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Intestinal lymphangiectasia in dogs

The lymphatic system is a series of branching vessels, called lacteals, which carry lymph fluid around the body. Lymph fluid carries cells of the immune system and plays an important role in the digestion of fats and other nutrients. With intestinal lymphangiectasia, disruption of the lymphatic vessels occurs, which affects the digestion of fats. Molecules are therefore lost from the lymph fluid, including proteins, into the gut and pass out of the body in the stools. Therefore, this disease in dogs is sometimes referred to as a protein-losing enteropathy (PLE). PLE is a term meaning that proteins of the body are lost through the gut in the stools. Our vet explains more in this article.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet


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Which dogs get intestinal lymphangiectasia?

This disease can occur in any dog breed. However, there seems to be a higher incidence in breeds such as the Yorkshire terrier, Basenji, Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier and Norwegian Lundehund. In these breeds a genetic predisposition leads to the development of the disease. It can occur in any gender or age of dog. Lymphangiectasia is very rare in cats.

Lymphangiectasia can also happen secondary to, or concurrently with, other diseases in the gut, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and cancer. This is caused by obstruction of the lymph vessels. Other diseases that can contribute to lymphangiectasia include right-sided congestive heart failure, pericarditis and Budd-Chiari syndrome.

What are the symptoms of intestinal lymphangiectasia in dogs?

  • Weight loss

  • Failure to properly grow

  • Poor body condition

  • Poor quality coat

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea - often ongoing (chronic) and very watery

  • Reduced appetite and nausea

  • Fluid accumulation under the skin (oedema) and in the abdomen - the dog may appear bloated. In rare cases, there is fluid accumulation in the chest cavity

  • Abdominal pain

  • Lethargy

How is intestinal lymphangiectasia diagnosed in dogs?

Your vet will take a full history and perform a clinical examination. Following this, it is likely that some further diagnostic tests will be recommended: blood tests to check protein levels; faecal analysis to look for any gut infections; imaging, usually ultrasound, to look for changes consistent with the disease. Your vet may also want to perform other tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG), to check heart function.

To definitively diagnose this disease, biopsies need to be taken from the intestine and analysed under the microscope. This can be done either using a camera on a long flexible scope (endoscope), or directly via open abdominal surgery.

How is intestinal lymphangiectasia treated in dogs?

Establishing the underlying cause will help direct the treatment plan. Surgery may be required if there is an intestinal obstruction, such as a tumour. Medical treatment may be needed if there is inflammation. For example, your vet may prescribe steroids together with another immune suppressant medication to reduce inflammation if there is concurrent IBD. Dogs with lymphangiectasia are prone to forming blood clots. Therefore, they may also need anti-clotting medication, such as clopidogrel. Dietary modification is often required to manage their digestion and nutrient absorption. Diets should be highly digestible, high in protein and low in fat.

Can intestinal lymphangiectasia in dogs be cured?

Generally lymphangiectasia is not curable, but it is usually manageable with a specific diet and medication. Sadly, a small number of dogs will not respond to treatment and, if their quality of life is affected, unfortunately for these cases euthanasia may be recommended. Equally some dogs will make a full recovery if the underlying cause is treated.

When to see your vet

  • If your dog has lost weight

  • If your dog is looking underweight

  • Ongoing diarrhoea

  • Other gastrointestinal signs

Still have questions?

If you would like more advice on nutrition or raw feeding, please book an online video appointment to have a chat with one of our FirstVet nutrition vets.

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