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Liver Disease (Copper Storage) in Dogs

Copper-Storage Hepatopathy in Dogs

Copper storage hepatopathy in dogs is a liver condition characterized by the abnormal buildup of copper in the liver, leading to progressive liver damage and cirrhosis. It can result from either an underlying disease or genetic abnormalities affecting copper metabolism.

Certain dog breeds are particularly prone to this condition, including Bedlington terriers, Doberman pinschers, West Highland White terriers, Skye terriers, and Labrador retrievers. Additionally, it is observed to be more prevalent in females than males. This medical condition can also affect cats, in addition to dogs.

Symptoms and Types

Primary copper liver diseases, known as hepatopathies, typically manifest in one of three ways:

  1. Subclinical disease: Present in the organ or body without detectable abnormal signs or changes in the dog.
  2. Acute disease: Most commonly affects young dogs; associated with hepatic necrosis, a condition causing liver tissue death.
  3. Chronic progressive disease: Often observed in middle-aged and older dogs with chronic hepatitis, resulting in liver damage and cirrhosis.

Conversely, secondary copper hepatopathies exhibit progressive signs of liver disease due to chronic hepatitis or advancing cirrhosis. Cholestatic liver disease, characterized by slowed or halted bile flow, leads to secondary copper retention.

Both primary and secondary types may present symptoms in acute or chronic forms, including:

Acute Symptoms:

  • Lethargy
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Yellowish discoloration of skin and moist tissues (icterus or jaundice)
  • Pale mucous membranes due to anemia
  • Dark urine (bilirubinuria)
  • Presence of hemoglobin in urine (hemoglobinuria)

Chronic Signs:

  • Lethargy
  • Depression
  • Anorexia
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased thirst and urination (polydipsia and polyuria)
  • Abdominal distention from fluid accumulation (ascites)
  • Yellowish discoloration of skin and moist tissues (icterus or jaundice)
  • Spontaneous bleeding, black or tarry stools (melena)
  • Nervous system dysfunction due to inability of the liver to break down ammonia (hepatic encephalopathy)


Copper storage hepatopathy can affect dogs at any stage of life. The primary contributing factor to this liver disease is genetics, particularly evident in Bedlington terriers and potentially other breeds. Here are the known details regarding the genetic factors involved:

  • In Bedlington terriers, the condition follows an autosomal recessive trait due to the absence of a specific gene (COMMD1) responsible for encoding a liver protein crucial for copper excretion in bile.
  • Historically, a significant proportion of Bedlington terriers were either carriers of the gene or affected by the disease; however, recent genetic screenings have substantially reduced the incidence.
  • While a genetic link is suspected in breeds other than Bedlington terriers, it remains unconfirmed, and the mode of inheritance is unknown.
  • Certain lines of West Highland White terriers exhibit a notable prevalence, although the overall incidence across all West Highland White terriers is low.
  • Approximately four to six percent of Doberman Pinschers may suffer from chronic hepatitis, which can either cause or result from copper storage hepatopathy.


To diagnose copper storage hepatopathy in your dog, your veterinarian will conduct a comprehensive laboratory evaluation, which includes a chemical blood profile, a complete blood count, and a urinalysis. Providing a detailed history of your dog’s health, symptoms, and any relevant incidents is crucial, as it may help determine whether the condition is primary or secondary in nature.

Additionally, a liver tissue sample will be obtained through biopsy for further laboratory analysis. Ultrasound imaging of the abdominal area will also be performed to assess the liver’s condition.


For dogs displaying signs of liver failure, inpatient evaluation and treatment are essential. The treatment approach will depend on the type of disease and whether it manifests acutely or chronically.

Dietary modifications play a significant role, with the provision of foods low in copper showing efficacy in many cases. Given that most commercially available diets contain high copper levels, it’s crucial to adhere to your veterinarian’s dietary recommendations tailored specifically for your dog. Refrain from administering mineral supplements containing copper. Additionally, your veterinarian may prescribe medications such as penicillamine and/or nutritional supplements like zinc to aid in copper elimination from the body.

Living and Management

Regular monitoring is crucial for dogs diagnosed with copper storage hepatopathy. Blood tests will be conducted every four to six months to assess liver enzyme levels and, if applicable, zinc levels for dogs receiving zinc supplements. Your veterinarian may also request periodic monitoring of your dog’s body weight.

In some cases, a repeat liver biopsy may be necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment, although this is rare.


For those interested in acquiring a Bedlington terrier, it is advisable to inquire whether the dog’s parents have been screened for the gene associated with this liver disease. Additionally, a liver registry exists to offer insights into the genetic status of breeding Bedlington terriers. Purchasing a Bedlington puppy from a breeder whose dogs are free from problematic genes and markers significantly reduces the likelihood of acquiring an individual predisposed to developing copper storage hepatopathy.

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