Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver Disease in Dogs: Types, Causes, Risk Factors, and Treatment

Liver disease in dogs is a blanket term describing various conditions affecting liver structure or function. The dog’s liver performs over 500 vital functions and is susceptible to many afflictions. 

Signs of liver disease in dogs are vomiting, appetite loss, enlarged and painful abdomen, fever, lethargy, and increased thirst and urination. Neurological problems and yellow skin and mucous membranes occur in advanced stages. 

Genetics, blood vessel defects, infectious agents, diet, endocrine conditions, metabolic issues, traumatic injuries, medications, and toxins are typical dog liver disease causes. 

The most observed liver diseases are hepatitis (liver inflammation), portosystemic shunts (PS), lipidosis, amyloidosis, copper storage disease, liver cysts, and hepatic cancer. 

Untreated hepatic conditions culminate in liver failure in dogs. Dog liver failure is fatal, painful, and warrants immediate veterinary attention.  

The treatment options for liver disease in dogs vary depending on the type. Supplements, medications, surgery, supportive care, and dietary modifications are commonly used. 

What is liver disease in dogs?

Liver disease in dogs is an umbrella term for various conditions that prevent normal liver functioning. The conditions are primary (occurs in the liver) or secondary (develops elsewhere but damages the liver).  

The liver performs many vital roles, making it sensitive to damage. Liver problems trigger unspecific symptoms and affect other body systems, causing a complex clinical picture. 

Untreated liver disease culminates in liver failure. Liver failure is an acute loss of liver function and is a life-threatening emergency. 

Liver failure in dogs develops when more than 70% of the liver becomes damaged, explains Michael Kearley, DVM, in a 2024 article “Liver Failure in Dogs” by PetMD. 

How does the liver function in a dog's body?

The liver functions as a multifaceted organ in a dog’s body, located in the front of the abdomen and behind the diaphragm. The liver is a multilobed tissue with a firm consistency and a deep red color. 

Each hepatic lobe consists of multisided units called lobules. The lobules are built from sinusoids that are blood-filled and have cavities with a spongy texture. 

The dog’s liver performs over 500 vital body functions. Liver functions include filtering blood and removing toxins, storing energy and specific nutrients, creating and circulating bile, synthesizing blood clotting factors, metabolizing drugs, and influencing the immune response.   

What are the common signs and symptoms of liver disease in dogs?

The common signs and symptoms of liver disease in dogs are listed below. 

  • Vomiting: Vomiting is a non-specific sign of liver disease in dogs. Vomiting is unpleasant for the dog and leads to dehydration if persistent. 
  • Reduced Appetite: Reduced appetite or complete appetite loss (anorexia) is common in dogs with liver disease. Liver problems cause nausea, which makes food repulsive. 
  • Swollen Abdomen: Dogs with liver problems accumulate fluid in their abdomens, a condition called ascites. Ascites are uncomfortable and impair breathing once fluid pressures the lungs. Ascites are uncomfortable and impair breathing. 
  • Abdominal Pain: Liver disease in dogs is painful. A hunched position is a hallmark sign of abdominal pain. Crying and whining are observable in some dogs. 
  • Fever: Fever means increased body temperature. The normal temperature for dogs is between 97.6° and 99.6° F, while fever is considered anything over 103° F.  
  • Lethargy: Reduced appetite, pain, and increased body temperature cause dog lethargy. A lethargic dog is disinterested in daily activities and prone to excessive sleeping. 
  • Increased Thirst and Urination: Dogs with liver disease have high water appetites and drink a lot (polydipsia), resulting in increased urination (polyuria). 
  • Yellow Skin and Membranes: Yellow skin, gums, and whites of the eyes are advanced signs of liver failure in dogs. Yellow membranes occur when the dog develops jaundice. 
  • Neurological Signs: Seizures, head pressing, and disorientation are neurological dog liver disease symptoms that develop when the liver is no longer able to remove toxins from the body. 

Does liver disease weaken a dog's immune system?

No, liver disease does not weaken a dog’s immune system. Liver problems confuse the immune system, causing excessive levels of inflammation. 

Dogs with liver disease have high ammonia levels in the blood, causing “the immune response to go unregulated,” says a study, “The effect of ammonia on canine polymorphonuclear cells,” published in Veterinary Research Communications in 2018. 

The dog’s immune system is triggered and forced into a pro-inflammatory state, which worsens its condition and symptoms. 

Are certain breeds of dogs more prone to liver disease?

Yes, certain breeds of dogs are more prone to liver disease. Specific liver diseases are more common in Doberman Pinschers, Yorkshire Terriers, and Shar Peis. 

For example, portosystemic liver shunts are prevalent in Havanese, Maltese, Yorkshire Terriers, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, Pugs, Miniature and Standard Schnauzers, Shih Tzus, Bichon Frises, and Bernese Mountain dogs. 

Copper storage disease is standard for Bedlington Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, Skye Terriers, and Doberman Pinschers. Liver amyloidosis is widespread in Shar Peis. 

At what age do dogs typically show signs of liver disease?

Dogs of all ages show signs of liver disease. Different liver conditions occur in dogs of various ages. Shunts and infectious hepatitis are more common in younger dogs. 

Dogs show signs of congenital portosystemic at under one or two years of age, according to a study, “Congenital Portosystemic Shunts in Dogs and Cats: Classification, Pathophysiology, Clinical Presentation, and Diagnosis,” issued in Veterinary Sciences in 2023. 

A separate study, “Infectious hepatitis in dogs,” published by the Sumy National Agrarian University in 2019, explains that 44% of cases of infectious hepatitis are seen in dogs between one and three years old 

Cirrhosis and hepatic cancer are expected in older canines. Cirrhosis can occur in dogs of any age, but is most common in middle-aged or older dogs, reports the article “Cirrhosis in Dogs” by Pet Health Network. 

Liver cancer is most common in dogs over 10 years old, indicates the article “Liver Disease in Dogs” by the PDSA Organization. 

What are the main causes of liver disease in dogs?

The main causes of liver disease in dogs are listed below. 

  • Genetic Factors: Certain liver conditions, such as portosystemic shunts, copper storage disease, and amyloidosis, affect specific dog breeds and have a confirmed genetic component. 
  • Blood Vessel Defects: Defects in the blood vessel scheme cause portosystemic shunts. Blood vessel defects in dogs are congenital (present at birth) or develop later in life due to increased pressure in the vessels around the liver. 
  • Infectious Agents: Common causes of liver disease include bacteria (Leptospira spp.), viruses (adenovirus type 1 and canine herpesvirus), fungi (Histoplasma capsulatum and Blastomyces dermatitides), parasites (Opistorchus and Metorchis liver flukes), protozoa (Hepatozoon canis), and rickettsia (Rickettsia rickettsii and Borrelia burgdorferi).
  • Endocrine Conditions: Endocrine conditions like diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease) are linked to impaired liver function. 
  • Dietary Choices: Nutrients taken with the food are processed in the liver, and excessive intake of certain nutrients, such as fat or copper, increases the risk of liver diseases. 
  • Metabolic Issues: Some dogs' liver disease is caused by metabolic anomalies. The altered metabolism of minerals, fats, and proteins causes liver conditions.  
  • Traumatic Injuries: The top two traumatic injuries resulting in acute liver failure include being hit by a car and experiencing heatstroke. 
  • Certain Medications: Irresponsible or prolonged use of certain medications, such as non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in dogs, cause liver damage. 
  • Poisons or Toxins: Toxic plants (ragwort, sago palm), blue-green algae, fungi, moldy foods featuring aflatoxins, and chemicals (xylitol) are the answers to the “What causes liver problems in dogs?” question. 

Can infections lead to liver disease in dogs?

Yes, infections can lead to liver disease in dogs. Infectious hepatitis is caused by agents such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, parasites, and rickettsia. 

Bacterial infections are probably the most common cause of infectious hepatitis, according to a study, “Infectious Hepatopathies in Dogs and Cats,” published in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine in 2009. 

Infectious hepatitis in dogs is acute or chronic, depending on the cause, and requires immediate care. Regular vaccination offers protection against hepatitis-causing pathogens. 

Are there genetic factors that contribute to liver disease in dogs?

Yes, there are genetic factors that contribute to liver disease in dogs. Genetics is confirmed to influence various hepatic conditions, including liver shunts and copper storage disease. 

Liver shunts are frequently genetic. Congenital shunts are most common, being responsible for approximately 80 percent of cases, explains Jennifer Coates, DVM, in a 2023 article “Liver Shunts in Dogs” for PetMD. 

Mutations in the copper metabolism genes COMMD1 or ATP7A and ATP7B have been associated with hepatic copper concentrations in Bedlington terriers and Labrador Retrievers, explains a study “Canine Copper-Associated Hepatitis” in VCNA Small Animal Practice in 2017. 

What are the different types of liver disease that can affect dogs?

The different types of liver disease that can affect dogs are listed below. 

  • Liver Inflammation (Hepatitis): Hepatitis describes acute or chronic liver inflammation caused by various agents, from pathogens to medications. Liver inflammation requires prompt veterinary attention. 
  • Portosystemic Shunt (PSS): Portosystemic shunts are blood vessel abnormalities in which venous blood bypasses the liver, causing toxin buildup. Dog PSSs are congenital or acquired. Untreated PSSs culminate in hepatic encephalopathy and liver failure. 
  • Liver Lipidosis: Liver lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, is a condition where fat deposits in the liver. Fatty liver occurs when a dog ingests insufficient calories, and the body's reserves release fat to compensate. Liver lipidosis is rare in dogs but common in cats. 
  • Hepatic Amyloidosis: Hepatic amyloidosis is the deposition of amyloid proteins in the liver. The condition is genetic or acquired in Shar Pei breed members. Dog amyloidosis is progressive and life-threatening. 
  • Copper Storage Disease: Copper storage disease refers to excessive accumulation of copper in the liver due to the inability to remove the mineral. The failure is due to genetics or high copper intake. Copper storage disease is prevalent in Bedlington Terriers.
  • Hepatic Cysts: Liver cysts are fluid-filled pockets on the liver. Cysts are present at birth or develop later in life. Large cysts are problematic and require surgical removal. 
  • Liver Cancer: Liver cancer is a newly formed mass that is primary (rises from hepatic cells or tissues) or secondary (metastasizes to the liver). Hepatic adenocarcinoma is the most common primary cancer. 

How is liver disease diagnosed in dogs?

Liver disease is diagnosed in dogs through biopsy. A study, “Endocrinology: Chronic Hepatitis in the Dog: A Review,” issued in Veterinary Quarterly in 2001, says liver biopsy is essential for diagnosis. 

Biochemistry panels and bile acid stimulation tests aid the diagnosis. Biochemistry tests check the levels of liver enzymes, such as alanine transaminase (ALT), aspartate transaminase (AST), and alkaline phosphatase (ALP). Bile acid stimulation tests measure the amount of bile acid before and after meals. 

Other tests include complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, coagulation profile, abdominal imaging (X-rays and ultrasound), and advanced imaging techniques, like CT scans and MRIs. 

Can liver disease be detected early in dogs?

Yes, liver disease can be detected early in dogs. Early diagnosis is rare as liver conditions are not immediately apparent.

Liver disease is relatively common in dogs, but its diagnosis presents a challenge, explains a study, “Diagnosis of Canine Liver Disease,” published in the clinic practice journal In Practice in 2006. 

Diagnosing liver conditions is problematic due to its large reserve capacity and ability to compensate for an extended period. The non-specificity of liver disease symptoms adds to the diagnostic problem. 

What are the standard treatments for liver disease in dogs?

The standard treatments for liver disease in dogs are medications, surgery, supplements, diet modifications, and supportive care.

Medications include antibiotics for infections and chelating agents for binding excess copper in dogs with copper storage disease. 

Surgery is typical for dogs with portosystemic shunts and liver cysts or tumors. Radiation and chemotherapy are combined with surgery in dogs with liver cancer. 

The top natural supplements supporting liver function are s-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and silybin (milk thistle). Hemp-sourced CBD oil is a helpful supplement. 

Diet modification is a critical part of the management strategy. The best formula is low in protein, fats, and minerals (copper) while high in carbohydrates, dietary fibers, and antioxidants. 

Supportive care depends on the situation and includes options such as intravenous (IV) fluids, antacids, gastroprotectants, lactulose, anti-nausea drugs, pain medications, abdominocentesis, and vitamin K supplements.  

Can CBD oil be safely used to treat symptoms of liver disease in dogs?

Yes, CBD oil can be safely used to treat symptoms of liver disease in dogs. CBD (cannabidiol) is a natural hemp extract with anti-inflammatory properties. 

Reducing inflammation is critical in dogs with liver issues since most afflictions are associated with increased inflammation levels. 

CBD oil for dogs helps relieve pain and supports comfort during liver disease treatments. Hemp pet CBD products are safe and suitable for dogs of all breeds, sizes, and ages. 

How can liver disease in dogs be prevented?

Liver disease in dogs can be prevented with regular vaccination, preventive measures, and routine veterinary checkups. 

Vaccination helps prevent leptospirosis and infectious canine hepatitis. Preventive measures include keeping the dog away from toxic plants, blocking access to dangerous chemicals, and disposing of garbage safely. Avoiding over-the-counter medications that a veterinarian does not approve is recommended.  

Routine veterinary checkups are necessary to monitor a dog’s health and catch problems early before they become liver disease. 

What are the potential complications of liver disease in dogs?

The potential complications of liver disease in dogs are listed below. 

  • Jaundice: Jaundice, or icterus, is a yellow discoloration of the gums, eyes, and skin due to hyperbilirubinemia or high levels of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellow-orange liver pigment and a waste product. Liver problems increase the bilirubin concentrations, resulting in yellowish discoloration.  
  • Ascites: Ascites or abdominal effusion is a severe liver complication in which fluid accumulates in the abdominal cavity. The fluid pressures the surrounding tissues and organs, making breathing difficult. 
  • Coagulation Abnormalities: Liver diseases reduce its ability to synthesize coagulation factors, resulting in bleeding. One or more coagulation abnormalities were present in 57% of dogs with hepatic disease, according to a study “Coagulation Disorders in Dogs with Hepatic Disease,” published in the Veterinary Journal in 2010. 
  • Hepatic Fibrosis: Hepatic fibrosis describes scarring in which damaged hepatic tissue is replaced by non-functional connective (fibrous) tissue. Hepatic fibrosis is commonly diagnosed in dogs, often as a sequela to chronic hepatitis (CH), says a study, “Hepatic Fibrosis in Dogs,” issued in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 2017. 
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is advanced fibrosis or replacing functional liver tissue with connective tissue. The term popularly describes end-stage liver disease or liver failure, as the liver is unable to function properly. 
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy (HE): Hepatic encephalopathy is brain deterioration that occurs when the liver is unable to eliminate toxins from the body. The toxins accumulate and affect brain function. Signs of HE vary, including increased dullness, unsteady gait (ataxia), head-pressing, sudden blindness, and seizures. 

Can liver disease in dogs lead to an increased risk of digestive problems?

Yes, liver disease in dogs can lead to an increased risk of digestive problems. Dogs with liver disease and pre-existing ulcers are prone to gastrointestinal bleeding. Bleeding occurs because liver problems affect blood clotting. 

Liver disease in its early stages mimics the effects of digestive problems. Signs include loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhea. 

Can liver disease in dogs be reversed or cured?

Yes, liver disease in dogs can be reversed or cured. The liver is able to regenerate and regrow, reversing the effects of particular diseases. 

Certain liver diseases, such as portosystemic shunts, are entirely treatable. Other conditions are incurable but are managed with surgery, medications, or special diets. 

The chances of damage reversal and complete cure depend on the type of liver disease and the promptness of diagnosis and treatment. 

What is the prognosis for a dog diagnosed with liver disease?

The prognosis for a dog diagnosed with liver disease ranges from good to poor. The outcome depends on the type of liver problem. 

A good prognosis is expected in dogs with portosystemic shunts and benign tumors, which are surgically treatable. 

The prognosis is guarded for dogs is chronic inflammatory liver conditions, which are incurable but manageable. 

Metastatic liver cancer has the worst prognosis. A combination of surgery, medications, and diet manage the symptoms and improve the dog’s quality of life, but only temporarily. 

Cirrhosis or cirrhosis-related findings are a poor prognostic factor, according to a study, “Primary Hepatitis in Dogs: A Retrospective Review (2002-2006),” published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 2009. 

How does liver disease affect a dog's quality of life?

Liver disease affects a dog’s quality of life by causing discomfort and pain. The liver conditions are painful or at least uncomfortable, harming the dog’s wellbeing. 

The exact quality of life depends on the type and stage of the liver disease. A normal standard of living is maintainable in dogs with early to middle-stage hepatic conditions. 

The life quality of dogs with end-stage liver failure is impaired to the point where the veterinarian recommends humane euthanasia.