Liver Disease (Copper Storage) in Dogs

Copper is a trace element and a necessary metal element in a dogs body as it aides in the production of melanin, the pigment that colors the coat and the skin. It is also linked with metabolizing iron. Deficiencies of copper can cause a bone disorder and anemia even if iron intake is normal.

Copper-Storage Hepatopathy refers to a condition of abnormal accumulation of copper in the dog's liver. Also known as Bedlington Terrier Hepatitis, Copper Storage Disease, Copper-associated Hepatopathy and Copper Toxicity, the condition is an autosomal recessive inherited disorder of copper accumulation in the liver leading to chronic hepatitis and eventually cirrhosis of the liver. 

Copper is found in small amounts in liver, brain, heart, kidney, muscle and bones of dogs and functions as cofactor for numerous crucial everyday cellular function. Copper-Storage Hepatopathy occurs when improper liver function allows copper build up to abnormal levels. The build up happens either due to excessive absorption of copper or failure to excrete copper, which results in its accumulation. This abnormal amount of copper in the body damages the liver causing conditions such as chronic hepatitis and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) over long term.

Due to high frequency of the condition in Bedlington terriers, this condition is often referred to as Bedlington Terrier Hepatitis though at least 53 breeds are known to be affected by this condition. Some of these breeds are Dalmatians, Doberman Pinschers, Labrador Retrievers, Anatolian Shepherds, West Highland White Terriers and Skye Terriers.

Primary copper liver disease is classified into three categories. 

Subclinical disease: a condition where the disease is present in the organ or body, but not detectable by abnormal signs or changes in the dog

Acute (sudden) disease which most frequently affects young dogs; associated with a condition that causes the death of liver tissue (hepatic necrosis)

Chronic progressive disease in which symptoms are observed in middle-aged and older dogs with chronic hepatitis, with damage and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis)

Conversely, secondary copper hepatopathies show symptoms of progressive signs of liver disease due to chronic hepatitis or progressive cirrhosis. Liver disease in which the flow of bile is slowed or stopped is known as cholestatic liver disease; the abnormal flow of bile results in secondary copper retention.

Common symptoms associated with both types of copper liver disease are






Yellowish discoloration of skin and moist tissues (icterus or jaundice)

Moist tissues of the body (mucous membranes) are pale due to low red blood cell count; simply referred to as anemia

Dark urine due to the presence of bilirubin (bilirubinuria)

Hemoglobin in the urine (hemoglobinuria)

Chronic signs:




Weight loss



Excessive thirst and urination (polydipsia and polyuria)

Abdominal distention due to fluid build up in the abdomen (ascites)

Yellowish discoloration of skin and moist tissues (icterus or jaundice),

Spontaneous bleeding, black or tarry stools (melena)

Nervous system dysfunction due to the liver being unable to break down ammonia in the body (hepatic encephalopathy)

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