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Liver Disease in Dogs: Know The Signs Before It's Too Late

When you think about your dog's vital organs, which come to mind? Many pet owners name the heart, brain, and lungs, and for good reason.

However, have you ever considered the importance of your dog's liver? The liver is another vital organ that is often overlooked but definitely shouldn't be. 

The liver plays incredibly important and necessary roles in the dog's body. If it doesn't function properly, a wide array of health conditions are likely to develop.

Therefore, it is imperative that dog owners know how to recognize signs of liver problems. Early detection can be the difference between life and death for your four-legged companion.

In this article, we'll cover all things related to liver disease in dogs. From the roles of the liver to ways to prevent the organ from facing potential harm. Let's get started!

liver disease in dogs

What is Liver Disease

Liver disease is a relatively commonly diagnosed condition in dogs. It can develop for a number of varying reasons, all which we will discuss. However, let's first take a look at the organ itself.

Where is the Liver Located

The liver is located in the abdominal region of the dog's body, next to the stomach.

What Does the Liver Do

The liver is the second largest organ in the body (the skin is the first). It performs approximately 1,500 essential functions in the body.

Therefore, it's a bit worrisome that the liver is constantly overlooked when it comes to our dog's health and well-being.

Take a look at just a few of the incredibly important functions that the liver is responsible for.

  • Detoxification of blood
  • Creating plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
  • Breaking down and digesting medications
  • Activating vitamin D
  • Storing vitamins and minerals and releasing them when the body needs
  • Producing bile acids that support complete digestion
  • Metabolizing sources of energy
  • Eliminating harmful toxins and waste
  • Controlling hormones (including the thyroid hormone)

As you can see, it's imperative that the liver functions properly. As your dog's primary source of health and wellness, it's up to you to ensure that the vital organ is not overlooked.

Types of Liver Disease

It is also important for dog owners to understand that there are two types of liver disease: acute and chronic.

Acute Liver Disease

Acute liver disease develops suddenly and without much warning. Poisoning is the primary cause of acute liver poisoning in dogs.

Chronic Liver Disease

Chronic liver disease in dogs develops over a span of time. The disease is gradual and often symptoms are difficult to detect early on.

Diseases such as diabetes and liver cancer are two possible causes of chronic liver disease.

Symptoms of Liver Damage

When it comes to liver disease, early detection is paramount. Therefore, pet owners must be implicitly aware of the associated symptoms.  

By understanding the early signs of liver damage, dog owners can prevent the condition from developing into liver disease.

The following are symptoms of early-stage liver damage that dog owners should be aware of:

  • Digestive issues (i.e constipation and/or diarrhea)
  • Eye discharge or changes in the eyes' appearance
  • Newly developing allergies
  • Poor nail quality (brittle and/or infected)
  • Sinus problems
  • Thyroid disease
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Changes in urine (typically much darker in color)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Ligament or tendon issues
  • Behavioral changes such as irritability or aggression

liver damage symptoms

As you may have noticed, several of the symptoms of liver damage are "non-specific." In other words, they are symptoms of liver damage, but also symptoms of a slew of other ailments.

Therefore, if you recognize any of the aforementioned signs, talk to your vet and get an accurate diagnosis behind the cause. It can truly make a world of difference for your canine.

Liver Disease Symptoms

Perhaps the most telling sign that liver damage has progressed to liver disease is jaundice (the yellowing) of the skin, gums, and eyes. If you see that your dog has yellowing of these body parts, veterinary intervention is imperative.

Additionally, dog owners should be aware of the other symptoms of liver disease including:

  • Blood in urine
  • Blood in feces
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Blood clotting
  • Increased urination
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Ataxia (lack of coordination)
  • Increased thirst
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Confusion
  • Fluid retention in the abdomen (also known as ascites)
  • Behavioral changes including depression

What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs

In order to ultimately prevent liver problems in dogs, we first must understand what causes them to develop.

While some causes are entirely out of the dog owners hands, others can be prevented and should be at all cost.


Unfortunately, as dogs grow older they become more susceptible to a greater number of health issues. Liver dysfunction and, therefore, liver disease is more commonly diagnosed in geriatric dogs.

While pet owners are, sadly, unable to stop the hands of time and keep their dogs young forever, there are certain things that can be done to ensure their liver health. We'll get into that information momentarily!

Breed Predisposition

Additionally, some dog breeds are at a high risk of developing liver disease. It is important for owners to know whether their dog is genetically predisposed to develop the disease so that they can take the proper preventative precautions.

Copper Storage Disease 

Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherds are all prone to copper storage disease.

The disease causes the dog's body to store copper and, subsequently, it accumulates in the liver. The accumulation is responsible for causing significant liver damage and disease if left untreated.

Hepatic Lipidosis

Furthermore, some dog breeds are more prone to hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. These dogs include several toy breeds like Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and Fox terriers.

Hepatic lipidosis is also commonly diagnosed in cats. The condition occurs when there is a triglyceride accumulation in the liver, thus resulting in liver damage and subsequent liver disease.

Lastly, while liver disease is most often diagnosed in older dogs, puppies can be born with a condition called liver shunt. Liver shunt hinders the circulation of blood in the liver and can lead to further complications such as liver disease.

Genetic Abnormalities 

Moreover, some congenital abnormalities which are not breed specific can cause altered blood flow to the liver, thus resulting in damage to the vital organ. 

Medications and Chemicals

Additionally, many conventional, chemically based medications are known to cause liver disease in dogs and people alike. The greater the number of chemicals and toxins in the body, the more difficult it is for the liver to break them down and protect itself from potential harm.

Unfortunately, dogs are constantly exposed to toxins, some of which are out of our control. However, dog owners do have control over one major contributor: medications.

Some conventional medications are absolutely necessary, we aren't denying that. However, the amount of medications and vaccinations that that many pet owners are agreeing to is far too many for their dog's liver to break down.

Some of the worst toxicity levels can be found in the following commonly administered medications and vaccines: 

  • Heartworm medication 
  • Flea and tick medication 
  • Deworming medication 
  • Nearly every vaccination 
  • Painkillers containing acetaminophen

liver disease in dogs can be caused by toxins

Environmental Toxins

Furthermore, dogs are exposed to countless environmental toxins on a daily basis. Experts have found a direct correlation between many of these toxins and liver disease in dogs.

Take a look at the environmental toxins that your dog may come in contact with: 

  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • Pollution
  • Heavy metals
  • Processed foods
  • Household cleaners
  • Fluoride found in drinking water
  • PBDE (a flame retardant found in many pet foods)
  • Aflatoxins (a mold produced by many foods)

Untreated Diseases

Additionally, if some diseases are left untreated they can ultimately lead to the development of liver damage and subsequent liver disease.

These conditions include: 

  • Untreated heartworm disease 
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreatic diseases
  • Untreated viral and bacterial infections 

The most common viral disease associated with liver disease is infectious canine hepatitis. The disease is vaccine-preventable, although it is not always administered, especially if the dog doesn't have pre-existing liver conditions.

If you are concerned about your dog's liver function, we recommend asking your veterinarian whether the vaccine may be a smart preventative measure to take. 

Diagnosing Liver Disease

Diagnosing liver disease in dogs often requires several tests. First, your veterinarian will examine the dog's physical state and look for signs of a distended abdomen, jaundice coloring, pale mucous membranes, dehydration, and poor coat quality.

It is important for dog owners to report any behavioral changes they have noticed as many are symptoms of liver problems. Be sure to report changes in appetite, depression, ataxia (loss of coordination), lethargy, as well as whether the dog has been vomiting or has had diarrhea. 

Next, your vet will perform a CBC (complete blood count) and a serum biochemistry panel in order to look for specific level changes that suggest liver damage and/or liver disease. 

Additionally, an exam called a serum bile acid concentration test may be recommended in order to study how the liver is functioning. 

Next, a urinalysis will be performed in order to look for the presence of bilirubin and/or ammonium biurate crystals. This will allow the veterinarian to have a clearer understanding of how the dog's liver is functioning. 

Finally, your veterinarian may recommend a fine needle aspirate of the liver and/or a biopsy of liver tissue.

These procedures will allow the veterinarian to have a comprehensive understanding of your dog's liver disease and allow them to make a more accurate prognosis. 

High Liver Enzymes: Understanding What it Means

If you suspect that your dog is experiencing liver problems, your veterinarian will also perform a blood test to look at their liver enzyme levels.

Elevated liver enzymes indicate inflammation and damage to liver cells. In humans, elevated liver enzymes are commonly associated with the excessive consumption of alcohol. In dogs, the liver enzymes can be affected by constant exposure to toxins as well as disease.

By testing the levels of the dog's liver enzymes, vets can have a better understanding of how severe the liver damage is. 

Liver Disease Treatment

Treatment for liver disease will vary based on how soon it was diagnosed as well as what initially caused the disease to develop. For instance, acute liver disease caused by toxicity consumption is typically treated with fluids and electrolytes and oxygen supplementation.

Restricted activity will also be necessary as your dog will need to rest while their liver is recovering. With that said, there are a few general methods of treatment that we will cover.

Dietary Changes

Many dogs with liver damage and/or liver disease benefit from dietary changes. It is imperative that pet owners ensure their dog is being fed a diet that is full of vitamins and minerals. Also, stay away from processed and fatty foods as they contain high levels of toxins. 


Supplements such as SAM-E or milk thistle are also beneficial during the dog's recovery period. There are also a number of supplements that can be used as preventative measures. More on that soon!


New medications to help regulate liver function may be necessary as the liver recovers. Additionally, pre-existing medications may need to be reevaluated to ensure they aren't causing additional stress on the vital organs. 


Dogs with tumors or cysts may have to have surgery. 

What is Liver Failure

 Most experts refer to stage four liver disease as liver failure. Liver failure occurs when liver damage has gone untreated and has progressed into a severe, fatal condition.

Once the dog has reached this stage of liver disease, the only thing the owner can do is make sure they are as comfortable as possible. In many cases, liver failure can be prevented by knowing the early signs of liver disease and acting quickly to get your dog neccesary medical attention.

However, that's not always the case. 

Acute Liver Failure

Acute liver failure occurs when the dog has lost more than 70% of their liver function. It is often caused by consuming infectious toxins or medications that can destory the liver.

liver failure symptoms 

Liver Failure Symptoms

Symptoms of liver failure in dogs are those of liver disease, only at their most severe state. To reiterate, these symptoms include: 

  • Presence of blood in urine and feces
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Blood clotting
  • Increased urination
  • Lethargy and weakness
  • Ataxia (lack of coordination)
  • Increased thirst
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Confusion
  • Fluid retention in the abdomen (also known as ascites)
  • Behavioral changes including depression

Acute Liver Failure Symptoms | Chronic Liver Failure Symptoms

Both acute liver failure and chronic liver failure share the same symptoms. What differs them is how quickly they develop. In terms of acute liver failure due to poisoning, liver failure symptoms can appear immediately.

In terms of chronic, long term liver disease, symptoms will be gradual as the disease progresses and worsens. Eventually, chronic liver disease will cause acute symptoms.

Signs of Liver Cancer

Additionally, although relatively uncommon in dogs, it is important to also understand the clinical signs of liver cancer. Many of the symptoms mimic those of liver damage as well as liver disease. 

Symptoms of liver cancer include: 

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, mouth, and gums) 
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight Loss
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Increased thirst 
  • Ataxia (loss of coordination) 
  • Confusion 
  • Lethargy 
  • Blood in urine or feces
  • Seizures
  • New, uncommon smells (i.e coming from the dog's mouth, nose, or rear)

Preventing Liver Problems

In some cases, liver problems are unavoidable due to the fact that they are entirely genetic. However, in other cases, pet owners can make specific changes in their dog's life to help avoid liver damage. 

Avoiding Certain Medications

One of the most important things a pet owner can do is limit their dog's exposure to toxins associated with conventional medications and yearly vaccinations.

There are so many all-natural alternatives to countless medications that pet parents should know about. These holistic alternatives prove to work just as effectively without the potential adverse reactions and liver damage. 

Additionally, talk to your holistic vet regarding the vaccinations that your individual dog actually needs. Not all dogs need every single vaccine. Furthermore, do your homework on rabies shots... the one and three-year formulas are identical.

By having a better understanding of what exactly we are putting in our dog's body, we can make important, necessary changes to limit liver damage and subsequent disease. 

Yearly Check-Ups

Again, early prevention is key in ensuring that any liver problems are caught long before they develop into a greater, irreversible issue.

Scheduling yearly check-ups (and not delaying if you notice any changes beforehand) can truly make a world of difference for your four-legged friend. 

Prevention Through Diet

Next, your dog's diet is incredibly important. Make sure to stay away from overly processed foods. Additionally, avoid fatty foods as they can also cause stress on the liver. If your dog has been diagnosed with liver damage or liver disease, ask your vet about dietary changes that can help restore liver function. 

preventing liver disease in dogs

Limiting Exposure to Toxins

Finally, dog owners must make sure that they are limiting their dog's exposure to environmental toxins. Even chemically-based household cleaners can quickly absorb into the dog's body and cause significant damage. 

Preventing Liver Damage Holistically

Additionally, there are several holistic ways to prevent liver disease in dogs. 


Glutathione is a crucial antibiotic that is known to be a powerful liver detoxifier. The supplement also provides important support to the immune system. 

Antioxidant Supplements 

Antioxidant supplements are also available for dogs and can greatly improve your dog's liver function. Additionally, antioxidants can prevent cell damage caused by free radicals.

This, in turn, can also prevent damage to the liver. One of our favorite antioxidant supplements is called astaxanthin. Remarkably, astaxanthin is 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C! 

Milk Thistle

Milk thistle is yet another all natural supplement that can help protect the liver against toxins. The supplement also works to help the liver regenerate. 

When it comes to milk thistle, be sure to talk to your holistic veterinarian regarding the appropriate dosage and when to use the supplement.

Milk thistle was once considered something you could add to your dog's diet on a daily basis, but is now recommended solely for cases where the liver is under an abnormal amount of stress. 

milk thistle for dogs

Diet Diet Diet

Finally (not to sound like a broken record), DIET IS SO IMPORTANT! One of the best ways to prevent a slew of ailments is to make sure your dog is being fed the very best food. This means no processed or fatty foods! When it comes to your dog's health and well-being, diet is everything.  

toxic food for dogs

CBD Oil for Dogs

Interesting studies have been performed on the effect cannabinoids have on liver disease, including a 2005 study, performed by Hebrew University Medical School. As well as another 2011 study, performed on mice with liver disease.

While more conclusive studies need to be performed, this is exciting news for not only our four-legged friends but for ourselves as well.

If you're interested in starting your pup on CBD oil for dogs, Honest Paws has got you covered!

Liver Disease in Dogs: A Final Thought

When all is said and done, we know that your four-legged friend means everything to you. Receiving a scary diagnosis like liver disease can be a difficult time for pet owners and we are truly sorry if you are going through it right now. 

While some cases of liver disease and liver damage cannot be avoided, others can (and should) be. It is imperative that dog owners understand the early signs of liver problems before it progresses and causes irreversible damage.

Furthermore, if you recognize any signs of liver issues, do not delay in getting your dog the medical attention that they need. Early detection can save your dog's life.


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