Liver problems are serious because the liver is a vital organ. But do chinchillas have livers, and can they get liver failure? And what happens if they do?
Can chinchillas get liver problems? They can get fatty liver disease if they eat an incorrect diet of nuts, seeds and sugary foods. Anorexia can also cause the condition. Fatty liver disease is reversible if caught early, but can be fatal. Chinchillas can also have infections or inflammations of the liver (e.g. aflatoxicosis or listeriosis) which are fatal if not treated.
The guide below explores both fatty liver disease and infections to see which is worse, and what needs to be done about each. Even if your chinchilla isn’t sick, this is good to know
Note: if you think your chinchilla has a liver problem, you have to take it to the vet as soon as possible. This guide is for informational purposes only, meaning you can learn more about liver problems here when your chinchilla doesn’t need immediate care.
Can Chinchillas Get Liver Problems?
Chinchillas can get liver problems like we can, although they’re far less common in chinchillas than in people.
The liver’s job is to filter the blood that comes from the digestive tract. That blood is then recirculated around the body. This means that the liver is essential for removing toxic chemicals from the digestive system, neutralizing them, and passing them back to the digestive system to be excreted. The liver does this through secreting bile into the intestines. This applies to all animals that have them, from small mammals like chinchillas to ourselves.
This is why alcohol and poor diet affect the liver specifically. But this is also why chinchillas are very rarely affected by chronic liver conditions. However, chinchillas can also experience sudden infections, during which the liver is particularly attacked.
Fatty Liver Disease in Chinchillas / Hepatic Lipidosis
The most common liver-specific condition in chinchillas is fatty liver disease, also known as hepatic lipidosis or vacuolar hepatopathy.
Fatty liver disease is where an incorrect diet stops the liver from working properly. This can cause liver failure and death.
This condition is only seen in chinchillas that have an unsuitable diet. As cute as a fat, fluffy chinchilla might be, weight gain has all the same effects on them as it has on us, and fatty liver disease is one of them. Interestingly, fatty liver disease can also be triggered by anorexia, which is more common in chinchillas than obesity.
What Is Fatty Liver Disease in Chinchillas?
A healthy liver should contain almost no fat or no fat at all. Contrary to popular belief, weight gained doesn’t go immediately to one place or another (the behind, the belly, etc.) It can be stored all around the body. While it might be embarrassing to gain lots of weight in one area, what’s far more serious is to gain fat around the organ as this stops them from functioning. Eventually, the damage becomes severe and function stops entirely.
Fatty liver disease has several stages:
- Stage 1: steatosis, or simple fatty liver. This is a slight build up of fat around the liver that has no initial effects.
- Stage 2: steatohepatitis. The high level of fat around the liver causes it to become inflamed. This slightly impairs its function, but can be reversed.
- Stage 3: fibrosis. Persistent inflammation causes the liver to develop scar tissue.
- Stage 4: cirrhosis. This occurs after long periods of inflammation. The liver shrinks and is highly scarred. This damage cannot be reversed.
It can take years to progress from the early stages to the late stages of this condition. The liver is remarkable and can regenerate to an extent. But if it’s continually damaged, this cumulative effect will eventually cause it to shrink and become scarred.
What Causes Fatty Liver Disease in Chinchillas?
Fatty liver disease is caused by high levels of fats and simple sugars that cause the chinchilla to gain weight. These can be found in foods like:
- Nuts and seeds. These are high in fat.
- Processed foods meant for humans. These often contain high amounts of sugar.
- Any drink apart from water. No kind of fruit juice, soda, or any other drink is necessary or suitable for chinchillas.
- Any kind of fruit or vegetable, including dried fruits like raisins. These contain too much sugar, too much water, and not enough fiber for chinchillas.
Weight is not gained solely by eating too much fat; too much protein and carbohydrates can cause the exact same effect. The body converts carbohydrates and protein into fat for storage, so an excess of calories no matter the kind of food will cause weight gain.
Wild chinchillas eat almost nothing but grasses, so that’s what you should feed to your pet. A diet of 90% hay and hay pellets is sufficient for your chinchilla to thrive. This may be contrary to common knowledge about a varied diet, but it’s all a chinchilla needs. Timothy hay should be the main hay, with other hays (meadow, orchard grass, etc.) mixed in if necessary. Chins cannot get overweight on the correct diet of hay because it’s low in calories per weight.
Confusingly, fatty liver disease can also be caused by sudden weight loss/anorexia. That’s because when a chinchilla can’t eat, it processes its fat reserves to stave off starvation. This extra fat can cause fatty liver disease, too. This is more common than obesity in chinchillas because most owners know to give their chinchilla an appropriate diet.
Can Fatty Liver Disease in Chinchillas Be Cured/Prevented?
If your chinchilla is overweight, take it to the vet for advice and correct its diet immediately. They will make recommendations on how to reverse the condition if possible.
To prevent fatty liver disease, all you have to do is feed your chinchillas a correct diet. A diet of 90% hay and hay pellets is optimal. Because chinchillas cannot get overweight on the correct diet of hay, they will consistently lose weight until they’re at a healthy level if they previously had an unhealthy diet. Bear in mind that once the condition reaches Stage 4, prevention measures do nothing.
Chinchillas don’t need any kind of snack. But if you do want to give your pet a treat, consider something safe like rosehips or flower petals.
Is Fatty Liver Disease Fatal in Chinchillas?
Fatty liver disease is fatal if not caught soon enough, and if the dietary cause is not corrected. The liver performs essential functions so if it is damaged beyond repair, this can be fatal.
Even early stage fatty liver disease can shorten lifespan. That’s because the liver doesn’t have to stop functioning entirely for the damage to it to affect how well it works.
Symptoms of Fatty Liver Disease in Chinchillas
The precise symptoms of fatty liver disease vary based on what caused the condition in the first place. The guide below looks at each of them.
Fatty liver disease is triggered either by weight gain or sudden weight loss.
Chinchillas that eat a normal diet will not store lots of fat around their organs. It’s only once they become overweight, even obese, that the fat levels around the organs become too high. As such, the primary symptom of early FLD you should look for is if your chinchilla is physically large, and weighs more than average.
The estimates for a healthy weight vary dramatically according to what individual owners think. But it’s thought that around 600g is average for an adult chinchilla, while they can weigh up to 1000g without being unhealthy. However, this also varies by chinchilla. So, if you think your pet is overweight, take it to the vet.
Sudden Weight Loss/Anorexia
Conversely, anorexia can also cause fatty liver disease. The body stores fat so that when food is scarce, it has something to use as energy. When the body calls on these fat reserves, they are processed in the gut, and because the liver interacts with the gut it will be affected too.
Prolonged anorexia is obvious. Your chinchilla will lose lots of weight. But as anorexia is typically caused by malocclusion, these symptoms may be present too:
- Longer teeth than usual
- Teeth pointing in the wrong direction
- Open sores in or around the mouth/gums
- Less hay being eaten than usual, and less water being drunk
- Mushed-up pellets on the cage floor
- Lethargy, which is where the chinchilla doesn’t move much
Gastrointestinal stasis can also be to blame.
This is compounded by the fact that fatty liver disease itself will cause weight loss. When it gets to this point, it’s likely that your pet will pass away, but you should take it to the vet for the best care possible.
Can a Vet Diagnose Fatty Liver Disease?
Unfortunately, chinchillas are experts at hiding the symptoms of ill health. As such, it may only become obvious that your chinchilla has FLD once it passes away. When chinchillas pass, you can have a vet perform something called a ‘necropsy’. This is like an autopsy, where the vet tries to determine the cause of death. Fatty liver disease is immediately apparent during a necropsy.
If your chinchilla did pass away, it’s advised to get a necropsy done. That’s because once you learn what went wrong, you can learn how to care for your other chinchillas better.
Bacterial or Fungal Infections in Chinchillas
Infections are an acute rather than chronic issue. Acute means that it has sudden onset; it doesn’t take long for the symptoms to become serious. It’s because of the liver’s role in cleaning the gut and blood of toxins that infections affect it. The worse the infection, the more the liver has to do.
One condition that isn’t talked about much is aflatoxicosis. This isn’t caused by breakdown of the liver. Rather, it’s caused by a fungus. This condition isn’t strictly speaking caused by the fungus itself. Rather, it’s caused by the toxins that the molds produce when they feed. But that doesn’t mean it’s not serious.
Aflatoxins are a kind of poisonous carcinogen produces by certain molds that grow in soil, and are also present in decaying vegetation, hay and grains. When aflatoxins are ingested, they severely damage the liver. It becomes very large and swollen when the toxins reach the liver. Here is a link to a picture of what happens to a chinchilla’s liver during aflatoxicosis (WARNING: GRAPHIC!)
Chinchillas are highly sensitive to aflatoxins; much more so than we are. Outbreaks have been reported on chinchilla farms in Argentina after commercial feeds were contaminated. The condition is acute, meaning it doesn’t take long to have severe effects.
Chinchillas can also experience listeriosis. This is a kind of bacterial infection caused by the germ Listeria. This may be present in dirty cages, but is most common in contaminated food.
Listeriosis, like aflatoxicosis, primarily affects the liver. The bacteria reach the liver and there they multiply inside its cells (hepatocytes). Once the bacteria reproduce enough, they rupture the cell walls and spread further, causing septicemia. If the chinchilla survives this, and many don’t, the condition can spread around the body to other organs including the brain.
Yersiniosis is primarily a condition that affects the gut. It’s caused by two kinds of bacteria: Yersinia pseudotuberculosis and Yersinia enterocolitica. These bacteria are found worldwide, and most commonly affect chinchilla fur farms.
The disease progresses from the gut to the liver. The bacteria first attack the various parts of the gut: the ileum, the cecum and the colon. They specifically attack the lining of the gut, causing ulceration. As the liver’s job is to keep the gut healthy, the infection can spread there. It causes hypertrophy, which is dramatic swelling. A post-mortem necropsy can spot lesions on the liver and other organs, which indicates that the yersiniosis spread around the body.
Are Bacterial Infections Fatal in Chinchillas?
Once an infection starts affecting the liver, it’s serious enough to kill.
Sepsis is a particularly tough issue to deal with. Sepsis is where the infection reaches the bloodstream. It then passes to all the organs around the body. This causes total organ failure which is, of course, fatal.
If a bacterial infection is caught soon enough, antibiotics can be administered. These work on bacteria, but not on viruses. But if the liver has been infected, your chinchilla will likely pass away even if it does get antibiotics.
Whatever the case, you should seek a vet’s assistance as soon as possible. This applies whether the issue is an infection, the result of an infection, or to do with fatty liver disease.
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