Skye Terrier Hepatitis

Skye terrier ‘hepatitis’ was first reported in 1988 in nine related dogs (Haywood et al. 1988). It causes a relatively severe liver disease in young to middle aged dogs with scar tissue formation which progresses to cirrhosis in some cases. Dogs typically develop fluid in the abdomen (ascites) and often vomiting and diarrhoea. There is often accumulation of copper in the liver which differs from copper storage disease in other breeds in that it only builds up once the disease has started. The authors of the original report argued this was not a primary copper storage disease but instead that it was associated with reduced movement of bile within the liver.  There have been no further studies published on Skye terrier hepatitis since 1988 apart from a single case report from Glasgow in 2003 (McGrotty et al. 2003).

Skye terrier ‘hepatitis’ is most often recognised in young adult dogs; although dogs as old as 11 years of age have been reported with the disease. Affected dogs may have mild to severe symptoms. Typically, they show vomiting and diarrhoea, including passing black faeces, and can build up fluid in the abdomen (‘ascites’). In some dogs, the whites of the eyes become obviously yellow (‘jaundice’). Anecdotally, some dogs have had green teeth. Diagnosis can only be made definitively with a liver biopsy which shows a distinctive pattern under the microscope with scar tissue. Dogs can be very ill with this disease, but with careful diagnosis and treatment they can do well.

Our findings

  • Skye Terrier “hepatitis” is not a hepatitis.
  • Dogs can have affected livers without ever showing clinical signs of disease.
  • Likely complex, caused by two or more genetic variants with environmental factors also involved.

Colloquially known as Skye terrier hepatitis, we now know that this is not a typical hepatitis at all. As we are still working to understand the underlying pathology, we will simply refer to it as Skye terrier liver disease. We do know that the severity of the disease can vary. Some affected dogs show clinical signs from a very young age. Typical signs include fluid build-up in the abdomen and dark faeces. Jaundice (yellow colouration to skin and eyes) is uncommon. Many dogs recover with supportive care. On the other hand, some dogs live long and apparently healthy lives, only to find on post-mortem that their liver was affected.

Alongside clinical and pathological investigations, geneticists have been trying to uncover the genetic basis of liver disease In Skye terriers. Previously, we performed a whole genome association study to identify regions of the genome that may be associated with liver disease. In addition, we sequenced the whole genomes from two cases to identify the specific variants that might cause the disease. We now believe that liver disease in Skye Terriers is not caused by a single genetic variant. It is instead likely to be complex, caused by two or more genetic variants, and possibly with environmental influences as well.