When liver disease progresses far enough, dogs can develop liver failure. Knowing what to expect can help you increase your dog's comfort and chance of recovering.

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bulldog with liver failure sitting on the floor next to his owners
Credit: skynesher / Getty

Your dog's liver is one of their vital organs, breaking down medications and flushing toxins from their bloodstream, storing vitamins and minerals, and producing and releasing nutrients into their body. Liver failure in dogs can follow liver disease, or it can occur suddenly. In either case, liver failure is a serious condition that is often fatal. Knowing what to look out for and expect can help you catch it early and increase your dog's comfort and chances of recovery.

Causes of Liver Failure in Dogs

Nikki Graham, DVM from Nottingham Animal Hospital in Hamilton, N.J., says that severe toxicity and poisoning can cause liver failure, as well as cancer and liver disease that has progressed too far. Some toxins known to cause liver disease and failure in dogs include xylitol, acetaminophen, and blue-green algae found in still water.

Certain dog breeds may be more genetically predisposed to develop liver disease and liver failure, including:

Signs and Symptoms of Dog Liver Failure

According to Graham, the most common and recognizable signs of liver failure include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen or enlarged abdomen
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Listlessness
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, lips, eyes, and gums)

If you notice any of these symptoms, bring your dog to a veterinarian immediately. Liver failure is a serious and often fatal issue, but it can sometimes be prevented if caught in the early stages of liver disease.

How to Treat Liver Failure in Dogs

The treatment plan for liver failure is highly dependent on the dog's specific case, says Graham. Your veterinarian will be able to talk you through treatment options. Be aware that treatment for liver failure can be extremely expensive—Graham says it can be up to thousands of dollars to diagnose and aggressively treat liver failure with intravenous fluids, antibiotics, blood or platelet transfusions, and intensive nursing care.

Consider pet insurance if you adopt a breed that's susceptible to liver problems or enlist in a program that can help with veterinary bills if you need it. Be sure to discuss your options and any concerns openly with your vet to ensure you find the best course of action for both you and your dog.

What's the Outlook for Dogs with Liver Failure?

Liver failure in dogs can be acute or chronic. Acute liver failure occurs suddenly, most often as a result of ingesting a toxic substance. Chronic liver failure is usually the fourth and final stage of liver disease—following inflammation, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. When chronic liver disease becomes chronic liver failure, the primary goal is to make the dog as comfortable as possible during their final stage of life. "The prognosis for liver failure is very poor," says Graham, "and dogs will usually decline within a few days to weeks." However, you can still work with your veterinarian to find the best way to ensure your dog's comfort and happiness throughout their end-of-life care.