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  • Writer's pictureVetMed Team

Liver Disease in Dogs: 8 Symptoms That Can Tell You

The liver, an essential organ in a dog's anatomy, plays a critical role in metabolism, digestion, detoxification, and the synthesis of essential proteins. When this organ faces malfunction or disease, the implications can be far-reaching, affecting numerous bodily processes. This guide aims to provide an in-depth understanding of liver disease in dogs, exploring its causes, symptoms, and the available interventions.

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What is Liver Disease in Dogs?

The liver is a multifunctional organ, serving pivotal roles ranging from detoxification to the production of crucial proteins. When we refer to liver disease in dogs, we're talking about a myriad of conditions that impede the liver's ability to function optimally. The disease could manifest as temporary anomalies or prolonged conditions that progressively lead to liver failure. This progression can result in cirrhosis, where the liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, drastically limiting the liver's functional capacity and can be life-threatening.

What Causes Liver Disease?

Understanding the genesis of liver disease can be complex due to the multitude of contributing factors. Some common causes include:

  • Toxins: The liver's primary function is detoxification. However, prolonged exposure to certain harmful substances can harm the liver itself. Whether it's specific drugs, chemicals, or toxic foods (like raisins or certain artificial sweeteners), the liver can sustain damage when processing these toxins.

  • Infections: Various pathogens can be the culprits behind liver disease. Bacterial infections such as leptospirosis, or parasitic invasions like liver flukes, can damage the liver.

  • Genetics: Certain breeds are predisposed to liver conditions due to their genetic makeup. For instance, the Bedlington Terrier often faces copper storage disease, a condition where excessive copper accumulates in the liver, leading to toxicity.

  • Neoplasia: Both benign tumors (like liver adenomas) and malignant ones (like hepatocellular carcinoma) can be a source of liver disease. While benign tumors might not spread, their sheer presence can hinder liver function.

  • Gallbladder Issues: The liver produces bile, a digestive fluid. If there's an obstruction, such as gallstones or inflammation, preventing bile from reaching the intestines, it can lead to liver complications.

  • Chronic Illnesses: Diseases such as chronic hepatitis, pancreatitis, or even thyroid issues can contribute to liver dysfunction.

  • Aging: As with many body systems, the efficiency of the liver can decrease with age, making older dogs more susceptible to liver ailments.

  • Trauma: Physical injuries, like those from an accident or consuming a foreign object, can lead to liver damage, especially if there's a rupture or internal bleeding.

While the above list covers many causes of liver disease, it's essential to acknowledge that sometimes the root cause remains unknown, termed as 'idiopathic liver disease.' In such cases, veterinarians focus on managing symptoms and preventing further liver damage.

Can You Prevent Liver Disease?

While liver disease can sometimes be the result of factors beyond our control, such as genetics or certain illnesses, proactive measures can be taken to minimize the risk of liver problems in dogs. By understanding potential hazards and promoting a liver-friendly lifestyle, you can enhance your dog's overall liver health. Here are some preventative steps to consider:

  • Balanced Diet: Feeding your dog a well-balanced, high-quality diet ensures they get the necessary nutrients without overburdening the liver with harmful additives or toxins.

  • Avoid Toxins: Keep potentially harmful substances, such as certain plants, foods (like chocolate, grapes, and onions), and chemicals out of your dog's reach.

  • Regular Check-ups: Regular veterinary check-ups can help in early detection of issues that might lead to liver disease, allowing for timely interventions.

  • Medication Monitoring: If your dog is on any medication, ensure that it's not causing harm to the liver. Regular liver enzyme checks might be recommended for certain medications.

  • Clean Environment: A clean living environment reduces the risk of infections that can harm the liver.

  • Vaccinations: Ensure your dog is vaccinated against infections that can cause liver disease, like leptospirosis.

  • Control Parasites: Regular deworming and anti-parasite treatments can keep liver-damaging parasites at bay.

  • Limit Overfeeding: Overfeeding, especially fatty foods, can lead to obesity and fatty liver disease.

  • Ensure Clean Water: Clean, uncontaminated water is essential. Ensure your dog isn't drinking from puddles which can harbor harmful bacteria.

By integrating these practices, you can play a pivotal role in safeguarding your dog's liver health. However, always consult with your vet about the best preventive care tailored to your dog's specific needs.

How Quickly Can Liver Disease Form and Progress?

Liver disease in dogs can manifest and progress over various time frames, depending largely on the cause and type of the ailment. The liver is a vital organ with an impressive capacity for regeneration and healing. However, once damaged extensively, it can deteriorate rapidly.

  • Acute Liver Disease: Acute liver conditions can develop suddenly, often as a result of toxins, certain medications, or trauma. Some poisons can lead to severe liver damage within hours to days. For instance, ingestion of certain toxic plants or chemicals, like xylitol found in some sugar-free gums, can induce rapid liver failure in dogs if not promptly addressed.

  • Chronic Liver Disease: Chronic conditions, such as chronic hepatitis, cirrhosis, or long-term exposure to low-level toxins, generally evolve over months to years. They can often be insidious, meaning they progress quietly without causing noticeable symptoms until the disease is advanced.

  • Underlying Conditions: Diseases like congenital liver shunts might be present from birth but may not show clinical signs until later in life when the liver can no longer cope with the abnormal blood flow.

  • Cancer: Liver tumors can have varied rates of progression. Benign tumors may grow slowly over years, whereas malignant ones can spread rapidly within months.

Regular veterinary check-ups are invaluable. Early detection of liver anomalies through routine blood tests or imaging can help in understanding the rate of progression and deciding on a timely intervention. When liver disease is suspected, its pace can sometimes be determined by monitoring liver enzyme levels, imaging studies, and other diagnostics over time.

What Are the Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs?

Liver disease in dogs can present a broad range of symptoms, often because the liver plays a role in so many vital bodily functions. As the liver becomes compromised, it can no longer efficiently carry out these roles, leading to a cascade of physiological effects. Some symptoms may be subtle, especially in the early stages of liver disease, while others can be more pronounced as the condition advances.

1. Jaundice (Icterus)

Jaundice refers to the yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, gums, and inside of the ears. It's a result of an accumulation of bilirubin—a yellow pigment produced when red blood cells break down. If the liver cannot process or excrete bilirubin effectively, it builds up in the bloodstream, leading to jaundice.

2. Increased Thirst and Urination

The liver plays a pivotal role in maintaining fluid balance in the body. When it's not functioning correctly, dogs may drink and urinate more frequently. The urine may also appear darker than usual due to bilirubin.

3. Loss of Appetite and Weight Loss

Dogs with liver disease often exhibit decreased appetite, which, over time, can result in significant weight loss. The liver's reduced capacity to metabolize nutrients and toxins can lead to gastrointestinal disturbances.

4. Vomiting and Diarrhea

A compromised liver can lead to gastrointestinal upset, including vomiting and diarrhea. Sometimes the vomit or stool may contain blood.

5. Lethargy and Weakness

Dogs with liver disease might appear notably tired, lethargic, or weak. They may have reduced energy levels and show decreased interest in activities they previously enjoyed.

6. Ascites

Ascites is the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen. It can cause a distended or swollen belly in dogs. It's a result of the liver's diminished protein production and altered blood flow.

7. Neurological Abnormalities

Hepatic encephalopathy is a severe condition where toxins, which the liver should typically filter out, build up in the bloodstream and affect brain function. Symptoms might include disorientation, aimless pacing, head pressing, or even seizures.

8. Bleeding Disorders

The liver produces crucial proteins for blood clotting. When its function is compromised, dogs may bleed more easily, leading to symptoms like nosebleeds, bruising, or prolonged bleeding from small cuts.

Recognizing these symptoms and seeking veterinary consultation early on is crucial for effective management and treatment of liver disease. Every dog might exhibit a unique combination of these symptoms, which underscores the importance of a comprehensive clinical evaluation.

How Liver Disease is Diagnosed in Dogs

Diagnosing liver disease in dogs requires a combination of clinical evaluation, laboratory testing, and imaging techniques. Given the liver's essential role in various physiological processes, an accurate diagnosis is crucial for determining the best treatment course. Various methods provide insights into the liver's structure and function, helping veterinarians pinpoint the specific issue and its severity.

Physical Examination

This is the first step where the veterinarian observes the dog's overall condition. They may check for signs of jaundice, palpate the abdomen to assess liver size, and evaluate other physical symptoms indicative of liver problems.

Blood Tests

Comprehensive blood tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry panel, can provide valuable insights into the liver's function. Specific tests like Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT), Alkaline Phosphatase (ALP), and bilirubin levels can indicate liver damage or dysfunction.


Examining a urine sample can help detect bilirubin or urobilinogen, both of which might suggest liver disease when present in abnormal amounts.

Bile Acids Test

This test measures the liver's ability to process bile, which aids in digestion. Elevated bile acid levels after a meal can suggest impaired liver function.


  • X-rays: Radiographs or X-rays can provide a visual of the liver's size and shape. While they may not show detailed structures, they can detect enlargement or displacement of the liver.

  • Ultrasound: An abdominal ultrasound offers a more detailed view of the liver's internal structure. It can detect abnormalities such as tumors, cysts, or changes in liver tissue consistency.


A liver biopsy involves extracting a small tissue sample from the liver for microscopic examination. This procedure provides definitive insights into the type and extent of liver damage or disease. Biopsies can be taken surgically, through a needle guided by ultrasound, or endoscopically.


An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a camera. For liver evaluations, it can be used to visualize and take samples from the bile ducts or liver surface.

Each diagnostic technique offers unique insights, and often, a combination of these methods is employed to gain a comprehensive understanding of the liver's health and function. Early and accurate diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment and positive outcomes.

Treatment Options For Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver disease in dogs, due to its multifaceted nature, often necessitates a combination of medical and lifestyle interventions. Treatment choices depend on the underlying cause of the liver issue, its severity, and any associated complications. Here are the primary treatment options:

Dietary Modifications

A balanced, liver-supportive diet is crucial for dogs with liver disease. Such diets are typically low in proteins but high in quality, contain easily digestible fats, and have a rich supply of vitamins and minerals. Omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and certain amino acids can be beneficial. Commercially available prescription liver diets or custom-made home-cooked meals can be employed based on veterinary recommendations.


  • Liver Supportive Drugs: Compounds like silymarin, found in milk thistle, and SAMe can promote liver health and regeneration.

  • Antibiotics: If bacterial infections are causing or complicating liver disease, antibiotics are prescribed.

  • Anti-inflammatory Drugs: These might be used to combat inflammation within the liver.

  • Choleretic Agents: Drugs like Ursodiol can be used to improve bile flow and reduce bile acid concentration in the liver.

Fluid Therapy

Dehydration can be a consequence of liver disease, especially if the dog is vomiting or has diarrhea. Administering fluids, either orally or intravenously, is essential to prevent dehydration and support kidney function.

Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation

Given the liver's role in nutrient processing, dogs with liver disease might need supplements. These can include B vitamins, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, and Zinc.


In cases where liver disease results from physical obstructions, like tumors or cysts, surgery might be necessary. Surgery can also be useful in the case of liver shunts, where blood bypasses the liver, leading to a buildup of toxins in the body.


In advanced cases where the liver can't effectively eliminate toxins from the body, treatments like plasma transfusions or even hemodialysis might be necessary to aid in detoxification.

Lifestyle Adjustments

Reducing stress, ensuring a calm environment, and regular check-ups are crucial. Dogs with liver disease can benefit from moderate but consistent exercise, which can enhance blood flow to the liver.

Each dog's situation is unique, and a combination of the above treatments might be utilized. It's essential to work closely with a veterinarian to ensure that the dog receives the best care tailored to its specific needs. Regular monitoring and adjustments in treatment can significantly improve the quality of life and prognosis for a dog with liver disease.

Recovery and Management For Liver Disease in Dogs

Managing and recovering from liver disease is a comprehensive process that demands continuous care, commitment, and vigilance. The liver is a vital organ with remarkable regenerative capabilities. With appropriate treatment, many liver conditions can be managed, allowing the dog to lead a comfortable life. Here's a breakdown of what the recovery and ongoing management might entail:

Regular Veterinary Check-ups

Frequent veterinary visits are paramount. These visits will often involve blood tests to monitor liver enzyme levels, bile acid tests, and sometimes imaging like ultrasound to assess the liver's size and structure. Regular check-ups allow for timely modifications to treatment plans based on the dog's progress.

Dietary Consistency

Sticking to the prescribed diet is essential. Even minor deviations can strain the liver. Special liver-supportive diets should be adhered to, and treats or other foods should only be given after vet approval.

Medication Adherence

Any prescribed medication must be given as directed, without any skips. If side effects are observed, it's crucial to consult the vet rather than discontinuing the medicine abruptly.

Watch for Symptoms

Owners should be vigilant about any changes in the dog's behavior, appetite, or physical condition. Any sudden deterioration, increased lethargy, vomiting, or other symptoms should be reported immediately.


Ensuring the dog stays hydrated is essential, particularly if they've been vomiting or experiencing diarrhea.

Gentle Exercise

Moderate activity can promote better circulation to the liver and overall well-being. However, overexertion should be avoided.

Avoid Toxins

Protecting the dog from exposure to harmful substances is crucial. This includes household chemicals, certain plants, and human foods that can be toxic to dogs.

Emotional Support

A stress-free environment, plenty of affection, and gentle care can make a big difference in the dog's overall well-being.

Supplements and Natural Therapies

Some natural therapies and supplements might support liver function. However, they should only be administered under a vet's guidance.

Stay Updated

Liver disease research and treatments are continually evolving. Stay in touch with the veterinary community and participate in support groups or forums, if possible, to stay updated on new treatments or management strategies.

Recovering from liver disease isn't just about medical intervention; it's a holistic approach involving medical, dietary, and emotional care. With the right management, many dogs with liver conditions can enjoy a good quality of life for years.

VetMed Treats Liver Disease in Dogs

At VetMed, we are dedicated to providing comprehensive and advanced care for dogs diagnosed with liver disease. Leveraging state-of-the-art diagnostics and treatments, our team of veterinary experts is committed to ensuring your furry friend receives the best possible care. With a patient-first approach, we specialize in creating tailored treatment plans that prioritize your dog’s well-being and quality of life, making VetMed the trusted choice for liver disease care in dogs.


Questions You've Asked Us About Liver Disease in Dogs

Still have questions? Contact us here - we promise we'll answer them.

What are the symptoms of a dog with liver problems?

The symptoms of liver problems in dogs can include jaundice, weight loss, increased thirst, vomiting, and lethargy, among others.

How long does a dog live with liver disease?

Can a dog recover from liver disease?

What are the beginning stages of liver failure in dogs?

How do you treat liver disease in dogs?

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