Diagnostic performance of cytology for assessment of hepatic lipid content in dairy cattle

J Dairy Sci. 2018 Feb;101(2):1379-1387. doi: 10.3168/jds.2017-12897. Epub 2017 Dec 14.


The objective of our study was to characterize the diagnostic performance of cytology for assessing hepatic lipid content (HLC) in dairy cows by comparing microscopic evaluation of lipid vacuolation in touch imprint slide preparations of liver biopsies with quantitative measurement of triglyceride concentration ([TG]; mg/mg of wet weight) in paired biopsy samples. Our study also sought to compare the diagnostic performance of liver cytology, plasma nonesterified fatty acid concentration ([NEFA]), and plasma β-hydroxybutyrate concentration ([BHB]) derived from a measurement performed on whole blood, for assessing HLC. Chemical extraction of TG from liver tissue remains the gold standard for quantifying HLC, largely because available blood tests, although useful for detecting some types of pathology, such as increased lipid mobilization, ketosis, or hepatocellular injury, are nonspecific as to etiology. Veterinary practitioners can sample bovine liver for cytological evaluation in a fast, minimally invasive, and inexpensive manner. Thus, if highly predictive of HLC, cytology would be a practical diagnostic tool for dairy veterinarians. In our study, liver biopsy samples from Holstein cows (219 samples from 105 cows: 52 from cows 2 to 20 d prepartum, 105 from cows 0 to 10 d in milk, 62 from cows 18 to 25 d in milk) were used to prepare cytology slides and to quantify [TG] using the Folch extraction method followed by the Hantzch condensation reaction and spectrophotometric measurement. An ordinal scale (0-4) based on amount of hepatocellular cytoplasm occupied by discrete clear vacuoles was used by 3 blinded, independent observers to rank HLC in Wright-Giemsa-stained slides. Interobserver agreement in cytology scoring was good. Corresponding plasma [NEFA] and [BHB] measurements were available for 187 and 195 of the 219 samples, respectively. Liver [TG] correlated more strongly with cytology score than with NEFA or BHB, and receiver operating characteristic curve analysis showed that cytology had better diagnostic performance than either NEFA or BHB for correctly categorizing [TG] at thresholds of 5, 10, and 15%. Hepatic lipidosis in high-producing dairy cows is of major clinical and economic importance, and this study demonstrates that cytology is an accurate means of assessing HLC. Additional work is indicated to evaluate the diagnostic utility of liver cytology.

Keywords: cytology; lipidosis; liver; nonesterified fatty acids (NEFA); β-hydroxybutyrate (BHB).

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • 3-Hydroxybutyric Acid / blood
  • Animals
  • Cattle / metabolism*
  • Cattle Diseases / diagnosis
  • Cytological Techniques / veterinary*
  • Dairying
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / blood
  • Female
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Triglycerides / metabolism


  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Triglycerides
  • 3-Hydroxybutyric Acid