What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs?

What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs?

Posted by Lianne McLeod D.V.M. on

What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs?

The liver plays a crucial role in maintaining a dog's overall health and well-being, serving as a vital organ with multiple functions. Much like in humans, a dog's liver is responsible for essential tasks such as detoxification, metabolism, and the production of important proteins. It also plays a key role in digestion by producing bile, which aids in the breakdown of fats.

Despite its significance, the liver's health in dogs is often overlooked. Many pet owners may not be fully aware of the potential impact of liver health on their dog's overall vitality. This oversight can be attributed to the liver's ability to function silently, often not showing obvious signs of distress until the condition has progressed.

Consequently, regular monitoring and proactive measures to support liver health are essential for ensuring the longevity and quality of life for our canine companions. Understanding the importance of liver health and being mindful of potential issues can contribute significantly to the overall well-being of dogs.

Symptoms of liver disease

Identifying signs of liver disease in dogs can be challenging, as the liver is known for its resilience and the ability to compensate for damage until a significant portion of its function is compromised. Additionally, the symptoms of liver disease in dogs can be subtle and easily overlooked. Here are some subtle cues that may indicate liver disease in dogs:

symptoms of liver disease in dogs
  • Changes in Appetite

Dogs with liver disease may exhibit changes in appetite. This can range from a loss of interest in food to increased hunger. Affected animals may experience vomiting or diarrhea.

  • Jaundice (Yellowing of the Skin and Eyes)

Jaundice is a common sign of liver disease, but it may not be immediately noticeable. Yellowing of the skin, gums, and the whites of the eyes can be indicative of liver failure.

  • Changes in Behavior

Behavioral changes, such as increased irritability, depression, or disorientation, can be subtle indicators of liver failure. These changes may be attributed to the impact of liver dysfunction on brain function.

  • Increased Thirst and Urination

Liver disease can lead to an increase in thirst and urination. This may be a result of the liver's role in regulating various metabolic processes, including the balance of fluids in the body.

  • Ascites

Ascites, or the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen, can occur in dogs with liver disease. This can lead to a distended belly and difficulty breathing.

  • Changes in Stool Color

The liver plays a role in the production of bile, which contributes to stool color. Changes in the color of stools, particularly pale or grayish stools, may indicate liver problems.

  • Vomiting or Diarrhea

Dogs with liver disease may experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea, further complicating the diagnostic process.

  • Seizures

Seizures can be a severe manifestation of advanced liver disease, emphasizing the critical need for prompt veterinary attention.

  • Disorientation

Neurological problems like confusion or disorientation, may occur as a result of liver dysfunction affecting brain function.

  • Non-Specific Symptoms

Many symptoms of liver distress are nonspecific and can be associated with various other health conditions. These may include lethargy, weight loss, and a decrease in overall activity.

Given the subtlety of these signs, pet owners must be vigilant and seek veterinary attention if they notice any changes in their dog's behavior, appetite, or overall well-being. Regular veterinary check-ups and liver health tests can help in the early detection of liver disease in dogs, allowing for prompt intervention and management. 

Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

causes of liver disease in dogs

Liver diseases in dogs can stem from a variety of causes. These include infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, contributing to conditions like hepatitis. Toxic substances, whether ingested intentionally or accidentally, can adversely affect the liver, as can certain medications and chemicals. Inherited conditions, such as copper storage disease, may lead to long-term liver issues. Metabolic disorders, autoimmune reactions, and liver cancer also pose potential threats to canine liver health.

Understanding these diverse causes is crucial for effective prevention, early detection, and tailored management of liver disease or liver failure in dogs.

Common Liver Disease in Dogs

Several types of liver disease can affect dogs, each with its causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches. Some common types of liver disease in dogs include:

dog liver

Infectious Canine Hepatitis

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver and can have various causes, including infections, toxins, and autoimmune reactions. Infectious canine hepatitis is a viral form of the disease.

Portosystemic Shunt (Liver Shunt)

A congenital or acquired abnormal blood vessel that allows blood to bypass the liver. This condition can lead to a buildup of toxins in the bloodstream. Liver Stunt is a common liver disease in older dogs.

Liver Cancer

Both benign and malignant tumors can affect the liver. Hepatocellular carcinoma is a common malignant liver cancer in dogs.

Infectious Diseases

Various infectious agents, such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites, can cause liver infections and contribute to liver disease in dogs.

Toxins Affecting the Liver

Some substances, including certain medications, plants, chemicals, and other toxic substances, can be toxic to the liver and cause liver damage. For instance, ingesting certain types of mushrooms, especially wild mushrooms, can lead to liver damage in dogs. Contamination of certain dog foods with aflatoxins, produced by molds, can lead to liver damage.

Cushing's Disease (Hyperadrenocorticism)

Cushing's disease is an example of endocrine diseases that affect the endocrine glands and is characterized by an overproduction of cortisol. Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can have various effects on the liver.

The symptoms and severity of this liver disease can vary widely, and some dogs may not exhibit noticeable signs until the disease has progressed. Common clinical signs include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, increased thirst and urination, and abdominal distension.

Treatment approaches depend on the specific type and cause of liver disease in dogs. They may include dietary changes, medications, management of symptoms, and, in some cases, surgery. Early detection and intervention are crucial for a better prognosis, underscoring the importance of regular veterinary check-ups and monitoring your dog's overall health.

Diagnosing Dog Liver Disease

Veterinarians use a combination of tools and techniques to diagnose liver diseases in dogs. These diagnostic approaches help assess the liver's structure, function, and overall health. 

diagnosing dog livers

Blood Tests

These tests include Liver function tests that assess levels of enzymes and proteins indicative of liver health, a Complete Blood Count (CBC) that helps detect anemia, infection, or inflammation, and a Blood Chemistry Panel that evaluates liver enzymes, bilirubin, and other markers. Laboratory tests help Vets to diagnose and treat liver disease in dogs.

Imaging Studies

Ultrasound imaging is commonly used to visualize the liver's structure, size, and blood flow. It helps identify abnormalities such as tumors, cysts, or changes in liver texture.

X-rays, through radiographs, can provide additional information about the liver's size and shape. Contrast studies may be performed to highlight specific liver structures.


Through liver biopsy, a sample of liver tissue is obtained for microscopic examination. Liver biopsy helps diagnose the specific type of liver disease in dogs, assess the degree of damage, and guide appropriate treatment strategies.

Liver tissue samples can be obtained using various methods, including fine needle aspiration or surgical biopsy.

Coagulation Tests

Coagulation tests, such as PT and aPTT, provide insights into the liver's role in blood clotting. Abnormalities may suggest impaired function of the liver.


While primarily assessing kidney function, urinalysis can also provide indications of liver-related issues, as abnormalities may manifest in the urine.

These diagnostic tools, combined with a thorough clinical examination, enable veterinarians to pinpoint liver disease in dogs, determine their severity, and formulate appropriate treatment plans for our pets. Regular monitoring aids in the early detection and intervention of liver disease.

Treatment Modalities for Liver Disease in Dogs

The approach to treating canine liver disease depends on the specific diagnosis, severity, and underlying cause. Treatment of liver disease progression in dogs can include a combination of dietary management, medical treatment, and supportive care. Here are the key components of the treatment process for liver disease in dogs.

treatment of liver disease in dogs
  1. Dietary Management

Veterinarians may recommend special prescription diets formulated to support liver function. These diets typically have controlled levels of high-quality proteins, reduced copper content, and increased levels of certain nutrients to alleviate the workload on the liver.

  1. Nutritional Supplements

Nutritional supplements may be prescribed to support overall liver health and reduce inflammation. Supplements aid in the liver's healing process.

  1. Medications

Vets may prescribe medication to treat some dog liver disease. In cases of bacterial infections or hepatic encephalopathy, antibiotics may be prescribed to control infections and reduce ammonia-producing bacteria in the gut.

Anti-inflammatory drugs may also be prescribed to reduce inflammation in the liver, especially in cases of autoimmune hepatitis.

  1. Tumor Removal

In cases of liver tumors, surgical removal may be considered, depending on the tumor type and location. Surgery may be the best approach for treating liver disease progression.

Tailored approaches are crucial in treating canine liver disease because the underlying causes and manifestations can vary widely. A veterinarian will work closely with the pet owner to create a treatment plan that addresses the specific needs of the individual dog. Regular follow-up visits and monitoring are essential to track progress and make adjustments to the liver disease treatment plan as needed. 

Additionally, owners play a vital role in ensuring their dogs adhere to prescribed diets, medications, and lifestyle recommendations to optimize the chances of successful management and improved quality of life for dogs with liver failure.

Prevention of Liver Conditions in Dogs

Ensuring the well-being of your dog's liver involves adopting proactive measures to prevent liver disease. Here are some practical tips for maintaining a liver-friendly lifestyle for dogs:

prevention of liver disease in dogs
  • Balanced and Nutrient-Rich Diet

Feed your dog a high-quality, balanced diet that meets their nutritional needs. Consider prescription diets recommended by veterinarians for dogs with specific liver conditions.

Avoid feeding your dog human foods that can be toxic to the liver, such as chocolate, certain fruits (e.g., grapes and raisins), and foods high in fat.

  • Regular Exercise

Encourage regular exercise to help maintain a healthy weight and promote overall well-being. Obesity is a risk factor for various health issues, including liver disease in dogs.

  • Hydration

Ensure your dog has access to clean and fresh water at all times. Proper hydration supports various physiological functions, including those of the liver.

  • Parasite Control

Implement a regular parasite control program to prevent infestations of internal parasites, which can contribute to liver disease.

  • Vaccination

Stay up-to-date with your dog's vaccinations to prevent infectious diseases that can affect the liver.

  • Toxin Awareness

Be aware of potential toxins in your dog's environment, including household chemicals, plants, and medications. Store these items securely and keep them out of your dog's reach.

  • Regular Veterinary Check-ups

Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian, especially as your dog ages. Early detection of health issues, including liver disease, can significantly improve outcomes.

Consider routine blood tests as part of your dog's wellness exams to monitor liver function.

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity can contribute to liver issues. Work with your veterinarian to establish your dog's healthy weight and feeding plan.

  • Monitor Medication Use

Use appropriate medications only as directed by your veterinarian. Some drugs can have adverse effects on the liver, so it's important to follow dosage guidelines and inform your vet of any changes in your dog's health.

  • Avoid Exposure to Blue-Green Algae

Be cautious around bodies of water and avoid letting your dog drink or swim in water sources that may be contaminated with toxic blue-green algae.

By incorporating these preventive measures into your dog's daily life, you can significantly reduce the risk of liver failure and promote overall health and longevity. Remember that individual dogs may have unique needs, so consulting with your veterinarian for personalized advice is essential to address specific concerns and ensure the well-being of your canine companion.

In Conclusion

The liver plays a vital role in a dog's overall well-being. It plays a significant role in metabolism, detoxification, and digestion, promoting the overall well-being of your dog's health. There are however some nuanced symptoms that might signal distress or liver failure, it is therefore important to pay attention to the changes in your dog's well-being.

Whether it's through regular veterinary check-ups, a well-balanced diet, or vigilant toxin awareness, as a pet owner you can play a pivotal role in maintaining your furry friends' liver health. Early detection of liver failure, facilitated by blood tests, imaging studies, and other diagnostic tools, empowers veterinarians to tailor effective treatment plans for any liver disease. 

As guardians of our loyal companions, let's be proactive advocates for their liver health, ensuring that our dogs lead a happy, healthy life full of tail wags and joy.


  1. Sharon A. ( May, 2018). Disorders of the Liver and Gallbladder in Dogs. Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University.



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Lianne McLeod, DVM, is a former writer for The Spruce Pets, contributing articles for 11 years. Before Dr. McLeod began writing about pet care, she worked several years in small animal practice. She has written extensively about the care and keeping of exotic pets and pet health care. She now researches water quality and chronic disease at the University of Saskatchewan. Lianne McLeod earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She also received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Simon Fraser University. She continued her education and received a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Now, she splits her time between her family, research and writing about pet health for all the animal lovers out there.

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