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FIRST, THE BASICS
The lungs are the focus of this topic. The diaphragm and rib muscles extend and contract to draw breath into the lungs and expel it again. In many ways the lungs are like sponges filled with air. Life depends on the ability of their small chambers to expand with new air and contract to expel used air. There is not a lot of extra room inside the chest cavity so when something (such as fluid) starts taking up space in the chest, the lungs do not have room to inflate to their natural capacity. Breathing becomes hard work and the patient’s focus becomes expanding the lung against limited space, sort of like trying to blow up a balloon that is too stiff. This fluid is not actually inside the lungs and generally does not lead to coughing or sputtering; it is instead surrounding the lungs making lung expansion difficult, leading to shallow rapid breaths and recruitment of the abdominal muscles to lend strength to the act of breathing
TYPES OF FLUIDS
The effort the patient is making to breathe will probably be the first sign of trouble and upon seeing this, your veterinarian is likely to recommend radiographs. On radiographs, fluid in the chest will be obvious. From there, the chest will need to be tapped with a needle and the fluid drained. This will create some relief for the patient as the lung will once again be able to expand. The fluid will most likely need to be sent to the lab for testing to determine the fluid type. If the patient is too distressed for radiographs, the chest may be immediately tapped to see if there is fluid pressure that can be relieved. After the fluid has been removed from the chest, new radiographs are often taken to see if there are any structures (such as masses or heart chamber enlargements) that have become visible now that overlying fluid is gone.
WHAT IS LYMPH?
If there is a reason for the chyle build up, it is important to find that reason. Often (especially in the cat), the reason is heart disease. Heart disease generally interferes with lymphatic drainage and poor drainage leads to the chyle build up but there can be other reasons for chyle build up besides heart disease. Any sort of mass or growth in the chest could also be responsible. If a cause can be found, then it should be addressed if possible. If no cause can be found then the condition is termed “idiopathic” and is simply managed either medically or surgically. An echocardiogram/ultrasound of the chest is almost always needed to rule out masses in the chest and assess the patient for heart disease. Most cases of chylothorax are idiopathic.
Cats are diagnosed with chylothorax approximately four times as often as dogs.
Siamese and Himalayan breeds of cat seem predisposed while in dogs the Afghan hound and Shiba Inu are predisposed.
DIAGNOSIS: IDIOPATHIC CHYLOTHORAX
In many cases, a cause of chylothorax cannot be defined. In this situation the chylothorax is said to be "idiopathic" and it must be treated without the benefit of treating its underlying cause. There are several options for treatment though they have pros and cons. The most conservative method is “medical management.” This means that whenever the patient seems to be having some distress, the chest fluid is drained. How often this is necessary is highly individual but every few weeks is a common interval. In time, after many taps, scarring can build up to cause the fluid to “loculate” which means that small pockets of fluid form rather than one drainable area. This makes tapping more difficult over time. Other problems with periodic tapping is the potential to introduce an infection with the needle stick and the fact that chyle is an inflammatory fluid which can, over a long time, create some very problematic scarring between the chest wall and the lung. This is called restrictive or fibrosing pleuritis and is definitely something to avoid (see below).
A low fat diet (approximately 6% fat on a dry matter basis) is generally also used in conjunction with the above. Medical management such as this is often recommended before surgery as some cases of chylothorax will spontaneously resolve.
More permanent solutions require surgery.
THORACIC DUCT LIGATION AND PERICARDIECTOMY
CISTERNA CHYLI ABLATION
The cisterna chyle is a structure where lymph collects just before it flows into the thoracic duct. The removal or destruction of the cisterna chyli further diverts lymph flow away from the chest. This procedure is generally reserved for patients who did not find success with thoracic duct ligation/pericardiectomy.
It can take up to 50 days to realize the benefits of surgery for chylothorax. Some animals simply will not achieve adequate resolution and some (as many as 30% of dogs) will resolve their chylothorax only to develop a non-chylous fluid effusion. The simple use of prednisone as an anti-inflammatory measure can resolve such fluid in as many as 60% of dogs though it takes 4-6 weeks. If this is ineffective or a more rapid solution is needed, a port can be surgically placed under the skin to allow for easy fluid drainage or a pump can similarly be placed to allow the owner to pump fluid from the chest into the abdomen.
BEWARE OF FIBROSING PLEURITIS
Chyle in the chest is irritating to the local tissue; the lungs can actually develop scarring from being in contact with chyle. Scarring prevents the lungs from expanding normally even after the chyle is removed. The only treatment is to surgically remove the scar tissue using a procedure called "decortication", a process fraught with complications if the lungs are diffusely affected. If both lungs must be decorticated, it is common for a life-threatening pulmonary edema to occur as the lungs try to re-expand. Sometimes air leaks out of the lung and fills the chest with air ("pneumothorax"). Before opting for any surgical treatment of idiopathic chylothorax, this potential complicating factor should be discussed with the surgeon.
Page last updated: 3/25/2022