You might be hard-pressed to find a horse owner who hasn’t heard of commonplace equine ailments such as colic, arthritis, or laminitis. But a less common concern that might not always on owners’ radars is liver failure. In fact, according to Thomas J. Divers, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, ACVECC, professor and Chief of Large Animal Medicine at Cornell University, horses rarely experience liver failure. When they do, however, it’s important to diagnose and treat them quickly and appropriately as this complex condition can be fatal. Divers presented on the topic at the 2011 Western Veterinary Conference, held Feb. 20-24 in Las Vegas, Nev.

The liver plays an important role in the equine digestive, endocrine, coagulation (clotting), and immune systems. Its primary function is detoxification, protein synthesis, and production of biochemicals necessary for digestion. The liver can typically still function adequately when it is partly damaged or diseased; however, a highly damaged liver can be a very serious problem.


Divers explained that horses and foals are most likely to develop liver damage or disease when they have a pre-existing septic, hypoxic (lacking oxygen), neoplastic (abnormal growths or tumors), toxic, or metabolic condition.

He added that the progression from liver disease to failure is rare, but causes of failure can include:

  • Toxicity from alslike clover, Panicum grasses, or pyrrolizidine alkaloids (toxins found in weeds such as <