Liver Disease in Horses

Most of the horse owners of Hampshire know something about colic, laminitis and arthritis, but a less common ailment that might not always be on their radar is liver failure. Whilst horses rarely experience liver failure, when they do it must be diagnosed and treated quickly as the condition can be fatal.

The liver is a powerhouse for your horse. It’s the single largest organ in the body, working in partnership with all the others. While its primary function is detoxification, it also plays an important role in digestion, metabolism, clotting and immunity. This means that diseases of the liver can have a wide range of symptoms. To help the equine vets at Pilgrims Veterinary Practice spot the early signs of liver disease you need to help us by looking out for the following symptoms.

Call us on 01425 657700 if you see any of the following:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fever
  • Oedema (excess fluid accumulation, particularly beneath the chest and abdomen)
  • Jaundice (a yellow tinge to the gums and eyes)
  • Excessive skin sensitivity to sunlight
  • Neurological symptoms like; staggering, circling, apparent weakness or blindness.

Diagnosis of Liver Disease

Early diagnosis can be difficult as initial signs are pretty subtle. However, as the symptoms become more obvious, we’ll want as much detail as we can get from you on how your horse has been. This is one reason we’d encourage all horse owners to keep a close eye on their animals and keep a note of any changes, however slight.

If we suspect liver disease, we’ll take blood samples and may use ultrasound to give us an insight into what may be causing the problem. Occasionally a liver biopsy is taken. From there we can plan a course of treatment and offer a prognosis.

Causes of liver disease

Ragwort poisoning – This is still one of the most common preventable causes. The toxins in ragwort can accumulate over a long period of time, and don’t tend to disappear from the body. There is no safe amount of ragwort, so if you spot any in your paddocks, get rid of it!

Hyperlipaemia – Mostly seen in overweight animals. Excess fat in the body accumulates in the liver, putting it under strain and causing it to degenerate.

Hepatitis – A broad term covering a number of symptoms that cause ‘Inflammation of the liver’, mostly attributable to a range of toxins, bacteria or viruses.


As soon as we know what’s causing the problem, we will often treat with steroids to reduce inflammation and antibiotics where a bacterial infection is suspected. Supplements may be uses to support liver function until tissue can be regenerated or, if that’s not possible, to aid healthy tissue to function. A change in diet may also be necessary and we’ll discuss the details if this is an option for your horse.

It’s worth repeating that whilst there is much we can do to help animals with liver disease, often obvious symptoms don’t appear until the disease is fairly advanced. Whilst the prognosis will largely depend on the cause of the problem, taking preventative action (Ragwort!) and spotting early signs (check them every day) will go a long way to stopping liver disease ever becoming an issue for you and your horse.

Contact us if you need any advice.