Jaundice is a tell-tale sign, but if you can catch it before that point, your dog will likely have an easier recovery.
man sitting on a gray sofa comforting his dog with liver disease
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Liver disease in dogs can be a serious issue, but knowing the warning signs, treatment plans, and possible outcomes can make this pet health condition less stressful and scary.

The liver is one of your dog's vital organs, aiding in digestion, blood clotting, and detoxifying blood, among other functions. So when it isn't working right, your dog's health can be seriously affected. The earlier you catch liver disease, the better chance your dog has of recovering. Getting educated on liver disease in dogs, including what you should keep an eye out for and what to expect if your dog does develop liver disease, is hugely important for your peace of mind and for your dog's health.

Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver disease can be caused by a variety of conditions, says Nikki Graham, DVM from Nottingham Animal Hospital in Hamilton, N.J. Graham explains that these causes can include:

In older dogs, cancer and gallbladder disease can cause liver disease, Graham says. Small dogs can sometimes be born with a liver shunt, which is a genetic condition that can cause liver disease if not surgically corrected.

Some dog breeds may also be more susceptible to liver disease. Labrador retrievers may be at a higher risk of developing liver disease from non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), which are commonly used to treat arthritis in older dogs. Bedlington terriers tend to have a high genetic susceptibility to copper storage disease, which can lead to liver disease and failure. Other breeds, including Doberman pinschers, Dalmatians, and West Highland white terriers are also suspected to have a genetic predisposition to liver disease, says Graham.

Signs and Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs

In early stages of liver disease, symptoms can be hard to catch because they can look a lot like symptoms of other conditions. "Some dogs with liver disease may not be as active, eat as well, have increased vomiting and diarrhea, and increased thirst and urination," says Graham.

As the disease progresses, symptoms can include:

  • Swelling around the abdomen
  • Blood in urine or feces
  • Seizures
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the lips, eyes, and gums)

"Rarely," says Graham, "liver disease can present as neurological problems, including circling, decreased vision, and decreased appetite."

If you notice jaundice in your dog, take them to a veterinarian immediately, as this almost always indicates liver disease. If jaundice is not present, but you notice multiple early-stage symptoms, such as changes in behavior and vomiting, it's a good idea to take them to a veterinarian, too, as liver disease can be reversed entirely if caught early enough. Even if your dog's liver isn't the issue, your veterinarian can give some more insight into other health issues your dog may be having to cause those symptoms.

How To Treat Liver Disease in Dogs

"Treatment depends on the cause of the liver disease," explains Graham. "If it's caused by a toxicity, then specific treatment for that particular toxin can be effective." Intravenous fluids and nutritional support may be needed, she says, depending on the severity of the disease. A mild case can be treated with prescription diets and supplements for liver health, and antioxidants, medications to reduce nausea and vomiting, as well as other nursing care, is crucial for these dogs while they undergo treatment and recovery.

Your dog's treatment will depend on their specific case of liver disease, so it's important to consult your veterinarian as soon as you notice symptoms of liver disease.

Best Diets for Dogs With Liver Disease

Certain diets, usually lower in protein and higher in certain vitamins, can be prescribed by your veterinarian to help mild liver disease, says Graham. Your veterinarian may also prescribe supplements specifically meant to help liver function, such as milk thistle extract, which is an antioxidant that contains vitamin E, zinc, and S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe).

What's the Outlook? The Future for Dogs With Liver Disease

Liver disease occurs in four stages:

  1. Abnormal inflammation is the first stage of liver disease, and can usually be treated with medication or a change in diet.
  2. Fibrosis is the second stage of liver disease, occurring when the liver begins to scar and harden. Usually, liver disease caught at or before this stage can be reversed.
  3. Cirrhosis is the third stage of liver disease, characterized by a permanent scarring on the liver.
  4. Liver failure is the fourth and final stage of liver disease. At this point, the dog's liver can't function as it is supposed to. At this stage, the primary goal is to make the dog as comfortable as possible for their final days, weeks, or months.

"Livers can regenerate," explains Graham, "so with a mild liver disease, the dog may recover and live a normal life." However, she also says that for dogs with severe liver disease, "the prognosis is much worse. These dogs may need extensive treatment, hospitalization, and even then some may have a case that is too advanced for them to survive."