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Liver Disease in Dogs


An old labrador with liver disease

Liver disease in dogs is a significant condition that can impact their overall health. 


This article offers an in-depth understanding of liver disease in dogs, covering symptoms, causes, treatments, and preventive measures to help pet owners ensure the well-being of their furry companions.


What is Liver Disease?

The liver is vital for detoxifying the blood, aiding digestion, and storing energy. 


Liver disease in dogs is a condition where the liver's function is impaired due to various causes such as infections, toxins, or genetic predispositions. 


When the liver is diseased, these functions are compromised, leading to symptoms like lethargy, reduced appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), abdominal swelling, and behavioural changes.


Types of Liver Disease

Liver disease in dogs can be classified into several types:


  • Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver, often caused by infections or autoimmune conditions.

  • Cirrhosis: Severe scarring of the liver tissue, leading to chronic liver failure.

  • Liver Cancer: Tumours that develop in the liver, which can be primary or metastatic (secondary).

  • Chronic Active Hepatitis: Long-term inflammation leading to progressive damage.

  • Copper Storage Disease: Genetic disorder causing excessive copper buildup in the liver. breeds such as Bedlington Terrier, West Highland White Terrier, and Skye Terrier are particularly at risk.


Each type has different causes, symptoms, and treatments, and early detection is crucial for effective management.


Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs

An old dog with liver disease

Symptoms of liver disease in dogs can vary but often include:


  • Decreased energy and enthusiasm.

  • Eating less or not at all.

  • Noticeable drop in body weight.

  • Digestive disturbances, for example, vomiting and/or diarrhoea.

  • Yellowing of the skin and eyes - known as Jaundice.

  • Bloating or enlargement of the abdomen.


Behavioural changes may also occur, with dogs becoming more irritable, aggressive, or displaying unusual behaviours like head pressing against walls or furniture.


Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver disease in dogs can stem from various causes. Toxins are a significant factor, including certain medications, pesticides, and chemicals that can harm the liver. Infections such as bacterial, viral, or fungal infections can also lead to liver damage. 


Poor diet, including inadequate nutrition or ingestion of toxic foods, contributes to liver issues. 


Some dog breeds - such as Doberman Pinschers, Labrador Retrievers, and West Highland White Terriers - have genetic predispositions making them more susceptible to liver diseases. 


Metabolic disorders affecting the liver's normal functions can also cause liver disease, as can chronic inflammation that gradually damages liver tissue over time.


Acute vs. Chronic Causes

Acute liver disease is often caused by sudden exposure to toxins or infections, while chronic liver disease usually stems from long-term issues such as chronic infections, ongoing toxin exposure, or metabolic disorders.


Diagnosis of Liver Disease

The diagnosis process for liver disease in dogs involves several steps. Initially, a veterinarian conducts a thorough physical examination and reviews the dog's health history. Blood tests are then performed to check liver enzyme levels, which can indicate liver damage. 


Imaging techniques, such as ultrasound and X-rays, are used to visualise the liver's structure and detect abnormalities. 


In some cases, a liver biopsy, where a small tissue sample is taken for analysis, may be necessary to determine the specific nature and extent of the disease. 


This comprehensive approach ensures an accurate diagnosis and helps guide effective treatment plans.


Treatment Options for Liver Disease in Dogs

Medical Treatment

Medical treatment involves medications to manage symptoms and support liver function, such as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and treatments to reduce toxin buildup. Supportive care like fluid therapy and pain management may also be required.


Dietary Management

Dietary management is vital, with specialised diets low in fat and high in easily digestible proteins to reduce the liver's workload. Supplements like SAMe and milk thistle can support liver health. These however should only be given on the advice of your Veterinarian.


Surgical Options

In some cases, surgery is necessary to address liver disease, such as removing tumours, correcting structural abnormalities.


Stages of Liver Disease in Dogs

1 - Initial Inflammation

The initial stage involves inflammation, which can be treated effectively if detected early with anti-inflammatory medications and dietary changes.


2 - Fibrosis and Scarring

As the disease progresses, fibrosis (scarring) of the liver tissue occurs, requiring intensive management to prevent further damage and maintain liver function.


3 - Cirrhosis and Liver Failure

Cirrhosis, the end stage of chronic liver disease, is characterised by severe scarring and impaired liver function. Treatment at this stage focuses on managing symptoms and providing palliative care to ensure the dog's comfort.


Living with a Dog with Liver Disease

A dog at the vets being checked for liver disease

Living with a dog that has liver disease is entirely possible, and there are several strategies to ensure they lead a comfortable and fulfilling life.


  1. Frequent check-ups with your vet are crucial. These visits help monitor the disease's progression and allow for adjustments in treatment plans.

  2. Administer all prescribed medications consistently. These might include antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and medications to reduce toxin buildup in the bloodstream.

  3. Nutrition plays a significant role in managing liver disease. Your vet may recommend a diet low in fat and high in easily digestible proteins to ease the liver's workload. Supplements such as SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) and milk thistle can support liver health.

  4. Ensure your dog stays well-hydrated and provides a comfortable, stress-free environment. Minimising stress is essential, as it can exacerbate liver disease symptoms.

  5. Regular, moderate exercise helps maintain your dog’s overall health and well-being. Avoid strenuous activities that could fatigue your dog.


Keep an eye on any changes in behaviour. Dogs with liver disease can become irritable or display unusual behaviours. Monitoring these changes can help in adjusting care and managing symptoms effectively.


Ensuring Your Dog's Health and Well-being

Liver disease in dogs is a serious condition requiring prompt attention and ongoing management. 


By understanding the symptoms, causes, and treatment options, dog owners can take proactive steps to ensure their pets receive the best care possible. Regular veterinary check-ups and a healthy lifestyle are key to preventing liver disease and maintaining the overall health of dogs.


If your dog's quality of life is suffering, contact out team via 0333 041 8200, or request an appointment.

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