Finding that your pet has yellow gums, skin or even the whites of their eyes can be pretty worrying. And yes, the chances are your dog does have jaundice. The cause of this can arise from several conditions, and this Pets4Homes article looks at the main conditions which can cause jaundice in your dog.
It’s worth remembering that jaundice is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of a disease. When the skin turns yellow it is a sign of jaundice (or to give it its technical term icterus) and there is something going on with the dog, as an underlying condition. If you take your jaundiced animal to the vets, they won’t just write a prescription for treatment straightaway, they will need to do some tests to find out what is going on.
In the blood, there is a pigment called bilirubin which is yellow, in usual healthy conditions the levels of bilirubin are very low so you can’t see it. When the levels become very high, the blood may change colour and display the yellow pigment. If the condition goes untreated, eventually areas that are normally pink such as the gums, skin, and whites of the eyes can also turn a yellow colour.
If bilirubin levels are high and jaundice is being caused it is because of one of three reasons (as there are only three types of jaundice). These are:
Looking at these in more detail and the possible cause of jaundice, you will see why a vet will need to do more tests to determine what is underlying in the pet’s health for it to occur.
Bilirubin is always made as a by-product during the break down of haemoglobin in the blood, (this means when red blood cells are broken down once their function has been met). An increase in bilirubin which can cause the skin to go yellow, can mean there is an increase in the breakdown of the red blood cells in the dog’s body.
This is not supposed to happen, and possible causes are parasite conditions such as Babesia or immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia (IMHA).
The liver will normally remove bilirubin from the blood system and excrete it through the bile duct as bile. If the liver is compromised then there may be a buildup of bilirubin in the blood, leading to jaundice. A compromised liver can include inflammation or disease, such as hepatitis, cancerous tumours, or from toxin conditions such as an overdose of paracetamol.
As said above, bile from the liver is excreted through the bile duct, it is when there is a problem with this bile duct that jaundice can occur. This can include anything such as a blockage to the duct causing bilirubin to increase in the blood system. Blockages and other conditions that can cause bile ducts problems are diseases such as pancreatitis or liver tumours.
This is where the tests will come in, your vet will want to do a series of blood tests initially to find out what is going on with the levels in the system. Only then will they be be able to determine the underlying disease and to treat for it.
If the blood test comes back showing your dog is anaemic, then the condition points towards pre-hepatic jaundice which can be treated for.
If the blood test results show that there are raised liver enzymes, then the vet could be looking at a hepatic type of jaundice, which again can be treated for.
If they believe there is a blockage in the liver or there is another liver condition where the bile duct seems to be working incorrectly, they may use an ultrasound scan on your dog to determine what is going on. They will be out to look for:
The last condition listed above, will point towards postherpetic jaundice as the bile duct should not be full and bile should move freely through it. Again, once the condition has been determined and cause behind it, it can be treated for.
Although jaundice can make your dog feel very unwell, in itself raised bilirubin levels that are causing the jaundice are not dangerous, it’s their underlying condition that can be horrible and if not treated, can be sadly fatal for the dog. Treatment of the underlying cause of jaundice is completely dependent on the type of disease it is.
In pre-hepatic jaundice for example, if tests show that it is immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia causing the rise of bilirubin, vets will usually use strong immune suppressant drugs to stop the dog’s immune system attacking itself, notably the red blood cells.
If the condition is found to be hepatic, such as inflammation of the liver is in hepatitis, the vets will try to support the liver and clear any infection with the use of antibiotics and possibly fluids.
Lastly, if there is a blockage of the bile duct, or a tumour causing postherpetic jaundice, the vet may try and remove it surgically, although this in itself can carry risks, especially with a compromised liver and an anaesthetic going into the system. For this option, a full and frank discussion must be had beforehand.
So, jaundice is an indicator of other problems that are going on within your pet. Only by thorough testing can the reasons for it be determined and treatment start to take place. If you notice your dog having seemingly yellow gums, skin, or eyes please get in touch with your vet as soon as you can. The chances are you would have noticed them feeling pretty rotten beforehand, and they may be showing other symptoms according to which condition they have.