Feeding your doggy friend a low-protein diet to treat her liver problem is risky business. Only dogs with a very certain diagnosis of hepatic encephalopathy -- a liver-related seizure disorder -- benefit from these diets. Your veterinarian's guidance is essential as you optimize your pooch's protein intake.
Hepatic encephalopathy is a very specific form of liver malfunction that is not completely understood. What we do know is that liver failure can leave some toxins in the blood that normal digestion removes. When these products get into the brain, they can cause star-gazing, passing coma-like states and epileptic seizures.
Quality and Quantity
The idea behind low-protein diets for dogs with hepatic encephalopathy is to maximize the quality of protein while minimizing its quantity.
Veterinary researchers think that ammonia is the main culprit when it comes to liver-related brain issues. Digesting meat creates a lot of ammonia, and damaged livers have a really hard time coping with this. Protein from milk, eggs and plants leaves much less waste when it's digested. So a brain-friendly diet for your liver-compromised pet will use cottage cheese or yogurt (dogs can't usually digest plain cow's milk), eggs, legumes and grains in place of meat. Some diets use small amounts of fatty meats to ensure your doggy gets all of her necessary amino acids.
It is counterintuitive, but some dogs with hepatic encephalopathy (and dogs with other forms of liver damage) end up needing a diet that is much higher in protein than a diet for healthy dogs. This is because the damaged liver is less able to break down protein, leaving most of it to pass out of the body undigested.
If your veterinarian suspects this is the case with your pet, she'll begin with a very low-protein lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (possibly with a fatty meat garnish), wait for symptoms to improve, then slowly increase the amount of protein until symptoms again worsen, then back off the protein just enough that your pet once again improves.
Fiber, Carbs and Fats
Low-protein liver diets should be high in fiber and get most of their calories from carbs and fats. Cooked vegetables and grains are the bulk of these diets. It is very important to work closely with your veterinarian and, if possible, a veterinarian nutritionist to monitor your furry friend's liver values as you change her diet. Do not rely on your intuition or understanding of human nutrition -- your pet's health is already hanging in a delicate balance.
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.