Liver Disease in Dogs: Facts That Dog Parents Should Know

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If you think your dog is showing signs of liver disease or if they've already been diagnosed by their veterinarian, rest assured that liver disease in dogs is common and, often times, highly treatable. Early detection can go a long way toward ensuring a happy, healthy outcome for your pet and preventing liver failure in dogs. The key is to look out for early warning signs, although many dogs with liver disease may not present any noticeable clinical signs, and to follow your vet's recommendations. Read on to learn how you can be a liver-conscious pet parent.

The Power of the Liver

The liver is an amazing, multitasking organ. Nestled between the stomach and the diaphragm, its job is as central as its location in the body. Its functions include:

  • Digestive: It helps breakdown nutrients as well as digesting fat
  • Antitoxic: The liver also detoxifies the blood
  • Immunological: It can also make proteins that help with blood clotting
  • Metabolic: The liver can help break down fats for energy and helps breakdown carbohydrates to regulate blood sugar

Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

A dog develops liver disease when any of their liver's functions are disrupted. Here are a few of the most common conditions that lead to liver disease in dogs:

  • Infectious hepatitis: Hepatitis is a general term that describes inflammation of the liver. Thankfully, vaccines can help prevent many of the infections that cause hepatitis.
  • Toxic hepatopathy or Hepatotoxicity: There are a number of liver toxins that can cause liver disease in dogs, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual.
  • Vacuolar (Endocrine) hepatopathy (VH): Cushing's disease, thyroid disease and diabetes are the most common endocrine diseases that can affect your dog's liver.
  • Portosystemic shunts: When blood vessels bypass the liver, it can lead to an excess of toxins in the bloodstream and can cause liver disease.
  • Liver cancers: Liver cancer can originate in the liver tissue or can spread there from other parts of the body.
  • Inherited liver diseases: These include copper storage disease in Bedlington terriers and West Highland white terriers, among other breeds, and amyloidosis in shar-peis.
  • Idiopathic chronic hepatitis: This inflammatory condition may be autoimmune in origin. It may also be influenced by infectious diseases of the liver.

West Highland White Terrier laying on a concrete floor.

While it seems like there's an overwhelming number of possible causes for liver disease in dogs, most are preventable and all are treatable to some extent.

Causes of Liver Failure in Dogs

Several main culprits of liver failure in dogs include:

  • Ingestion of toxins, such as the artificial sweetener xylitol
  • Excessive heat or heatstroke
  • Infections

In all of these cases, early intervention can prevent your dog from having liver failure.

Signs of Liver Disease in Dogs

The most common signs of liver disease in dogs include gastrointestinal problems, like vomiting and diarrhea, jaundice (when the skin, gums and whites of the eyes look yellow), malaise (a sense of generally feeling unwell and fatigued) and poor appetite.

To tell if your dog has liver disease, the vet will examine the results of blood and urine tests. They might need to take an X-ray, an ultrasound, a CT scan and/or an MRI. A biopsy of the liver is sometimes necessary. Most dogs with liver disease will have elevated liver enzymes, a liver that's either too small or too big and abnormalities in the liver tissue.

Signs of Liver Failure in Dogs

Liver failure in dogs is typically accompanied by severe gastrointestinal issues, neurological abnormalities and blood clotting problems. When blood doesn't clot well, dogs can bleed from their nose and gums and may bruise easily. You might also notice abdominal swelling and abnormal behavior.

While liver disease in dogs usually comes on gradually, liver failure often happens quickly. Nevertheless, liver failure in dogs can be reversed if treated in a timely manner.

Treatment of Liver Disease and Liver Failure in Dogs

Most liver diseases are considered highly treatable. Once your vet identifies the cause of the disease, they can alleviate symptoms and address the root cause with medicine, supplements, changes in food, and, sometimes, surgery. Chronic liver disease, which comes on slowly, tends to be easier to identify and treat. Acute liver disease, which more often ends in liver failure, tends to be more complicated.

Time is of the essence when treating acute liver failure in dogs. Common treatments include aggressive supportive care via fluids and gastrointestinal protectants, antibiotics and antidotes (if your dog ingested poison).

Nutrition for a Healthy Liver

To keep your dog's liver healthy, give your pooch food that's highly digestible and sufficiently calorie-dense. If your dog doesn't have specific food requirements, giving them food that's labeled "complete and balanced" will help them maintain ideal levels of sodium, chloride, potassium and other minerals.

It's important to note that you should always consult your veterinarian before feeding a healthy dog a food that is formulated for dogs with liver disease.

Feeding your dog the best possible food goes a long way toward preventing liver problems. But it's equally important to pay attention to their overall health. After all, with early detection and intervention, many health issues — including liver disease — may be highly treatable.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Patty Khuly

Dr. Patty Khuly is an honors graduate of both Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She received her MBA at The Wharton School of Business as part of the prestigious VMD/MBA dual-degree program. She's now the proud owner of Sunset Animal Clinic in Miami, Florida. But that's not all. Dr. K is a nerdy reader, avid knitter, hot yoga fanatic, music geek, struggling runner, and indefatigable foodie. She lives in South Miami with three dogs, countless cats, two rescued goats and a hilarious flock of hens.

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