The best cure is prevention
Douglas Mader DVM, Veterinarian Q&A, Reptiles Magazine, December 1999
Q: My vet said that my savannah monitor died from fatty liver. I asked him what caused it and he said that it is something that "just happens." What is fatty liver? What causes it? Can it be treated?
A: Fatty liver, or hepatic lipidosis, which is the medical term, refers to a condition where the patient's liver is infiltrated with excessive fat. There are many causes of fatty liver, and in most cases, the condition itself is not a cause of death. In fact, in most species, except for the cat, a patient can have fatty Ever with no untoward effects.
Fatty liver can be caused by a number of metabolic conditions such as diabetes, Cushing's disease, protein deficiencies, hypothyroidism and more.
Usually, a predisposing factor is obesity. If a patient goes off food (called anorexia) the fat in the body is mobilized in the blood to the liver where it is to be used as energy for the body. But, for some reason, the liver is unable to utilize this rapid influx of fat, and the liver becomes "fatty."
This is common in wild caught herps. These animals usually come into captivity in good body condition but then due to some cause, whether it is improper housing, poor diet or some management disorder, they go off food.
In their struggle to begin eating, they mobilize their fat. Then when they die and are necropsied (an animal autopsy), the fatty liver is discovered.
To an inexperienced person this looks quite abnormal (the liver actually takes on swollen, yellow appearance), and it is assumed that it is the cause of death. As a result, the person doing the necropsy stops looking for the real cause.
I see fatty liver in savannah monitors commonly. These animals are routinely misfed in captivity-typically they are fed high amounts of dog food, live fatty mice or any other high calorie food. On top of this, they are kept in small cages and not allowed to roam and hunt (which is normal for them in the wild). As a result, they become couch potatoes and get fat.
Somewhere down the road, these fat savannahs develop disease (kidney, liver, etc.) and stop eating. Now this fat lizard is a prime candidate to develop a fatty liver. I can't tell you how many calls I get about fatty liver causing death in savannahs.
Fatty liver can be treated if the underlying cause can be identified and corrected. Force-feeding (often with a stomach tube in place for some species), antibiotics as needed, steroids and vitamins are often required.
If your reptile gets sick, take it to your herp vet immediately. Better yet, if you have a reptile, house it correctly, feed it correctly and care for it correctly. Then, you will only have to take it to your herp vet for regular, routine annual health checks instead of emergency life or death visits!
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