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healthy canine living
Doodle eating its food

The essentials

  • The liver is the second largest organ in a dog’s body — It’s also the largest gland, and has up to 1,500 known functions.
  • Signs of liver disease can take time to appear — This is due to the liver’s functional reserve and its ability to regenerate.
  • Several factors can cause liver disease in dogs — These include some diseases, infections, poor diet, and more.
  • Diet and nutrition play an important role in treating liver disease When combined with medications, dietary changes can help dogs with liver disease.

How liver disease affects dogs

Liver disease is a common condition in dogs that can affect canines of any age or breed. Like in humans, dogs’ livers play many important roles within their bodies. A dog’s liver cleanses the body of toxins, digests nutrients, and clots blood.

Unfortunately, the liver can be vulnerable to many issues. In dogs, acute liver disease can occur suddenly and may be life-threatening. Chronic liver disease develops more gradually but is often easier to manage with long-term treatment.

Naturally, a visit to the vet should be a pet parent’s first step if they notice liver symptoms of liver disease in their dog. But, pet owners may be surprised to learn how much diet and nutrition matter to healthy liver function. In combination with medication, special diets and nutrition-centered approaches can be an effective way to treat liver disease in dogs.

🚨Always consult your veterinarian about proper nutrition. Liver disease has a variety of causes and treatment options may differ.

Nutrition for dogs with liver disease

Liver disease in dogs can be tricky to diagnose and clinical signs may take a while to appear. This is due to the liver’s functional reserve and regenerative abilities. While symptoms vary, common warning signs include:

With liver disease, vets often aim to both target underlying causes and address symptoms. A malfunctioning liver can often cause poor digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and an elevation of liver enzymes. Left untreated, the liver can lose its ability to function and can lead to a serious brain condition called hepatic encephalopathy (HE).

To ease symptoms, vets may recommend nutritional changes. Thankfully, there are a few common supplements vets may recommend to help normalize liver function in dogs.

Milk thistle extract

Milk thistle is a flowering herb originally native to the Mediterranean and North Africa. The active ingredient in milk thistle is a flavonoid (a powerful antioxidant agent) called silymarin. In both humans and dogs, silymarin has scientifically proven antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Silymarin can also limit free radical damage and aid in liver repair and regeneration. In fact, milk thistle is the most commonly used herbal supplement in the United States to treat liver issues .

While milk thistle can be beneficial for dogs, owners should always check with a veterinarian first. Once you’ve gotten the go-ahead, consider high-quality supplements with limited ingredients. One product we recommend is the affordable and 100% USDA organic Herbsmith Milk Thistle Liver Support Powder.

Antioxidants

Multivitamins are an increasingly popular way to fill nutritional gaps in dogs. Canines with liver disease commonly have decreased levels of B vitamins, vitamin E, and vitamin K. As a result, veterinarians will often recommend specific supplemental vitamins to help normalize levels in the body. Vitamin E has especially powerful antioxidant properties that help “switch off” free radicals. Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that can cause unwanted chemical reactions in a dog’s body.

If you’re hesitant about supplements, consider introducing foods with naturally high vitamin E levels. Salmon, eggs, and spinach are full of vitamin E. Vitamin C may also provide benefits, but it’s not recommended for dogs with copper storage liver diseases . Besides vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, like fish oil, boost immunity and may help ease symptoms of liver disease.

Vet-recommended diet guidelines

While effective, medications and supplements can only do much for dogs with liver disease. Symptoms are usually caused by shortages or irregularities in a dog’s diet. So, vets will often recommend changes to a dog’s food to help address liver disease. These guidelines aim to maintain appropriate levels of important minerals like sodium and potassium.

As with supplements, diet guidelines vary from dog to dog, so always consult a doctor before making any major changes. Because liver disease causes a variety of symptoms, there’s no one optimal diet for all dogs. Instead, a doctor will tailor a dog’s dietary changes based on their individual needs. Some commonly-recommended diet tips for dogs with liver disease include:

Tip 1: Decrease protein intake

The disease disrupts the liver’s ability to metabolize compounds. Excess levels of protein waste can build up and affect a dog’s mental function. For dogs with liver disease, vets often suggest foods with lower than normal protein levels. In some cases, vets may suggest high-quality proteins from non-meat sources.

Eggs and soy may be suitable proteins for some dogs but should be fed within a balanced diet. The goal is to provide the liver with adequate, but not excessive, levels of protein. But, protein restriction isn’t always recommended. This approach is most often used in dogs at risk of developing HE. Because protein is vital to a dog’s diet, you should always consult a vet first.

Tip 2: Decrease copper intake

Abnormal levels of copper in a dog’s body can be a byproduct of liver disease. This can cause a condition called copper storage hepatopathy. A lot of commercial dry dog food contains copper, so vets may prescribe a special diet to reduce your dog’s intake. They may also suggest avoiding foods naturally high in copper, like organ meats including lamb, pork, and duck.

Tip 3: Increase zinc intake

Zinc is a mineral that helps reduce copper accumulation in the liver. A zinc deficiency can also impede the liver’s ability to regrow lost or damaged tissue. In these cases, doctors might recommend a zinc supplement to control the buildup of copper.

👉 Always consult a professional vet before introducing any new supplements to your dog. 

Tip 4: Feed small, frequent meals

The liver helps the body convert glycogen (the stored form of glucose) to glucose (sugar) to use as energy. A diseased liver can lead to too much glycogen. Outlook in these cases is unfortunately often poor. But, feeding small, frequent meals with high carbohydrates may help ease symptoms.

With liver supplements, a liver biopsy (or several) is often needed to monitor nutrient levels in the long term. If you decide to supplement your dog’s diet, it’s essential to be aware of any accumulations or deficiencies, as they can complicate problems.

Other foods to avoid

We all know chocolate is bad for dogs, but what else should be avoided? Like us, dogs’ digestive systems differ from animal to animal. Some can handle dairy with no issues, while others experience lactose intolerance. Common proteins like beef, chicken, and turkey are fine for many dogs, but cause problems for others.

When it comes to bad foods for dogs, there are some gray areas. But, there are certain foods that have proven adverse effects on dogs’ livers and should be avoided at all costs. Among others, these include:

  • Xylitol. This natural sweetener is commonly found in candy and chewing gum and is extremely toxic to dogs. Even small amounts of xylitol can cause a dog’s blood sugar to drop, causing seizures and/or liver failure.
  • Alcohol. It should go without saying, but dogs should never drink alcohol. Its effects on human livers are well-documented, and dogs’ smaller bodies make it harder to metabolize ethanol.
  • Cat food. You might not think they’re that different, but commercial cat food recipes are often much higher in meat-based protein than dog food. Dogs with liver disease should be kept away from cat food at all costs, as the high protein levels can lead to further liver issues.

Frequently asked questions

How did my dog get liver disease?

Like ours, dogs’ livers are susceptible to many different complications. Conditions like hepatitis and cancer could be the culprit. But, liver abnormalities can be genetic, and they can even be caused by simple trauma.

What do I feed my dog with liver disease?

Nutrition and diet are important in treating liver disease. Vets will often prescribe a diet that is low in protein and copper and may suggest a supplement to address zinc deficiency. Diets will vary from dog to dog, so make sure to seek professional advice.

Are there any liver disease supplements for dogs?

Milk thistle is a commonly used herbal remedy for liver damage in humans and dogs alike. In dogs, antioxidants like vitamin E and vitamin K can also reduce symptoms.

What foods should I avoid?

Xylitol is especially harmful to dogs’ livers, even in small doses. Alcohol, with its known liver impairing effects, should be avoided at all costs. Somewhat surprisingly, cat food also poses a risk to dogs with liver damage, due to its higher protein content.

Can a dog’s liver repair itself?

Dogs’ livers are able to regrow and create new cells. But left untreated, liver disease can become irreversible. So, it’s important for owners to be proactive about addressing any symptoms as soon as possible.