A common problem that often goes unseen until the hedgehog suddenly becomes very ill is fatty liver. Often this is a problem that stems from a poor diet (poor quality kibble, too few nutrients, etc.) or from not eating for a longer period of time. This can happen after 48 hours of not eating. With a bad diet, it often only happens after months or sometimes even years, but it also causes the necessary problems. The fat metabolism then goes out of whack and the liver starts to store fat in the liver cells, causing fatty liver disease.
The most common causes of fatty liver in hedgehogs are:
- Being (severely) overweight
- Poor diet & nutrient deficiency
- Not eating for too long
- Genetic predisposition
The most common symptoms of advanced fatty liver disease in hedgehogs are:
- Beginning jaundice
- Weight loss (liver inflammation)
- Muscle weakness (liver inflammation)
- Increasing jaundice (liver inflammation)
- Vomiting (cirrhosis of the liver)
- Severe jaundice (cirrhosis of the liver)
Fatty liver, hepatitis, liver cirrhosis and liver failure
In the early stages of fatty liver, the symptoms are not noticeable, most hedgehogs are not yet bothered by it. That is also the reason that many people underestimate the need for good nutrition, because a bad kibble will not immediately cause problems. This can really take quite a few months before the first symptoms are noticeable. In advanced stages, the hedgehog can suffer from the above symptoms and without intervention this can cause inflammation of the liver: non-viral hepatitis. This inflammation can damage the liver and make symptoms worse. It can even lead to permanent liver damage and scar tissue on the liver. We call this cirrhosis of the liver. Without treatment, cirrhosis of the liver can progress to liver failure and eventually lead to premature death.
Diagnosis and treatment
A blood test is needed to detect liver inflammation or liver failure. With many problems related to lethargy and weight loss, it is recommended to have this done by a veterinarian. Any other investigations may be necessary, some veterinarians do additional research by means of an ultrasound or an MRI, for example. Treatment in most cases consists of changing the hedgehog's diet and amount of exercise, as fatty liver disease, liver inflammation and liver cirrhosis are often reversible when caught in time and treated. The unhealthy part of the liver can then recover and the healthy part of the liver can still handle the functions until then. Sometimes medication is needed to help with this, the vet will then explain all about the medication you receive for the hedgehog and how it should be used. Unfortunately, if cirrhosis of the liver has progressed to the point where it cannot be reversed, it will progress to liver failure and eventually lead to premature death. In most cases, the hedgehog is put to sleep because it is too sick and too weak to lead a good life.
Preventing fatty liver
Provide a good quality kibble as the basis for the hedgehog's diet, supplemented with a varied range of insects and meat and possibly supplements. Even if you feed BARF, there should always be kibble present to really be sure that the hedgehog does not miss out on any nutrients. Also provide sufficient exercise for the hedgehog to prevent obesity. A healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent fatty liver disease.