Canine Liver Disease: Causes and Symptoms

September 19, 2010

By Ruthie Bently

Canine liver disease is the fifth leading cause of death for dogs, and it’s estimated that three percent of all diseases veterinarians see are connected to the liver.

Canine liver disease has many causes, such as physiological, physical and chemical. It can be called “prior” or “after” liver disease. An example of “prior” liver disease would be a cancer; an example of “after” liver disease is a blocked bile duct.

The liver is the second largest organ in a dog’s body (after the skin) and is the workhorse of their body. It’s a specialized manufacturing and pollution control center, and is what makes the body function properly. The liver processes food eaten, manufactures the necessary building blocks, detoxifies and recycles the blood, and gets rid of the waste created. Since the liver is connected so intricately to the biochemistry of an organism, it can make diagnosing canine liver disease difficult. Liver disease can affect many body functions and in turn the liver can be affected by many other organs and systems of the body.

If not too far advanced, the symptoms and disease may sometimes be reversed due to the liver’s ability to completely regenerate. However, the disease must be managed properly to allow this to happen. A dog’s liver can be damaged up to 80% and still function normally due to its reserve capacity; because of this capability, the disease may be too far advanced and untreatable by the time it’s diagnosed. The largest challenge facing veterinarians diagnosing canine liver disease is that the symptoms are not predictable and may not be specific. Due to the paradoxical attributes of the liver, diagnosing and treating the disease can be exceedingly difficult.

Canine liver disease has a myriad of causes, and what follows is only a partial list. Any number of traumas to a dog may result in liver disease: a hernia to the diaphragm, being hit by a car, a bruise or heatstroke. A diet that’s too high in fats can affect the liver; females are more prone to this than males. A dog with chronic infections (i.e. tooth problems) can contract liver disease. Fungal and bacterial infections can cause liver disease, as can parasites like heartworms and roundworms.

Certain drugs can cause side effects that result in liver disease, including acetaminophen, anabolic steroids, antibiotics, anesthetics, ASA, chemotherapy drugs, cortisone, corticosteroids, glucocorticoids, certain parasiticides given over extended periods, phenylbutazone and Phenobarbital.

Contact with toxins from pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, bleach, household cleaners and paint chips that may contain lead can all cause liver disease. Your dog could contract hepatitis, which is an inflammation of the liver. Cancer can overwhelm a dog’s system or metastasize directly to the liver itself and lead to issues.

Certain dog breeds are hereditarily prone to copper storage disease (a.k.a. canine copper hepatotoxicosis), a form of liver disease. An exaggerated amount of copper accumulates in their liver and if left untreated can be fatal. There’s also a chance of these breeds developing cirrhosis or chronic hepatitis.

There are numerous symptoms for canine liver disease. Jaundice is the most recognizable; a tint from yellow to orange will appear. It is most easily seen in the sclera (white) of the eye, but is also visible in the gums and skin of an affected dog. You may see more frequent urination which may also be tinged between lemon yellow and bright orange. Your dog may be thirstier or have an unquenchable thirst. Their abdomen may look distended and be uncomfortable to the touch. They may have a lack of appetite, chronic weight loss, recurring gastrointestinal issues or bloody vomiting. Their feces may be yellow or orange, a paler color than normal, or they may have bloody diarrhea with the above characteristics. You may observe strange behavior, circling, lethargy, no interest in playing or walks, or accelerating depression.

If your dog is diagnosed with canine liver disease, you should remove any toxic agents that could be involved. This includes any drugs that may harm the liver further.  If your dog is on medications with sodium or potassium, your vet may change or decrease those medications to eliminate the intake and retention of those minerals. If your dog is on Phenobarbital for seizure management, your vet may change their medication to decrease damage it may cause. Your vet may suggest distilled water to lessen the effect of minerals in the water. They may also put your dog on a special diet or prescribe a diuretic to control water retention. Your vet may suggest rest and confinement which will allow the body to focus needed resources on the healing process. If caught early and the liver isn’t too compromised the condition is reversible. Being alert to symptoms of canine liver disease, a responsible pet owner can save their dog’s life.

Read more articles by Ruthie Bently

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Kim rice says:

    Our six year old Dane suddenly puffed up with fluid. Within days we found out she has liver failure. Cirrohis. Can we help her or is it to late. She seems to be weakening each day. Just 2 days ago she was running and playing. Now she us wheezing and looking like help me. The vet has her on Prednisone for fluid. I believe something for pain also. We don’t want to loose our dog but are we too late to help her. Vet says we might get till Nov or Dec. She also has liver shunts. He has her on milk thistle also

  2. amelia says:

    My 8y0 rescue is dying from liver disease. About a month ago I found a growth on his leg that had not been there the day before. Straight to the vet. Spindle cell cancer contained in a sac. Took him to Auburn University where there is a pet college. Growth removed, seemed to do well, vet said he got clean margins. 2 weeks later drinking excessively, bright yellow urine, etc. heartbroken

  3. Berta Stouffer says:

    Yorkie (4# 7oz) age 9.5 years: recently diagnosed with liver disease by local vet and internist in SC. No symptoms at this time. Original health concern was excessive drinking of water and frequent urination & several accidents. All blood and urine tests results were normal, no diabetes, infections, etc. Xrays were showed nothing unusual and her skeletal was excellent, especially for her age. The original issue began in January, first visit to the vet was in March. Other than drinking excessively and the pee accidents, there have been no other symptoms. We began administering a medication May 18th (don’t have it with me, am out of state without my pet. I know it begins with a “D”, but I’m sure that is not much help to you. My vet did say he was not going to use a toxic med, but rather a more natural approach at this time. I am taking advantage of a break in the family schedule, to use local library/computers. Her bile acids test results were “through the roof”–my vets words. Why she is asymptomatic is a puzzle to us. Do you think the lack of symptoms may indicate the chance to reverse whatever is causing the problems for Phoebe, as mentioned in this website article? If so, what do you recommend we use. I want to discuss this article and recommendations with my vet. Thank you for any insight you may be able to share.

    1. Katie says:

      I recently lost my 12 yr old aussie/chow mix. she was diagnosed with liver disease between 2 and 3 yrs old. We had a long battle with the liver but I found milk thistle, sam-e, & Denamarin daily to help. I also had her on a natural pain reliever and glucosamine and chondroitin. Prednisone may be recommended but I strongly suggest trying to avoid it if you can. I have another dog who is 13 with completely different issues who takes this med every other day and has done so for 4 years. There are a lot of side effects that can accompany this drug. Yucca is the closest thing to a natural corticosteroid there is without the bad side effects. I have my dogs on different remedies that contain yucca in order to get it into their treatment. Food, glucosamine and chondroitin, bladder health and natural pain reliever. offers all of the meds I purchase….love this site! I recommend the bladder health due to advanced stage will begin to affect the kidneys. I wish you the best of luck! I stumbled upon this site by chance and just so happened to read your story. I lost my baby 6 days ago and am still heartbroken but I hop I can help someone else have a good fight. My baby defeated odds, most dogs will not live 10 years with liver disease…we fought hard!

  4. Nancy Besser says:

    My 4 year old shih tzu had a couple of growths removed from the back of his ear. When they did the surgery his blood work showed low liver levels. All the vet said we only worry when they are high. But I want to understand what low liver enzymes mean and what I can do nutritionally to help this or what not to do for it. I do not know anything about liver enzymes for dogs.

  5. Ditto. About two weeks ago, I had to do the same. She was only 6. Broke my heart.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I had to put my 12 year old to sleep on Monday because of liver problems. it was one of the worst days of my life, I definitely wish I would of known before it was to late.

    1. A says:

      I just put my femal yorkie down yesterday because of liver failure and it is broke my heart. I wish I would know earlier. I know exactly how you feel. I miss her and feel guilty badly.

  7. KLC says:

    My 5 year old spaniel mix Ratiki (a rescue 3 years ago) recently had his gallbladder removed secondary to hypotyroidism. He is one month post surgery and doing amazingly well. His liver values have not completely normalized but are steadily improving on his new diet of Canidae Platinum (he thrived on Beef&Fish before). He loves the fact that he gets significantly more volume on Platinum inorder to meet his allowed calories per day.