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The essentials

  • Liver disease is common in dogs — It can affect dogs at any stage in their life but is typically treatable when detected early on.
  • Spotting symptoms early leads to a positive prognosis — Look out for symptoms like lethargy and weight loss that can signal liver disease in dogs
  • Advanced-stage symptoms are cause for alarm — Neurological issues and jaundice are symptoms of severe cases of liver disease in canines and should require immediate veterinary attention.

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

Liver disease, which refers to a variety of possible liver complications, is common among canines, but it is also highly treatable if addressed early on. Left untreated, the liver can lose its ability to function which can lead to a serious brain condition called hepatic encephalopathy (HE).

What is liver disease?

Liver disease refers to a variety of possible liver complications but is normally categorized as either chronic or acute liver disease. While liver issues are common among canines, they are likely treatable if addressed early on.

Chronic vs. acute 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 considered highly manageable. Chronic liver disease is usually an ongoing issue.

Acute liver disease

Acute liver disease, most often caused by infectious agents or toxins, can arrive suddenly and requires immediate attention. It can be life-threatening. Once treated, acute liver disease should subside, but there is a chance that it could occur again at another stage in a dog’s life.

Symptoms of liver disease in dogs

Signs of liver disease can often be very challenging to spot in pets. 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 veterinarian.

Early stage symptoms

During the early stages of suspected liver problems in dogs, the liver begins to swell and enlarge. Here are some of the most common early symptoms of underlying liver disease:

  • Fatigue/lethargy. Dogs with liver problems often appear more tired or listless than usual.
  • Weight loss. Abnormal weight loss in a short period of time can signal a liver problem.
  • Vomiting. Throwing up is a common canine symptom of several illnesses, including liver disease.
  • Diarrhea. Liver disease can cause gastrointestinal issues and upset stomachs in dogs.
  • Frequent urination. If your dog is peeing more than usual, it might be a red flag.
  • Increased thirst. Drinking more water than normal may be a sign of liver disease.

Advanced stage symptoms

When canine liver disease progresses to advanced stages, liver cells begin to die and symptoms may become more severe.

  • Jaundice or yellowing of the eyes or skin.
  • Fluid retention and bloating of the abdomen. 
  • Neurological issues. These may include things like circling or acting confused.
  • Increased risk of blood clots. 

The four stages of liver disease in dogs

Liver disease is characterized by four different stages, beginning with abnormal inflammation and ending with liver failure.

  • Hepatitis. Hepatitis refers to abnormal inflammation of the liver, a response to injury or toxins. Inflammation, which is your body’s attempt to purge infection and begin the healing process, is typically treated with dietary changes or medication.
  • Fibrosis. As your dog’s liver begins to stiffen, scar tissue also adds up and reduces blood flow throughout the organ, which ultimately affects liver cells’ ability to perform their many jobs. At this fibrosis stage, liver cells may still be able to regenerate, meaning liver disease is still reversible depending on the extent of fibrosis.
  • Cirrhosis. Your dog needs approximately 20% of normal liver function to survive. When cirrhosis occurs, severe and permanent scar tissue replaces functioning liver cells. And without any healthy liver cells, there’s no chance for cell regeneration. Still, in some cases, it’s possible to slow the damage at this stage.
  • Liver failure. At this fourth and final stage of liver disease, your dog’s liver no longer functions well enough for its body. Liver failure, also called decompensated cirrhosis, refers to the breakdown of liver vitality. Though it can be a slow and chronic process, liver failure is ultimately fatal without a liver transplant.

The causes of liver disease in dogs

It can be hard to pinpoint the exact underlying 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.

Most common causes of liver disease

  • Inflammation. Hepatitis is the medical term for liver inflammation. It is the most common cause of chronic liver disease. There are two main types of hepatitis in dogs: acute hepatitis or long-term inflammation called chronic hepatitis, both of which can lead to scar tissue formation and cirrhosis in the liver.
  • 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.
  • Infectious disease of the liver. There are a variety of infections that cause chronic inflammation of the liver. They include diseases like infectious canine hepatitis, leptospirosis, and other bacterial or parasitic infections.
  • Diabetes. Lack of glucose absorption due to diabetes can lead to a buildup of fat in the liver.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Trauma to the liver. Invasive surgeries and other injuries, such as external trauma from car accidents or the like, can cause sudden and acute liver disease.
  • Metabolic disorders. Problems with protein synthesis and how a dog metabolizes can prompt acute liver failure.

🚨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.

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

Dog breeds and ages prone to liver disease

As dogs age, they become more prone to chronic liver disease. Liver disease in pups can also be genetic. Certain breeds have a predisposition to chronic and/or acute liver disease. Whether it’s hepatitis or liver shunts, the following breeds may need extra attention when it comes to their liver health.

Breeds at heightened risk for liver disease

Diagnosing liver disease in dogs

A definitive diagnosis is often difficult. Your veterinarian 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 in dogs

The vet might prescribe a variety of treatment options for your dog’s liver disease. Treatment depends on the amount of liver damage, as well as the underlying cause. 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:

  • Antibiotics. Some medications reduce ammonia while others like diuretics reduce inflammation.
  • Diuretics. These may be given to reduce fluid retention.
  • Intravenous fluid therapy. This promotes hydration and restores electrolytes.
  • Surgery. Tumors or cysts on the liver require more invasive treatment measures.
  • 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 cost of vet treatment is difficult to predict due to the varying levels of severity of the disease. Blood and urine and x-rays and ultrasound may run $600, and additional imaging like MRI or CT scans can be in the thousands.

If, 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.

👉 Investing in pet insurance early on can help eliminate some of these costs should they arise later in your pet’s life.

The problem with at-home remedies for liver problems

Just because an at-home therapy for the liver works for humans doesn’t mean it will work for your furry friend. Dogs actually lack sufficient amounts of the liver enzymes used to metabolize medications and supplements, so they may become ill from taking certain human treatments. Instead, focus on prevention and veterinary intervention to manage or treat your dog’s liver problems.

Prevention and management of liver disease

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.

  • Don’t skip yearly vet exams. Annual check-ups will ensure you stay up to date on vaccinations, such as hepatitis and leptospirosis vaccinations.
  • A healthy diet goes a long way. A highly digestible, vet-approved hepatic diet low in protein is an effective strategy for managing or preventing liver disease in dogs. You should also avoid fatty foods, and foods with toxins, often found in human treats.
  • Know and avoid plants considered toxic to dogs. Make sure your dog does not play or roam in areas where there may be toxic plants known to cause liver damage, such as oleander and sago palm.
  • Keep your puppy away from freshwater lakes. Freshwater lakes also harbor toxins that can be harmful to your dog’s liver health.
  • Look out for early signs of liver disease. Early symptoms of liver problems, including fatigue, weight loss, or vomiting, are common during the first stage of liver disease. At this time, your dog’s liver issues are typically treatable with dietary changes or medication. If you suspect something, call your vet immediately.

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

Vet-approved diet for dogs with liver disease

If you already know your dog has liver disease, your vet will likely emphasize the importance of an appropriate diet tailored to support a defective liver. Such diets, often called hepatic diets, contain ingredients that are typically low in protein, highly digestible, high in zinc, and low in copper levels — all of which help the body maintain normal metabolic function and levels of minerals, decrease further damage to the liver or support liver cell regeneration.

Whether or not your dog will need to stay on a special diet for liver disease depends on the specific diagnosis. In some cases, such as for dogs with chronic liver disease, your pup may need to consume a special diet in addition to liver support medication for the long haul.

Certain commercial foods are specially formulated for a dog with liver disease. Below are a few options to consider, all of which require vet authorization. As with any major change in diet, approval from your vet is essential.

Vet-recommended diet guidelines

While effective, medications and supplements can only do much for dogs with liver disease. So, vets will often recommend changes to a dog’s food to help address liver damage and maintain appropriate levels of important minerals like sodium and potassium. 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. If prescription liver disease dog food is unavailable, inaccessible, or simply not an option for your pup, ask your vet if you can consider homemade dog food options. Some commonly recommended diet tips for dogs with liver disease include:

Decreasing 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 they 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 a neurological condition known as hepatic encephalopathy (HE). Because protein is vital to a dog’s diet, you should always consult a vet first.

Decreasing 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.

Increasing 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. 

Feeding 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.

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.

Frequently asked questions

How long will a dog with liver disease live?

Longevity depends on the severity of your dog’s liver disease as well as how they respond to treatment. It can range from a few days to several years.

How long will a dog live with high liver enzymes?

Unfortunately, the prognosis for dogs with severely elevated liver enzymes is quite poor. Once deterioration begins, it is rapid and may be fatal within a few months.

What foods should dogs with liver disease avoid?

Red meats or other foods high in protein, dog food high in preservatives and sugar, as well as foods high in copper or salt are not recommended for dogs with liver disease.

What toxins cause liver failure in dogs?

The two most commonly encountered toxins involved with liver toxicity are xylitol and paracetamol.

What foods help a dog’s liver?

Protein sources with high biological values, such as lean proteins (poultry, lean ground beef) as well as foods with high zinc (salmon, pork, duck) may help a damaged liver.