7 Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

The liver influences the majority of the body’s chemical processes. It aids digestion as well as removes toxins from the blood. Did you know that liver disease in dogs is relatively common, owing to its important and diverse roles in maintaining an animal’s health?

Genetic and environmental factors can both hurt the liver and cause liver disease in dogs.

Many dogs with liver disease can live a long, healthy life, according to veterinarians, depending on the severity and underlying cause. Early detection of liver disease in dogs improves prognosis, emphasizing the importance of regular veterinary visits.

Here’s everything you would like to grasp concerning liver disease in dogs.

1. What Is Liver Disease in Dogs?

Your dog’s liver is an important organ. It aids digestion and blood clotting, as well as removing toxins from their system. It can make your buddy sick if it isn’t working properly. However, liver disease in dogs is frequently treatable and manageable.

The initial symptoms of liver disease in dogs are non-specific. Lack of appetite, weight loss, and chronic intermittent vomiting and diarrhea are some of the symptoms.

Vomiting occurs more frequently than diarrhea. Drinking and urinating more frequently than usual may be the first signs, as well as the primary reason for seeking medical attention.

liver disease in dogs
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The liver swells and enlarges in the early stages of liver disease in dogs. The liver cells die and are forced to replace scar tissue as the disease progresses. The liver becomes rubbery and firm as a result.

The medical term for this condition is cirrhosis. It cannot be reversed. Before reaching this terminal stage, the liver can recover from harm and cure itself to the point where your dog’s liver function is normal.

This is feasible if proper treatment is started as soon as possible; the extent of recovery is determined by the actual cause of the liver damage. Just before the liver begins to fail, eighty percent of its cells must die.

Liver failure symptoms in dogs include jaundice, hepatic encephalopathy1, ascites2, spontaneous bleeding, and dependent edema-swollen lower limbs. The treatment of liver failure focuses on the underlying liver disease that is provoking it.

2. Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs

It’s easy to overlook the signs of liver disease in dogs. They are similar to those used for other issues.

Some of the most common symptoms of liver disease 3in dogs could be:

liver disease in dogs
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2.1. Early Signs of Liver Disease in Dogs

  • Lethargy
  • Appetite loss
  • Loss of weight
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

2.2. Signs of Severe Liver Disease in Dogs

  • Neurological signs like circling
  • Blood clotting
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urge to pee
  • Confusion
  • Eyes, tongue, or gums that are yellowish (jaundice)
  • Signs of frailty
  • They have blood in their pee or poop.
  • Seizures
  • Ascites is a medical term that refers to the condition when fluid buildup in the belly

If the liver disease in dogs is not treated promptly, it can progress to a serious brain condition known as hepatic encephalopathy.

3. What Causes Liver Problems?

Occasionally, liver disease in dogs develops as a result of aging. It’s not always hereditary. However, it can also be caused by infection or trauma to the region. Certain diseases and medications can be harmful to your dog’s liver as well.

3.1. Acute Liver Failure

Acute liver failure is characterized by a sudden loss of liver function, which is frequently accompanied by neurologic symptoms4 and clotting abnormalities. It can happen as a result of a sudden injury to a previously healthy liver or as a result of an additional insult to an already diseased liver.

It is critical to seek immediate veterinary care to support the liver until it can regenerate and compensate for the attack.

If there are any underlying causes of liver failure, they must be identified and treated. Inform your veterinarian about any medications your pet is given, as well as any access your pet may have to poisons.

liver disease in dogs
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Intravenous fluids, dietary changes, antibiotics, and certain liver medications may be used in treatment. Another aim of treatment is to prevent or treat neurologic complications associated with liver failure.

Infectious or toxic agents, poor flow of fluids into the liver and surrounding tissues (perfusion), hypoxia (inability to breathe), hepatotoxic drugs or chemicals, and excessive heat exposure are the most common causes of acute liver failure.

Necrosis (tissue death) occurs, resulting in the loss of liver enzymes and impaired liver function, which eventually leads to organ failure.

Acute liver disease in dogs can also occur as a result of extensive metabolic problems with protein synthesis (albumin, transport protein, procoagulant, and anticoagulant protein factors), glucose absorption, and metabolic detoxification.

Other potential causes of liver disease in dogs include:

  • Ragwort, certain mushrooms, and blue-green algae are examples of plants and herbs.
  • Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that dogs can contract by coming into direct contact with infected animals’ urine or by drinking water, soil, or eating food contaminated with their urine.
  • Molds found on corn
  • Heartworms left untreated
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreas Problems
  • Use of analgesics
  • Foods high in fat

If your dog exhibits signs of liver disease, your veterinarian may inquire regarding their diet and medications. The vet may order blood tests, X-rays, or an ultrasound to get a better picture of what’s wrong with your dog’s liver. They may also want to perform a biopsy, which is the removal of a small tissue sample for testing.

4. Causes of Liver Diseases in Dogs

4.1. Caused by Infectious Agents

Infections that affect the liver include viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic diseases.

Infectious canine hepatitis and canine herpesvirus are two viral diseases associated with liver dysfunction in dogs. Infectious canine hepatitis5, caused by canine adenovirus 16, can cause long-term liver inflammation and scarring, as well as the death of liver tissue.

In puppies, canine herpesvirus causes severe, often fatal liver disease.

In some dogs, accidentally injecting an intranasal Bordetella vaccine 7into the skin rather than squirting it into the nose can result in liver damage.


Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Leptospira interrogans that can lead to liver disease in dogs, even though many people associate it with kidney disease.

A blood test or identification of the organism in urine or blood samples is usually used to make the diagnosis. Treatment consists of both supportive care and antibiotic treatment. When handling dogs suspected of having leptospirosis8, extra caution is advised because this organism can also infect humans.

Some types of bacterial infections, like those caused by Clostridium piliforme or Mycobacterium species, can harm the liver.

Infections from other parts of the body can infiltrate liver tissue and cause damage or dysfunction. So because the liver can support and protect the body from bacterial infections, dogs with liver failure or long-term liver disease are more susceptible to several types of bacterial infections.

Coccidioidomycosis and histoplasmosis are the two most common fungal infections caused by liver dysfunction. Fluid accumulation in the abdomen (ascites), jaundice, and an enlarged liver are symptoms of liver dysfunction.

Histoplasmosis is typically treated with one or more antifungal medications prescribed by a doctor. Depending on the severity of the illness, the prognosis for recovery may be bleak.

Coccidioidomycosis can be treated with antifungal medications over a long period (6 to 12 months). However, relapses do occur from time to time, and for some dogs, life-long treatment may be required.

Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection that can kill liver cells and result in sudden liver failure. In addition to signs of the central nervous system, lung, or eye involvement, jaundice, fever, lethargy, vomiting, increased abdominal fluid, and diarrhea are observed.

Toxoplasmosis-related liver disease in dogs is most common in young dogs or those with a weak immune system. Some dogs with toxoplasmosis are often infected with the canine distemper virus, in which case the disease is fatally sudden.

Diagnosis can be challenging. Antibiotics are usually used to treat the condition. The prognosis for recovery is determined by the severity of the illness.

Leishmaniasis is a possibly deadly disease caused by the protozoan Leishmania species9. Multiple organs, including the liver, are affected by the disease. There are several drugs available to treat the disease, but they rarely cure it.

Therapy may be required for the rest of one’s life. People, particularly those with weakened immune systems, are at risk of contracting the disease. The prognosis for seriously impacted dogs is bleak.

4.2. Chronic Hepatitis in Dogs

liver disease in dogs
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Chronic hepatitis is long-term liver inflammation. Bedlington Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Doberman Pinschers, Skye Terriers, Standard Poodles, Springer Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Maltese, and West Highland White Terriers are among the breeds predisposed to this condition.

Although the cause of chronic hepatitis can be determined in some cases, in many cases, the cause is unknown. Copper and iron buildup is frequent with chronic hepatitis. Viral diseases (such as infectious canine hepatitis), leptospirosis, exposure to certain chemicals or poisons, and drug toxicity have all been linked to chronic hepatitis.

Copper-associated hepatopathy, one of the most prevalent causes of hepatitis, can result from abnormal copper accumulations. In these cases, adding zinc to the diet might very well help to protect the liver by blocking copper absorption from the gut.

Your veterinarian will determine the best treatment and management plan for chronic hepatitis based on the signs, the origin (if known), and the breed and history of the dog.

4.3. Canine Cholangiohepatitis

Infections in the biliary tract, which carries bile from the liver to the small intestine, can also cause liver inflammation. These infections spread from the intestine, often as a result of sluggish bile movement, gallstones, or other biliary tract disorders.

The condition, known as cholangiohepatitis, is not uncommon in dogs. Antibiotics are prescribed to accommodate the infection, and depending on the cause, surgery may be required.

4.4. Liver Endocrine Diseases

Liver problems in dogs can be caused by a variety of diseases involving the endocrine glands. Diabetes mellitus, Cushing disease, and hyperthyroidism are examples of these diseases.

Liver dysfunction in dogs with diabetes mellitus is a rare complication of the disease. Diabetic dogs are more likely to develop pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), which can lead to liver disease in dogs.

Hepatocutaneous syndrome, which is often fatal in diabetic dogs, develops in some of them. Because diabetes mellitus increases lipid metabolism and mobilization, they may be at a higher risk of developing fatty liver degeneration.

Lipids are a group of water-soluble fats and fat-like chemical substances that provide the body with fuel. When several lipids are deposited in the liver, the organ’s function is harmed. Insulin replacement may or may not be able to solve the storage issue.

Dogs with hyperadrenocorticism are more likely to develop liver changes similar to those seen in corticosteroid overdoses. When the underlying disorder is treated, these issues are alleviated. Dogs with hypothyroidism have liver modifications as well.

4.5. Nodular Hyperplasia and Liver Cysts

Cysts in the liver can be acquired (mostly single cysts) or are present from birth (usually multiple cysts). Cairn Terriers, Bull Terriers, Beagles, and West Highland White Terriers have all been reported to have congenital polycystic liver disease.

Cysts can grow large and cause abdominal swelling, as well as other symptoms like lethargy, vomiting, and increased thirst.

Your veterinarian might be able to feel masses in your abdomen that aren’t usually painful. Fluid may build up in the abdomen. X-rays or ultrasonography can be used to diagnose the problem, but a biopsy is required for a definitive diagnosis.

The cysts are usually removed surgically, and the condition is usually cured.

4.6. Canine Vacuolar Hepatopathy

Glycogen is a type of energy that the liver produces and stores. Glycogen is released throughout the day to help keep blood sugar levels stable. However, abnormal amounts of glycogen accumulate within liver cells in dogs with vacuolar hepatopathy, causing them to distend.

liver disease in dogs
Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash Copyrights 2020

It’s a common liver syndrome that’s usually discovered through a liver tissue biopsy. Excessive adrenal gland function (hyperadrenocorticism) or long-term stress, illnesses, inflammation, or cancer are all linked to the syndrome. This syndrome can also be triggered by certain drugs.

In dogs with nodular hyperplasia or certain types of liver cancer, glycogen-distended liver cells may be present. The root issue of these liver changes will be determined and treated by veterinarians.

4.7. Liver Cancers

Primary tumors (tumors that start in the liver) are less common than tumors that spread from another part of the body. Animals older than 9 years old are more likely to develop primary tumors. These tumors can be malignant or benign, and they can spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes, abdominal wall, and lungs.

Lymphoma, pancreatic cancer, mammary cancer, and a variety of other cancers can spread to the liver. Multiple sites are usually affected by metastatic tumors.

Reduced appetite, lethargy, fever, excessive urination and thirst, vomiting, weight loss, jaundice, bleeding problems, hepatic encephalopathy, enlarged liver, and fluid accumulation in the abdomen are all symptoms of liver cancer.

5. Treating Liver Disease in Dogs

Your dog’s treatment will be largely decided by how fast you identify the issue and determine what caused it.

To assess the severity of the damage, a veterinarian will examine the liver.

5.1. Dietary Changes

Dietary changes are frequently beneficial. Your dog may require a special diet to ensure that it receives the nutrients and calories required to support the liver.

5.2. Supplements

Supplements containing SAM-E or milk thistle may help the liver heal.

5.3. Antibiotics

Infections of the liver are treated with antibiotics. You may also need to change or reduce the dosage of your dog’s other medications.

5.4. Surgery

Surgery may be needed for dogs with tumors or cysts.

To handle the disease in dogs and avoid liver failure, work closely with your veterinarian.

6. What to Do to Prevent Liver Disease in Dogs?

liver disease in dogs
Wavebreakmedia/ UnlimPhotos. Copyright 2020.

Aside from genetic factors, veterinarians say there are a few things you can do to help avoid liver disease in dogs:

  • Avoid xylitol, which is found in sugar-free baked goods, gum, and candy, as well as other liver toxins.
  • Consult your veterinarian about canine infectious hepatitis and leptospirosis vaccinations, which may be necessary depending on your dog’s lifestyle.
  • Remove the Sago palm plant from your dog’s reach.
  • Veterinary appointments should be kept on a regular schedule.

You can help your dog by detecting liver disease early and making small changes before it progresses to a severe condition. Bring them to the veterinarian for yearly exams and vaccinations (including one that protects against leptospirosis).

Make sure your veterinarian is aware of any medications or supplements they are taking.

Take care of what you feed your dog. Fatty foods can be harmful to their liver. Also, don’t let your dog run loose in areas where poisonous plants or insects may be present.

7. Takeaway

Canine liver disease encompasses a wide range of both temporary and permanent disease processes, with several treatments remaining ineffective. Although not all cases of liver failure can be avoided, certain precautions can help to reduce the risk of certain diseases.

Infectious canine hepatitis and, in some cases, leptospirosis should be vaccinated in dogs. Keep your pet away from toxins that are known to be harmful.

Most importantly, be aware of the symptoms of liver disease in dogs and seek medical attention as soon as possible if you are concerned! One of the most important factors in treating chronic liver disease in dogs and preventing serious symptoms is early intervention and treatment.

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Rashi Dwivedi

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