Liver Cancer

Key Points

Single large liver tumors frequently are the kind that have a low tendancy to spread to other parts of the body and are amenable to surgery

Liver tumors can cause nonspecific signs such as vomiting, weight loss, decreased appetite, lethargy and pale gums

Patients having surgery frequently have a good prognosis, providing that the tumor is self-contained and the surgeon can completely remove the tumor

Recent research on liver tumor resection is helping surgeons more precisely remove these masses


Types of liver tumors

  • Metastatic liver tumors are those that spread from a primary tumor else where in the body
    • example is a dog that has a tumor of the spleen which has spread to the liver
    • metastatic liver tumors generally are usually multiple
    • if your dog has multiple liver masses they could just be benign nodular change (hyperplastic regenerative nodules) which has a good prognosis and does not require surgical removal
  • Primary liver tumors originate from the liver tissue
    • the most common primary liver tumor is the hepatocellular carcinoma
    • these tumors usually do not spread, but invade into the liver tissue

Clinical signs of liver tumors

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • In the early stages, there may be no clinical signs, but your veterinarian may find the tumor on a routine ultrasound or x-ray of the abdomen

Testing done for patients in preparation for surgery

  • Complete Blood cell count
  • Chemistry profile
  • Coagulation profile
  • Urinalysis
  • Chest radiographs – left side, right side and front-back views
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • CT scan of the abdomen
  • Fine needle biopsy of the liver mass is occasionally recommended

Metastatic liver tumors

  • A diagnosis of cancer can only be definitively be made with a liver biopsy and histopathology
  • If there is no evidence of a primary tumor in the body and multiple nodules are found in the liver, a minimally invasive liver biopsy can be done by placing a laparoscope (camera) into the abdomen to obtain a sample of liver; animals that have this done can usually go home the same day after the procedure; this test will confirm a diagnosis of cancer

Primary liver tumors

  • Surgery is recommended for these cases if there is no evidence of metastatic disease
  • If needed, more than half of the liver can be safely removed and the liver will regenerate
  • Usually the tumor is removed through an incision made on the midline of the abdomen
  • In some cases the breast bone must be divided (median sternotomy) so that the tumor can be accessed
  • Even tumors that seem to invade deep into the liver can be safely removed using a technique that we developed called the hilar liver dissection technique (see reference below). With this technique, liver tumors can be removed with much less bleeding and with a better chance that all of the tumor has been completely removed. The procedure does not require fancy equipment such as the “Cavitron Surgical Aspirator”, just a sound knowledge of the vascular anatomy of the liver. The video (right) demonstrates the resection of a tumor located on the left side of the liver.

Aftercare following liver tumor removal

    • Pain medication is given to your pet either by injection or via an epidural catheter, or through the intravenous as a constant rate infusion
    • Antibiotics are usually just given at the time of surgery and not given in the postop period
    • Intravenous fluids are given to keep your pet hydrated
    • Limit exercise to short leash walks for 3 weeks if a midline abdominal incision was performed; limit exercise for 6 weeks if a median sternotomy was performed
    • Administer oral pain medications as needed
    • Monitor respirations to make sure that these are not labored
    • Monitor gums and tongue to make sure that these are pink
    • Encourage eating
    • Monitor the incision for signs of infection
    • Do not allow licking or scratching of the incision
      • Put a tee shirt on your pet to help prevent this
  • Chemotherapy may be recommended by an oncologist, pending the tumor type; hepatocellular carcinomas usually are not too responsive to chemotherapy and surgery is usually the only treatment needed

Potential complications

  • Anesthetic death – uncommon
  • Seroma formation at the incision – fluid accumulation which will resolve within about 3 to 4 weeks
  • Infection – uncommon
  • Internal hemorrhage – uncommon
  • Spread of tumor – dependant on type and stage of tumor


  1. Covey J, Degner DA, Jackson AH, Hofeling A, Walshaw R. Hilar liver resection in dogs. Accepted for publication. Vet Surgery 2008
  2. Liptak, JM:  Hepatobiliary tumors, in Withrow SJ, Vail DM (eds): Small Animal Clinical Oncology (ed 4). St. Louis, WB Saunders, 2007, pp 483-485
  3. Bachellier P, Ayav A, Pai M, et al:  Laparoscopic liver resection assisted with radiofrequency. Am J Surg 193:427-430, 2007
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  7. Liptak JM, Dernell WS, and Withrow SJ. Liver tumors in cats and dogs. Comp Cont Ed Vet 26:50-57, 2004
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  12. Jarnagin WR, Gonen M, Fong Y, et al:  Improvement in perioperative outcome after hepatic resection: analysis of 1, 803 consecutive cases over the past decade.  Ann Surg 230:309-321, 1999
  13. Fan ST, Lai EC, Lo CM, et al:  Hepatectomy with an ultrasonic dissector for hepatocellular carcinoma.  Br J Surg  83:117-120, 1996
  14. Trout NJ, et al: Surgical Outcome of hepatobiliary cystadenomas in cats: five cases (1988-1993). JAVMA 206: 505, 1995
  15. Gozzetti G, Mazziotti A, Grazi GL, et al:  Liver resection without blood transfusions.  Br J Surg 82:1105-1110, 1995
  16. Lewis DD, Bellenger CR, Lewis DT, et al: Hepatic lobectomy in the dog—a comparison of stapling and ligation techniques. Vet Surg 10:221-225, 1990
  17. Bjorling DE, et al: Partial hepatectomy in dogs.  Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet 3:257, 1985
  18. Francavilla A, et al: Liver regeneration in dogs: Morphologic and chemical changes. J Surg Res 25:409, 1978.
  19. Sleight DR, Thomford NR: Gross anatomy of the blood supply and biliary drainage of the canine liver. Anat Rec 166: 153-160, 1970

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