Hyperbilirubinemia in Dogs

by Deborah Lundin
    Old English sheepdogs are one breed with an increased risk of conditions that cause hyperbilirubinemia.

    Old English sheepdogs are one breed with an increased risk of conditions that cause hyperbilirubinemia.

    Dean Golja/Digital Vision/Getty Images

    While the term hyperbilirubinemia may not be familiar, you may actually know the condition it refers to. Known also as jaundice, hyperbilirubinemia is the increase of bilirubin, or red blood cell waste in the body, resulting in yellow skin coloration. Hyperbilirubinemia is not a disease, but rather a symptom of an underlying condition. In dogs, jaundice typically occurs as the result of three main causes, with treatment focusing on which underlying condition is to blame.

    More Than Just Yellow Skin

    As toxic levels of bilirubin build up in the body, the noticeable symptom is the yellow coloration of the skin. In dogs, this is best seen in the gums, eyes and inner ear flaps. Other symptoms associated with hyperbilirubinemia include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, loss of appetite, increased thirst and weight loss. In addition, urine frequency may increase and the urine may develop an orange tint.

    Common Conditions Resulting in Hyperbilirubinemia

    In dogs, conditions that cause hyperbilirubinemia fall into three categories -- hemolysis, liver disease and bile duct obstruction. Hemolysis occurs when red blood cells break down and die faster than normal. This increased level of cell waste contributes to increased bilirubin. Common causes of hemolysis in dogs include parasites, heartworm disease, autoimmune conditions, cancers, certain medications and toxic plant ingestion. Many of these same causes can also contribute to liver disease. Common causes of bile duct obstructions include pancreatitis and gallstones.

    Diagnosing the Underlying Condition

    If your dog displays symptoms of hyperbilirubinemia, seek veterinary care immediately. The first thing the veterinarian will do is run tests to determine the underlying cause. Initial tests require a blood and urine sample to evaluate blood cells, look for liver enzymes and check bilirubin levels. Depending on the results, other tests may include X-rays, ultrasounds and a liver biopsy.

    Dog Breed Predisposition

    While hyperbilirubinemia can occur in any breed, certain breeds are predisposed to conditions that commonly cause increased bilirubin. Poodles, Old English sheepdogs, Irish setters, cocker spaniels, Basenjis, beagles and West Highland terriers have a greater risk of developing hemolysis. Miniature schnauzers, retrievers, Cairn terriers, Old English sheepdogs, Australian cattle dogs, West Highland terriers, Dobermans, skye terriers and Irish wolfhounds have an increased risk of liver disease.

    Treatment Focuses on the Underlying Condition

    Because hyperbilirubinemia is a symptom rather than a condition, treatment must focus on the underlying condition. Treatment options range from medications, such as corticosteroids to treat immune-mediated hemolysis, to surgery to correct bile duct obstructions.

    Photo Credits

    • Dean Golja/Digital Vision/Getty Images

    About the Author

    Deborah Lundin has worked as a professional writer since 2005, though writing has always been a passion. She brings a background in health and fitness, veterinary care, professional cooking and parenting. She studied medical laboratory science and sociology at Northern Illinois University. Sites published on include Yahoo, Physorg and MedicalXPress.

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