Liver Disease in Dogs: Know The Signs Before It's Too Late
When you think about your dog's vital organs, which ones come to mind? Many pet owners name the heart, brain, and lungs, for good reason.
However, have you ever considered your dog's liver? The liver is another vital organ that is often overlooked but shouldn't be.
The liver plays vital roles in the dog's body. If it doesn't function properly, many health conditions can develop.
Therefore, dog owners must know how to recognize signs of liver problems. Early detection of liver disease is critical for your four-legged companion’s health and well-being.
In this article, we'll cover lots of things related to liver disease in dogs, including how the liver functions and ways to keep the liver healthy. Let's get started!
What is Liver Disease
Liver disease is relatively common in dogs. It can develop for many reasons, which we will discuss. Let's first take a look at the organ itself.
Where is the Liver Located
The liver is located on the right side of the abdomen, just below the diaphragm.
What Does the Liver Do
The liver is the second-largest organ. It performs approximately 1,500 functions.
Therefore, it's a bit worrisome that the liver is constantly overlooked regarding our dogs’ health and well-being.
Here are just a few of the incredibly important functions of the liver:
- Blood detoxification
- Activating vitamin D
- Metabolizing medications
- Metabolizing sources of energy
- Eliminating harmful toxins and waste
- Producing bile acids to help digestion
- Storing and releasing vitamins and minerals
- Regulating hormones (e.g., thyroid hormone)
- Creating plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
Clearly, proper liver function is essential. Don’t forget this!
Types of Liver Disease
Liver disease is classified as acute or chronic.
Acute Liver Disease
Acute liver disease develops suddenly. Toxicity is the primary cause of acute liver disease in dogs.
Chronic Liver Disease
Chronic liver disease in dogs develops gradually. Its symptoms are often difficult to detect early on.
Diseases such as diabetes and liver cancer are two possible causes of chronic liver disease.
Symptoms of Liver Damage
Early detection of liver disease is paramount. Therefore, pet owners must be familiar with liver disease symptoms.
Knowing the early signs of liver damage can help dog owners be proactive with getting treatment to repair the liver, or at least slow the progression of liver disease.
Below are symptoms of early-stage liver damage:
- Eye discharge
- Sinus problems
- Thyroid disease
- Loss of appetite
- Newly-developing allergies
- Ligament or tendon issues
- Poor nail quality (brittle, infected)
- Changes in urine (e.g., darker color)
- Digestive issues (e.g., constipation, diarrhea)
- Behavioral changes (e.g., irritability or aggression)
Notably, several of these symptoms are non-specific, meaning that they can be symptoms of many ailments other than liver disease.
Therefore, if your pup has any of these symptoms, talk to your vet and get an accurate diagnosis. 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, which is the yellowing of the skin, gums, and eyes. Jaundice requires veterinary care.
Additionally, dog owners should be aware of the other symptoms of liver disease, including:
- Weight loss
- Appetite loss
- Blood in urine
- Blood in feces
- Increased thirst
- Excessive drooling
- Increased urination
- Blood clotting abnormalities
- Ataxia (lack of coordination)
- Fluid retention in the abdomen (ascites)
- Behavioral changes, including depression
What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs
To prevent liver problems in dogs, we first must understand what causes them.
Although some causes are entirely out of a dog owners’ hands, others can be prevented.
Unfortunately, as dogs age, they become more susceptible to a greater number of health issues. Liver disease is more commonly diagnosed in older 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!
Additionally, some dog breeds have a high risk of developing liver disease. Knowing whether their dog is genetically predisposed to develop liver disease can help a dog owner be proactive about managing the disease.
Copper Storage Disease
Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherds are all prone to copper storage disease.
This disease causes the dog's body to store copper that ends up accumulating in the liver. If left untreated, the accumulation can cause significant liver damage and disease.
Other dog breeds are more prone to hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease. These breeds include several toy breeds like Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, and Fox Terriers.
The condition occurs when triglycerides accumulate in the liver, leading to liver damage and subsequent liver disease.
Although liver disease is most often diagnosed in older dogs, puppies can be born with liver shunts (“congenital shunts”). Sometimes, dogs can acquire liver shunts after birth. Liver shunts disrupt blood circulation in the liver and can lead to further liver complications.
Medications and Chemicals
Additionally, many conventional, chemically-based medications cause liver disease in dogs. 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 that pet owners may give to their pups could overwhelm their dog’s liver.
Below are medications that, if given at toxic levels, may damage the liver:
- Deworming medications
- Heartworm preventatives
- Flea and tick preventatives
Furthermore, dogs are exposed to countless environmental toxins each day. 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:
- Heavy metals
- Processed foods
- Household cleaners
- Pesticides and herbicides
- Fluoride found in drinking water
- Aflatoxins (a mold produced by many foods)
- PBDE (a flame retardant found in many pet foods)
Untreated or poorly managed diseases, including those listed below, can ultimately lead to liver damage and subsequent liver disease:
- Pancreatic diseases
- Untreated heartworm disease
- Untreated viral and bacterial infections
The most common viral disease associated with liver disease is infectious canine hepatitis. Infectious canine hepatitis is a highly contagious liver disease that can be fatal. A vaccine for infectious canine hepatitis is considered to be a “core” vaccine. Core vaccines are required, like the rabies vaccine.
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 perform a physical exam and look for certain signs, like a distended abdomen, jaundice, pale mucous membranes, dehydration, and poor coat quality.
Dog owners should report any behavioral changes because these symptoms may indicate liver problems. Such behavioral changes include appetite changes, depression, ataxia, and lethargy.
Next, your vet will perform a complete blood count and serum biochemistry panel to look for changes in the levels of specific substances that suggest liver damage or liver disease.
Additionally, an exam called a serum bile acid concentration test may be recommended to study how the liver is functioning.
Your veterinarian will also perform a urinalysis to look for bilirubin or ammonium biurate crystals in the urine. Whether these crystals are in the urine is another indication of liver function.
Finally, your veterinarian may recommend a fine needle aspirate (FNA) or biopsy of the liver tissue. An FNA takes a small tissue sample using a special needle, while a biopsy is a larger piece of tissue.
These procedures will allow the veterinarian to better understand your dog's liver disease and make a more accurate diagnosis and prognosis.
High Liver Enzymes: Understanding What it Means
A serum biochemistry panel lists out several liver enzymes, namely alanine aminotransferase (ALT), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and aspartate aminotransferase (AST). If you suspect that your dog has liver problems, your veterinarian will also perform this panel to analyze your dog’s ALT, ALP, and AST 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 and disease.
Analyzing liver enzyme levels helps vets assess the extent of liver damage.
Liver Disease Treatment
Treatment for liver disease will vary according to disease stage and underlying cause. For instance, acute liver disease caused by toxin consumption is typically treated with fluids, antibiotics, and liver medications.
With that said, we’ll cover a few general treatment methods.
Many dogs with liver damage or liver disease benefit from dietary changes. Pet owners must ensure their dog’s diet that is full of vitamins and minerals and free of highly processed and fatty foods.
Supplements such as SAM-E or milk thistle are also beneficial during the dog's recovery period. Many supplements 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 undue stress on the liver.
Dogs with liver tumors or cysts may need surgery.
What is Liver Failure
End-stage liver disease is considered to be liver failure. Liver failure occurs when liver damage has gone untreated and has progressed to the point of no return.
When a dog is in liver failure, the only thing their owner can do is make them as comfortable as possible. Sometimes, liver failure can be prevented by knowing the early signs of liver disease and acting quickly to get the necessary veterinary medical treatment.
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 toxins or medications that cause irreversible liver damage.
Liver Failure Symptoms
Liver failure symptoms in dogs are the most severe manifestations of earlier-stage liver disease. To reiterate, these symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Appetite loss
- Blood clotting
- Increased thirst
- Excessive drooling
- Increased urination
- Behavioral changes
- Blood in urine and feces
Acute and Chronic Liver Failure Symptoms
Acute and chronic liver failure share the same symptoms. What differs is how quickly the symptoms develop. For example, acute liver failure symptoms can appear immediately.
Regarding chronic liver failure, symptoms will gradually worsen. Eventually, chronic liver disease will cause acute symptoms.
Signs of Liver Cancer
Liver cancer is uncommon in dogs. However, it’s good to know the signs of liver cancer, which mimic those of liver damage and liver disease.
Symptoms of liver cancer include:
- Weight loss
- Appetite loss
- Increased thirst
- Blood in urine or feces
- New odors coming from the dog's mouth, nose, or rear end
Preventing Liver Problems
In some cases, liver problems are unavoidable because of genetic predisposition. 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.
Many all-natural alternatives to medications are available. These holistic alternatives can work just as effectively as conventional medications without the potential adverse reactions and liver damage.
Talk to your vet regarding your dog’s vaccination needs. Every dog does not need every available vaccine (that would be a lot of vaccines!). Your vet will know which vaccines are most appropriate for your dog.
By having a better understanding of what exactly we are putting in our dogs’ bodies, we can make the necessary changes to limit liver damage and subsequent liver disease.
Again, early prevention is key in ensuring that liver problems are caught long before they progress to liver failure.
Scheduling yearly check-ups (and not delaying if you notice any changes beforehand) can make a world of difference for your four-legged friend.
Prevention Through Diet
Next, your dog's diet is key to good liver health. Stay away from overly processed foods and fatty foods; these can stress your pup’s liver. If your dog has liver damage or liver disease, ask your vet about dietary changes that can help restore liver function.
Limiting Exposure to Toxins
Finally, limit your dog's exposure to environmental toxins. Even chemically-based household cleaners can quickly absorb into a dog's body and cause significant damage.
Preventing Liver Damage Holistically
Several holistic treatments can help prevent liver disease in dogs.
Glutathione is an antioxidant and a powerful liver detoxifier. It also supports the immune system.
Antioxidant supplements are also available for dogs and can greatly improve your dog's liver function. They can also prevent cell damage caused by free radicals.
Preventing this cellular damage helps prevent liver damage. One of our favorite antioxidant supplements is astaxanthin. Remarkably, astaxanthin is 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C!
Milk thistle is another all-natural supplement that can help protect the liver. It also helps the liver regenerate.
Talk to your holistic veterinarian regarding the appropriate dosage and when to use the supplement.
Milk thistle was once considered something that you could add to your dog's diet each day. It is now recommended solely for cases in which the liver is very stressed.
Diet Diet Diet
Finally (not to sound like a broken record), DIET IS EVERYTHING! Feeding your dog a high-quality food is one of the best ways to prevent many ailments. This means no processed or fatty foods!
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 difficult for pet owners and we are truly sorry if you are going through it right now.
Although some cases of liver disease and liver damage cannot be avoided, others can be prevented. Dog owners must understand the early signs of liver problems before these problems progress to irreversible damage.
Furthermore, if you recognize any signs of liver issues, get your dog the veterinary medical attention that they need right away. Early detection can save your dog's life.
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, she pursued a non-traditional career path as a veterinarian.
JoAnna completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, then became a medical writer. As founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company, JoAnna is passionate about educating pet parents about pet care and responsible pet ownership.
Although she does not currently have any pets to call her own, she loves living vicariously through other pet parents and watching Nat Geo!