Clinical signs of gastrointestinal disease, such as vomiting and diarrhea are extremely common in small animal patients. When
seeking advice from a veterinarian pet owners expect accurate diagnosis and definitive therapy of the problem. In very few
cases the diagnosis can be made by history and physical examination alone, but in most cases the veterinarian has to utilize
diagnostic tests to arrive at the diagnosis. The challenge for the veterinarian is to choose the most appropriate diagnostic
test to arrive at the most accurate diagnosis.
Serum Chemistry Profile
Serum activities of hepatic enzymes are analyzed as markers for hepatobiliary disease in both dogs and cats. Unfortunately,
some of these enzymes are also synthesized in other tissues. Therefore, elevations of serum activities of hepatic enzymes
outside the control range can be seen with many non-hepatic conditions.
Alanine amino transferase (ALT) is a cytosolic enzyme of hepatocytes and leaks into the vascular space during hepatocellular
damage. The serum half-life for ALT is rather short (1-2 days). Mild elevations of serum ALT activities are considered non-specific
for hepatocellular injury but moderate to severe elevations are cause for concern and should prompt immediate further work-up
of the patient for possible hepatobiliary disease.
Alkaline phosphatase shows species-specific differences. In the dog, elevated serum ALP activities are most commonly due to
hyperadrenocorticism, iatrogenic drug therapy (glucocorticoids, phenobarbital, or other), or biliary disease. However, primary
hepatic disease can also be associated with elevations of serum ALP activities. In cats, serum ALP activities are more specific
for hepatobiliary disease.
Gamma glutamyl transferase is also non-specific for liver disease in dogs and cats but is more sensitive for liver disease
in cats than it is in dogs.
Serum blood urea nitrogen, serum cholesterol, and serum albumin concentrations can all be decreased in dogs and cats with
hepatic failure. However, these findings are rather insensitive and are also not specific for hepatic failure.
Serum or Plasma Ammonia Concentration
Plasma ammonia concentration can be used as a crude indicator for the presence of hepatic encephalopathy. The serum or plasma
sample must be placed on ice immediately after collection and needs to be analyzed rapidly. However, a plasma ammonia concentration
within the reference range does not exclude hepatic encephalopathy as many other substances have been implicated in the pathogenesis
of this condition.
Some clinicians have recommended the use of an ammonia tolerance test. However, the author does not believe that an ammonia
tolerance test yields any further information compared with pre- and postprandial serum bile acid concentrations.
Also, a recent study has suggested that the measurement of plasma ammonia concentration is superior to serum bile acids concentrations
for the diagnosis of portosystemic shunts in dogs.
Serum Bile Acid Concentrations
Bile acids are metabolites of cholesterol degradation. They are formed and conjugated in the liver and secreted in the bile.
After a meal cholecystokinin stimulates gall bladder contraction and release of bile into the duodenum. Conjugated bile acids
play a crucial role in fat absorption as they help to emulsify fat. Conjugated bile acids are re-absorbed in the ileum, reach
the vascular space, and are extracted from the portal blood by the liver.
Pre- and postprandial serum bile acids concentrations are used for the diagnosis of hepatic impairment and portosystemic shunting.
Food is withheld from the patient for 12 hours and a serum sample is collected. A small amount of food, rich in fat, is fed
to stimulate gall bladder contraction and another serum sample is collected 2 hours later.
When hepatic function is significantly impaired, extraction of bile acids from the portal blood becomes less efficient and
both pre- and postprandial serum bile acids concentrations increase. In patients with portosystemic vascular anomalies pre-prandial
bile acid concentrations maybe only slightly increased, while post-prandial serum bile acids concentrations are often severely
increased. However, the pattern of serum bile acids concentrations is not diagnostic of a specific hepatobiliary disorder
and can only suggest the likelihood of one over another disorder.
In some normal patients paradoxical results are observed in that pre-prandial bile acids concentrations are higher than post-prandial
concentrations. It has been speculated that this finding is due to gall bladder contraction without food intake. However,
it is important to note that this interpretation assumes that both pre- and post-prandial serum bile acids concentrations
are below the upper limit of the reference range for post-prandial serum bile acids concentrations. Also, increased pre-prandial
bile acids concentrations have been found in dogs with evidence of an altered small intestinal microflora.
Recently, the use of sulfated and non-sulfated urinary bile acid concentrations in dogs and cats with suspected hepatic disease
has been described. However, further studies are necessary before their routine use can be suggested instead of serum bile