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canine health problems

Liver disease in dogs

Signs, symptoms, and treatments of liver disease in dogs

Updated August 24, 2021

Created By

Victoria Lancaster,
Small dog that has symptoms of liver disease sitting on a couch with its owner

The essentials

  • Liver disease is common in dogs It can affect dogs at any stage in their life and is typically treatable.
  • Spotting symptoms early leads to a positive prognosis Look out for things like lethargy and weight loss.
  • Advanced stage symptoms are cause for alarm — Neurological issues and jaundice are symptoms of severe liver disease.
  • Regular trips to the vet are crucial— Visiting the vet at least once a year could save your dog’s life.

What is liver disease in dogs?

The liver has an important and varied role in a dog’s body. The liver cleans the blood of toxins, aids digestion, and stores essential vitamins and minerals.

Due to the liver’s vital role, it’s no wonder keeping it so healthy is important. Unfortunately, due to the organ’s many responsibilities, there are several different ways that it can malfunction. Liver disease is the overarching term to describe the variety of possible liver complications. There are two categories of liver disease.

Chronic liver disease

Chronic liver disease occurs gradually and usually develops over time as a result of another illness. If monitored early it is highly manageable. Chronic liver disease is usually an ongoing issue.

Acute liver disease

Acute liver disease comes on suddenly and requires immediate attention. It can be life-threatening. Once treated, it should subside, but there is a chance that it could occur again at another stage in a dog’s life.

Symptoms of liver disease

Signs of liver disease can often be very challenging to spot. Symptoms can be invisible to the naked eye. They can also be similar to symptoms of other diseases and ailments. It is important to note that early stage clinical signs of liver failure can be very different from advanced stage symptoms.

🚨Both chronic and acute liver disease can be life-threatening for dogs if not acted upon. If your dog displays any of the following symptoms you should contact your vet.

Early stage symptoms

Advanced stage symptoms

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes or skin
  • Fluid retention and bloating of the abdomen
  • Neurological signs
  • Blood clotting

👉Advanced neurological symptoms may cause your pup to circle or look especially confused.

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The causes of liver disease

It can be hard to pinpoint the exact cause of a dog’s liver disease. Liver disease often occurs as a secondary issue to other illnesses. Chronic liver disease is typically caused by other ongoing issues a dog faces. Acute liver disease, however, is typically caused by sudden abnormalities and may lead to liver failure.

The four most common causes of chronic liver disease

  1. Hepatitis. Hepatitis is the medical term for liver inflammation. It is the most common cause of chronic liver disease. There are specific types of hepatitis including copper storage hepatitis and idiopathic hepatitis. Over time hepatic cirrhosis can develop. It is an end-stage liver disease in which normal liver tissue is replaced by fibrous scar tissue
  2. Cancer of the liver. Liver cancer usually develops as a result of hepatocellular carcinoma. This is the most common cancer that develops primarily in the liver. In other cases, your dog might have cancer that originates in another organ, but spreads to the liver.
  3. Infectious disease of the liver. There are a variety of infections that cause chronic inflammation of the liver. They include diseases like leptospirosis and other bacterial or parasitic infections.
  4. Diabetes. Lack of glucose absorption due to diabetes can lead to a buildup of fat in the liver.

The four most common causes of acute liver disease

🚨Make sure you’re aware of the different medications and chemicals that can cause acute liver damage. They include xylitol, paracetamol, mushrooms, blue-green algae, and some plants.

  1. Acute liver toxicity. Toxins, infections, and some medications can cause liver damage and failure. A dog that suffers from eventual acute liver failure could die within five to seven days if you don’t immediately get them to the vet.
  2. Congenital portosystemic shunt. Also known as liver shunt, dogs are typically born with this malfunction. It occurs when blood flow does not channel through the liver, therefore causing an excess of toxins.
  3. Trauma to the liver. Invasive surgeries and other injuries can cause sudden and acute liver disease.
  4. Metabolic disorders. Problems with protein synthesis and how a dog metabolizes can prompt acute liver failure.

⚠️ If you suspect that your dog has consumed something toxic notify Animal Poison Control immediately: (888) 426-4435

Certain breeds or ages are more prone to liver disease

As dogs age, they become more prone to chronic liver disease. Liver disease in pups can also be genetic. The reason that some breeds are more prone to liver disease is because they are more prone to excess copper build-up. This causes chronic hepatitis.

Breeds prone to chronic hepatitis include:

  • Bedlington terriers
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Cocker spaniels
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Skye terriers
  • Standard poodles
  • Springer spaniels
  • Chihuahuas
  • Maltese
  • West Highland white terriers

Unfortunately, some dogs have a genetic predisposition to things like liver shunts. They can cause acute liver failure. Breeds prone to shunts include:

  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Miniature schnauzers
  • Cairn terriers
  • Maltese

Diagnosing liver disease

A definitive diagnosis is often difficult. The vet may perform a variety of tests when diagnosing liver disease. The first thing they will do is look at your dog’s medical history for any primary illnesses or underlying causes of liver disease. Illnesses like pancreatitis and gallbladder diseases are often linked to liver damage. If they can identify a primary illness causing the liver disease, it will help determine a prognosis.

Tests your vet may compose will include:

  • Blood tests to detect liver enzyme activity in liver cells and bile acid levels
  • X-rays
  • Ultrasounds
  • Urinalysis
  • Liver biopsy or fine-needle aspiration

👉Most forms of liver disease, whether chronic or acute, require analysis of the actual liver tissue for diagnosis.

Treating liver disease

The vet might prescribe a variety of treatments for your dog’s liver disease. Treatment depends on the amount of liver damage. Only treat your dog’s liver disease according to what the vet prescribes. The vet may use the following treatments depending on the severity of the liver disease:

    1. Antibiotics. Some medications reduce ammonia while others like diuretics reduce inflammation
  • Diuretics. These may be given to reduce fluid retention.
    1. Intravenous fluid therapy. This promotes hydration and restores electrolytes.
    2. Surgery. Tumors or cysts on the liver require more invasive treatment measures.
    3. Antioxidants. Vitamin E and milk thistle extract help with liver detoxification.
  • Diet changes. Small liver-friendly diet tweaks may help but will not be the sole treatment method.

The problem with at-home remedies for liver problems

While small tweaks like diet changes and dog supplements may promote a healthy liver, the liver is a highly complex and important organ. Therefore, it is important to work cooperatively with your vet to avoid liver failure. Due to the varied kinds of liver disease, no one treatment method is most effective. Treatment requires vet approval.

How much will treatment cost?

The cost of vet treatment is difficult to predict due to the varying levels of severity of the disease. If, per say, you have a dog with a shunt who needs surgery or biopsy, treatment can add up to $10,000 in total. This is another reason that catching early signs of liver disease is so important. In more straightforward cases wherein a dog is not at the end-stage of illness, the cost will be much more affordable.

Prevention and management

Sometimes liver disease is not preventable. However, there are a few things you can do to promote your dog’s liver health. There are some small changes you as a dog owner can make to ensure your dog’s liver functions as it should.

  1. Take your dog for frequent trips to the vet.
  2. Stay up to date on vaccinations. Talk to your vet about getting your dog hepatitis and leptospirosis vaccinations.
  3. Avoid fatty foods, certain dog food, and toxins found in most human treats.
  4. Make sure your dog does not play or roam in areas where there may be toxic plants.
  5. Look out for signs of liver disease.

🚨Watch out for these plants that can cause liver complications for your pup.

The best way we can protect our dogs from liver disease is by staying in tune with their health, especially as they age. Get to know their normal habits and keep their immune system healthy. When something problematic does arise, catch it early. Liver dysfunction is sometimes treatable when noticed early on.