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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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Comments

  1. Char says:

    My Angel Jack Russell, the Dr. to us that his stupid liver was off the charts. Giving him antibiotics, Steroids think this is being worse because he is now no h20 or food like force feeding, my husband is not ready but those SAD big brown eyes say Mom HELP. Oh why is this so so hard seeing him passing just not going to be the same without Max around. God bless to all you 4 legged angels

  2. Sandra Gonzalez says:

    My Boxer has been found to have high enzymes in her liver. She’s on a fish based diet and never eats table scraps. We don’t know how this happened. Dr has kept her over night to flush her system and give her antibiotics. When this girl has a full plate of food and won’t eat, she’s NOT well.

  3. Kathy Ullio says:

    Our vet has just been admitted our miniature poodle Delilah due to severe liver disease. We brought her in for teeth cleaning. We thought that was why her appetite had lessened. X-rays indicate she has only a very small portion of viable liver. Her blood work shows extremely high levels of enzymes and most other aspects of all those levels I can’t remember. Our vet will give her antibiotics and nutrition. The whites of her eyes are jaundiced which we never thought to look at.
    I read KATE WEISGER’S post about her Rottweiler and will buy the milk thistle today and do a search for Vetri Science Liver for advanced liver support.
    Thank you Kate for sharing this vital information and hope that maybe we will be fortunate as we pray that we may get more quality time with our 14 year old Delilah. We will take whatever Delilah can give and not give up hope, however, we will not let her suffer. She will let us know when she is ready.
    Lesson learned teeth MUST be cleaned regularly and always check the whites of your little ones eyes to make sure they are white not yellow.
    We have lost three of our poodles to the Rainbow Bridge. Hopefully, Delilah is not ready to cross that bridge.
    Thank you all for your comments. You all understand how we are feeling.
    Kathy Ullio

  4. Yvonne says:

    We lost our little lhasapoo Chloe, 8 years old, w weeks ago, took her in to have her teeth cleaned, afterwards she got really sick, bloodwork showed elevated liver enzymes, I’m not even sure how this could happen, we spent 7000.00 dollars at animal hospital, she stopped eating, didnt play anymore, couldnt walk or hold her head up in the end, my heart is broken, watching her die was so hard, I miss her so much

  5. Carol says:

    My dog has copper storage disease and moans alot. No one can tell me if this is because of the disease, bloating etc. Has anyone else experienced this problem ?

  6. Isabella Acampora says:

    My Cavalier KCS had her gallbladder removed as it was diseased. Now she has elevated liver values and ultrasound shows stones in her bilinary ducts. Any suggestions?

  7. mohita malhotra says:

    my 2 year old hound lost its life because of liver failure regretting it ultimately it was a huge failure on the part of my vet who could not notice the signs of liver malfunctioning which lead to its failure she had fits and and three days later to it died in severe pain i could not notice the signs of her loosing interest in playing walking its really heart breaking god bless all canines with gud health and love

    1. john says:

      I lost my dog Sep 30, 2018. He was a Westie and was 9 1/2 yrs old. Couple of weeks ago, he stopped eating his regular dog food hes been eating his whole life. I took him to the vet and did a blood and urine panel on him. His liver enzymes were elevated in the thousands and had jaundice and high belli rubin. He was put on antibiotics and liver medication. This maybe bought him a week or two before his conditon got worse. He started pacing non stop around the house all day and night. Then he became lathargic with loss of balance and use of back legs. It was so sad to see this and we had to put him down. I wish I could of done something to help him. I miss him and its been only a couple days, but I miss him and love him so much. I feel guilty and I wish everyone out there to be more of a better pet owner then me. I disregarded some issues that might of caused this liver disease to my dog, like not keeping up with his dental. I love you boy and Im sorry I couldnt help you enough.

      1. Rachel says:

        Thank you for your words. I too wished I was more knowledgeable about caring for my friend; to have noticed my Samantha (Duck Toller) was suffering from liver disease because she too passed due to pneumonia caused by liver disease on 11/7/2018.

  8. Judith Morin says:

    My 6month hound rescue received a Lipto vaccine. Not the same dog. On all kinds of meds and liver symptoms. This shot ruined my dog. Ultrasound being done today. Praying for the best. Please please do research before giving this vaccine.

    1. Joann says:

      Judith what did the ultrasound show. My dog is having liver failure as well.

  9. Bob Howe says:

    My 9 year old Mcnab shepard was diagnosed with an infected liver on august 9th and has been with the vet since then. He is on a course of antibiotics and as of Sat. he seems to be a little better. His only symptoms were his inability to stand up. I had to have a neighbor help me get him into the car and he was carried into the Vet’s office on a stretcher—I’m just hoping!

    1. Zetta Magliarditi says:

      Hi… I have the same issue. How is your dog doing? Any advice would be so appreciated.

  10. Susan Casey says:

    My 1 1/2 yo chihuahua became sick on tuesday. His live and kidney enzymes were really elevated. He won’t eat! He’s being cared for by a vet. But so heartbroken and scared. He’s got to eat and just wont!

    1. Kay Thorson says:

      I just lost my best friend, my confidante, my little love, my “therapy” Chihuahua, Rosie, Rosita Conchita, Baby Rose to “acute liver failure” on August 23, 2018!!
      Since it’s SO common, why isn’t “IT” the very FIRST thing your vet discusses with you, at the FIRST visit!! I will NEVER get over the loss of my “Rosie”!!
      She broke into my heart and stole a piece of it!!!

  11. bee says:

    Feb 19th 2018…. our 10 yr old female dog has a very in larged liver..(confirmed by exrays). after blood test Vets says he doesn’t know why… 430 dollars later still no answers and she stopped eating this a.m…. I bought a can of chicken noodle and she ate every bite…she moans a lot.. breaking my heart..

  12. Erica Waterer says:

    This site makes be weep. Our beautiful 8 year old chocolate lab went off his food late last week and has a reading of over 1000 for Liver ALT, (3 tests) scan clear, though has a small liver, now waiting for a biopsy on Monday (now Friday), as long as his clotting results come back ok. He is eating again and still wants to go on walks, just praying he makes it to then.

    Our previous lab puffed up with fluid at 9 and had to be put down 6 weeks later with liver cancer. I can’t believe we are going through this again, I am so heartbroken..

    1. Patricia says:

      Did you ever figure out what was the cause? My dog has a lot of similarities with yours. He got really sick beginning of April but has since
      Improved a bit. We’ve done an ultrasound and his lived looks small. His enzymes are way up in his blood work. Just wondering if you figured out what the cause was?

  13. Stephanie says:

    Only 2 days of symptoms (lack of appetite, depression, no interest in walks or just going outdoors), my 14 year old dachshund was diagnosed with liver failure. I took him to the vet at 12:30 and just 2 hours later, he was gone. We had to put him down because his liver was beyond repairable. I miss my baby so much. I don’t know what he could have gotten into but Monday he was fine, then Tuesday he was completely different. He was old but still somewhat active. Now Buster, Jake and Tito are running around doggie heaven together.

  14. Oloruntola tolulope says:

    My 2 month old dog was diagnosed liver disease just last week and later diagnosed of jaundice. She has been kept on medication and there is no improvement. Please what can I use to keep her healthy

    1. Kate Weisiger says:

      My 8 yr old Rottweiler was diagnosed with severe liver failure 3 yrs ago based on blood values and lethargy, irritability and lack of appetite. My brother who is a MD, Ph.D. Gastroenterologist ( liver) researcher recommended that I treat him with Milk Thistle available where vitamins are sold. I feed him Vetri Science Labs, Vetri Liver canine for advanced liver support. He energetic, eats well and although his liver blood work is still somewhat high he is happy and still loves to play. Hope your puppy is doing better.

      1. Kathy Ullio says:

        Kate
        Thank you for sharing. We are going through this today. I hope your Rottweiler is still doing well. We are going to follow what you did and pray A LOT.

  15. Jim says:

    OMG….our 12 year old Jack Russell has had 2 days from hell with newly diagnosed liver trouble. She has Cushing’s disease and has done very well on meds, but now apparently has liver failure as well. I’m wondering what type of food would be best for her as high protein diet that she has been on supposedly not good for the liver. Any suggestions? Thanks in advance, I’m so sad she’s not feeling well – hate when our pups are ill….

    1. Char says:

      My 15 yr is on his way out and no good we give them cooked chicken and hotdogs for their shack.
      The vet put Max on steroids and antibiotics but those beautiful brown eyes OMG just want him to cross over
      I have 2 other Jack’s pray this will not happen with the because I don’t want them to be sooooo sad.
      Best of luck give that Jack a hug for me please. Charlene

  16. Chris says:

    All of a sudden my 4 1/2 yr old German Shepherd started with diarrhea and weight loss. Straight to the vet! After x rays, blood work, exploratory surgery and biopsy they came up Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Liver level was at 72 (which is good). After 6 weeks of doctoring, medicine changes, Science Diet ID food and 5 overnights at the hospital, blood work showed liver level went up to over 1000! By then it was to late. My beautiful girl was sent to the Rainbow Bridge. We were with excellent Doctors and 3 of them conferring about our case, but with the autopsy showed cancer cells.

  17. DONNA says:

    Our beloved 12yo Kelpie mix is not doing well. Noticed her weight decreased rapidly within the past week, and she’s been drinking lots of water. She also has a tender right-side on her belly, and is now clumsy when she walks. My guess is that it’s liver failure, probably due to round worms, which she has regularly come down with. We have an appointment this afternoon with the vet, and we’re very sad since we will probably have to put her down. I took the day off of work to spend with her. “All good dogs go to heaven.”

    1. Barb says:

      So treat her with worming medicine to get rid of the worms. Treat her for 5 days on Panacur. Don’t let her around other dogs where she can pick up the worms from their droppings. Don’t let her play in and eat the dirt where she can pick up more worms.

  18. Pam says:

    MyMaltese is 13 years old, eating, walking, behaving and toilet all fine. After routie blood test was told liver reading high so had scan which showed very enlarged liver. Vet wants to do biopsy as suspects a tumour. Could this be possible without any adverse symptoms?

    1. maria bonnici says:

      so many broken hearts here…..just like mine…couldn t beleive that my 9 year old cross breed lulu and chiwawha could go in 1 and half days…..i had to put him to sleep….so many times i put my fingers in his mouth for playing but never knew there was liver problems…i am heartbroken……

  19. 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

  20. 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

  21. 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. chewy.com 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!

    2. Marcy says:

      Begins with a D? is it dandelion?

    3. Penny miller says:

      Please email your reply to me as my dog has the same symptoms , has had MRI no shunt , classed as genetic problem 2 year old Daxi

  22. 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.

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

  24. 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.

    2. Bobbie says:

      What were the symptoms? My 7 # Chihuahua stomach extends after eating and drinking. She drinks a lot and would eat anything she ccoukd get. Her liver count is elevated. Her cPL is elevated. Yelps some at night.
      Curious your dogs symptoms. Thanks.

      1. Aru says:

        I have the excact same issue with my chihuahua who is 7 years old. He will eat anything. His liver numbers are very elevated and he has been put on a liver prescription diet. The numbers still seemed same after 2 months so the doctor is now recommending an ultrasound. I will do that but don’t want to do any further invasive testing as he is super traumatized at the vets. It is so hard.

  25. 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.