in female dogs.
- Bedlington terriers
- Labrador retrievers
- Doberman pinschers
- Skye terriers
- Cocker spaniels
- West highland white terriers
Bedlington terriers are particularly at risk of developing Wilson disease, or copper toxicosis.
Wilson disease is a genetic disorder that affects the metabolism and storage of copper in the body. The illness causes a defect in the liver cells that renders them unable to efficiently transport and excrete copper.
As a result, the excess copper causes inflammation, scaring, and eventual liver failure. In addition, the excess copper can be stored in other organs.
Clinical Signs of Copper Storage Disease in Dogs
The following is a list of clinical signs that may be seen in dogs with copper storage disease.
However, it’s important to note that many dogs have no symptoms until they present with symptoms of acute liver failure or chronic liver failure.
A note about acute liver failure
Acute liver failure is a life-threatening form of copper toxicosis. Dogs can die within 48 to 72 hours of initial symptoms. Signs of acute liver failure include:
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased urine production
- Red-brown urine
- Painful abdomen
The most common outcome of copper storage disease is chronic liver failure (chronic hepatitis). It can also lead to end-stage liver disease or even death.
Clinical signs of liver failure could include:
- Reduced activity level
- Loss of appetite
- Increased thirst
- Increased frequency of urination
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes)
- Fluid accumulation in the belly
What Causes Copper Storage Disease in Dogs?
There is a genetic cause in Bedlington terriers and possibly other breeds, although unconfirmed. In addition, there is a genetic predisposition for copper storage disease in certain lines of West Highland white terriers.
Four to six percent of Doberman Pinschers are reported as having chronic hepatitis. This could be due to copper storage hepatopathy.
While the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) are warning pet owners of the copper content in commercial dog foods, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) are taking a different stance.
According to AAFCO, there isn’t sufficient data to prove that point. Click on the link below to read more.
Making the Diagnosis of CSD in Dogs
In order to make a definitive diagnosis, a liver biopsy is required. Special stains can be used to identify the type and amount of copper being stored in the liver.
The veterinarian will perform a physical examination looking for signs of jaundice, pain, fever, dental disease, etc.
Pet owners may be asked about the history of symptoms including any potential events that may have triggered the condition.
Chemical Blood Profile
Tests are performed on a blood sample to measure things like electrolytes, fats, proteins, glucose and liver enzymes.
Over time, copper storage disease will cause progressive damage to the liver. In order to determine how well the liver is functioning, blood tests are ordered to measure the following specific liver enzymes:
- Alanine transaminase (ALT)
- Aspartate transaminase (AST)
- Alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
The enzymes present in the liver cells include the ALT and AST. High levels of these enzymes in the blood indicate that the liver is damaged or inflamed.
Complete Blood Count
A complete blood count will be ordered to determine whether your dog’s blood clotting abilities have been affected and whether your dog has an infection. It can also identify whether your dog has anemia or is dehydrated.
Complete blood counts measure three types of blood cells in the body:
- Red blood cells (erythrocytes or red cells)
- White blood cells (leukocytes or white cells)
- Platelets (thrombocytes)
Urine tests can detect blood in the urine and whether the urine is concentrated or dilute.
If the dog’s liver enzymes are elevated, or bile tests are abnormal, an abdominal ultrasound could be recommended. The imaging allows the veterinarian to view the liver for any visible signs of damage or disease.
As mentioned earlier, the best way to get a definitive diagnosis is through a liver biopsy. This is performed through fine needle aspiration and can detect whether there are toxic levels of copper present.
The biopsy (small tissue sample) is then sent to a pathologist for interpretation.
Can Copper Storage Disease be Prevented?
The only way to prevent the genetically induced disease is for breeders to conduct genetic testing. If any of their dogs have a high amount of copper in their livers, they shouldn’t breed those dogs.
Pet owners with any of the breeds mentioned in this post may want to speak to a veterinarian about a copper restricted diet.
You may even want to have your water supply tested. This is because water can contribute to copper accumulation in the dog’s liver.
Treating a Dog with Copper Storage Disease
The type of treatment chosen will depend on whether the disease is in the acute or chronic stage.
Successful treatment may involve making modifications to the dog’s diet.
Ask the veterinarian for advice on food low in dietary copper. There is no ideal amount of dietary copper for dogs with this disease. It’s thought that the “correct amount” depends on a few things, including:
- The amount of copper in the liver.
- The amount of copper in the previous diet.
- Time frame of copper accumulation.
- Whether certain medications (see below) are being used.
Penicillamine, also known by the brand names Depen® or Cuprimine® , is a medication used in the treatment of copper storage disease in dogs.
This drug is known as a chelating agent, meaning it binds the excess copper and helps your dog excrete it through the urine.
Chelation therapy can take 3 months of treatment to see an improvement in the affected dog. Complete recovery is possible, but rare.
Liver Support Supplements
Antioxidants like vitamin E and SAMe (S-adenosyl-methionine) may be recommended. Liver healing can also be supported with supplements containing milk thistle, silybin, and omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s best to consult with a veterinarian on the best supplements for your dog. Not all supplements are made the same and some may contain ingredients that interact with other medications your dog may be on.
Life Expectancy for a Dog With Copper Storage Disease
Sadly, copper storage disease can be fatal if not identified early. Dogs with acute liver failure may die within 2 – 3 days, even with treatment.
Dogs with chronic liver disease will need to be treated for the rest of their lives. The life expectancy for a dog with copper storage disease depends on how significant the liver damage is.
When Do Dogs Develop Copper Storage Disease
Dogs can be affected by this disease at any age. However, susceptible dogs are often diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 7 years.
According to Veterinary Partner, the average age of diagnosis is 7 years.
Unfortunately, there are often no signs, or vague signs, of copper storage disease in dogs. Understanding the dog breeds most susceptible may help you identify the signs as early as possible. Bedlington terriers are particularly susceptible.
Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment. The more damaged the liver is at the time of diagnosis, the harder it will be for your dog to recover.
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Team, C. N. (2017, October 2). Copper-Associated Liver Disease in Dogs. Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2017/10/copper-associated-liver-disease-in-dogs/
The Looming Concern About Copper in Dog Food: Copper Overload Is Quietly Killing Our Dogs. (2022, January 28). Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.vet.cornell.edu/news/20220128/looming-concern-about-copper-dog-food-copper-overload-quietly-killing-our-dogs
“Liver Disease (Copper Storage) in Dogs | PetMD.” Liver Disease (Copper Storage) in Dogs | PetMD, www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/endocrine/c_multi_copper_storage_hepatopathy. Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.
“Diagnosing and Treating Canine Copper-associated Hepatopathies.” DVM 360, www.dvm360.com/view/diagnosing-and-treating-canine-copper-associated-hepatopathies. Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.
CENTER.SHARON. “Liver Biopsy in Small Animals – Digestive System – Merck Veterinary Manual.” Merck Veterinary Manual, www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/hepatic-disease-in-small-animals/liver-biopsy-in-small-animals. Accessed 20 Mar. 2023.