How Can You Tell If Your Dog Has Liver Problems?

Updated on July 3, 2019
kate stroud profile image

Kate is a former veterinarian's assistant of five years. She maintains a passion for training and caring for dogs of all types.

With the guidance of your veterinarian, liver disease is usually manageable.
With the guidance of your veterinarian, liver disease is usually manageable.

What Is Liver Disease Exactly?

The liver is a vital organ in the majority of living creatures, and dogs are no exception. If the liver isn't working right, it creates serious complications and can eventually lead to chronic illnesses like liver disease.

It's never great for your dog to get liver disease, but most of the time, with the guidance of your veterinarian, it's manageable. Read on to find out what this disease is, the various types of conditions that cause it, the signs and symptoms, and treatment options.

What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs?

The liver does many things in your dog's body like:

  • Metabolizing its sources of energy
  • Storing essential vitamins
  • Detoxifying the blood
  • Creating fundamental proteins that help clot blood
  • Producing bile for digestion

Because of the liver's ability to perform a wide variety of functions, it's susceptible to all sorts of cell damage. Though damage to the liver is common, this special organ has an extraordinary ability to regenerate itself when it's been harmed. This ability means that when signs are seen early on, there's a lot you can do to manage it.

While liver disease in dogs can be caused by a bunch of different things, it's mostly caused by toxins that have damaged the liver beyond repair. Since the liver filters toxins, it can become overloaded with them easily. With too many toxins, the liver can't repair itself. Liver disease can be a result of aging or genetics or by an existing infection or trauma. Dogs can also develop liver disease from certain drugs/medications, or toxins in their food.

How Does This Disease Affect a Dog's Body?

The prognosis for liver disease depends on the underlying cause, the severity of damage and the dog's age. If liver issues can be addressed early-on, the likelihood of permanent damage diminishes and the prognosis is generally pretty good.

However, if the liver disease is severe or chronic, the chance of a good outcome gets lower. When the likelihood of a dog bouncing back from liver disease is low, then the treatment mostly turns to symptom-management and slowing the progression.

The Three Types of Liver Disease

Cellular Structure
Biliary System
Vascular Supply
Liver disease can be found in the cellular structure of the substances of the organ, in the form of infectious or inflammatory diseases, like hepatitis.
Liver disease can be found in the biliary system of the liver and is typically obstructive or inflammatory.
Liver disease can be found in the vascular supply to the liver, which is typically caused by the migration of abnormal blood vessels that cause the dog's blood to bypass the liver entirely.
There are three main types of liver disease, characterized by which area of the liver is affected. They can either be acute or chronic.
Catching the signs of liver disease early on is key to giving your dog the best treatment possible for a long and happy life.
Catching the signs of liver disease early on is key to giving your dog the best treatment possible for a long and happy life.

Early Signs and Symptoms

The hope when it comes to any condition or disease affecting your pup, is to catch it early. With liver disease though, the signs often mimic those of other issues, so keep an eye out for any of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

  • Increased thirst, which could also be noticed through an increase in urination

  • Weight loss and/or loss of appetite

  • Overall digestion issues, like constipation or gas

  • Changes in behavior; e.g., irritability or aggression when your dog is typically docile and chill

  • Unexplained fatigue and weakness, especially in a younger dog who's normally pretty peppy

How to Manage the Early Signs

Just like many other diseases and illnesses, liver disease happens in stages. Within the first two stages, there's a chance that your dog's liver-health could turn around and repair itself. It's essential to look-out-for and recognize the early symptoms of liver disease because the earlier you catch it, the better.

If you suspect your dog is exhibiting any of these symptoms, call up your vet and make sure to let them know when the symptoms started and how often you're noticing them throughout the day. Your veterinarian can do simple blood tests to check the function of your dog's liver, and there are medications and dietary changes that can be prescribed to help give the liver a chance to regenerate before it becomes liver disease.

Late Signs and Symptoms

If these earlier signs of liver disease go unnoticed and untreated, then the liver starts to deteriorate. When the liver is having problems regenerating and repairing itself from toxins, you should expect these types of symptoms (in addition to the signs you read about above):

  • Jaundice: This creates a yellow/orange appearance in the dog's eyes, gums, ears, and even skin/fur. It's also one of the most distinctive symptoms of liver disease as the liver breaks down red blood cells and excretes bilirubin. When the liver can't do its job properly, the bilirubin becomes backed-up in the blood.

  • Change in walk or gait

  • Seizures or neurological changes

  • Blood in the feces, urine, or vomit

Filling up Fido's water bowl more than usual lately? Excessive thirst can be an early sign that your dog has liver disease.
Filling up Fido's water bowl more than usual lately? Excessive thirst can be an early sign that your dog has liver disease.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your dog's veterinarian suspects he had liver problems, they'll probably ask you about your dog's diet and lifestyle. The vet may also want to perform blood tests, x-rays, ultrasounds or even a biopsy to see how the liver is functioning.

Since the liver is a medical marvel and has the ability to regenerate and heal itself, a prognosis may not be permanent. There's a possibility to save the liver, and your dog's life, if the liver is not completely failing.

So, the treatment options for liver disease vary greatly. For instance, when it's caught early, the recommendation may just be dietary changes, supplements, or medications that help the liver heal.

If the disease has progressed, it's called "chronic" or "severe" liver disease, and at this point, your vet will recommend treatment options that are aimed at managing the progression of the disease, minimizing the dog's symptoms, and keeping him comfortable. Other treatment options could include surgery to remove cysts or cancerous sections, or fluid therapy.

When to Call Your Vet

Here are some good guidelines to follow for how often and when to get your dog into the veterinarian's office:

  • Once or twice annually (depending on your vet's recommendations) for a wellness check-up to make sure that everything is going smoothly for your pup.
  • If your dog is exhibiting symptoms that are abnormal and haven't been discussed with your vet before, call the office and let them know. They'll be able to tell you if the situation is urgent and if not what signs mean it's time to come in ASAP.
  • If your dog is having bouts of diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Any time you have a concern about your pet.

Preventing Liver Disease in Your Dog

Maintain a Healthy Diet and Exercise Routine
Keep Your Dog Away From Toxins and Poisons
Keep an Eye Out For Early Signs of Liver Disease
Helping your dog to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise helps him avoid illnesses that can lead to liver disease.
Try to keep all harmful substances away from your dog. These could include all types of chemicals, medications, etc. Do not give your dog and medications (even over-the-counter) without consulting the vet first. Always be sure your dog is drinking clean water.
If your dog has been throwing up bile for three days in a row, don't just write it off as a normal dog stuff. Take note of warning signs that your dog is sick and let your veterinarian know ASAP. The quicker you treat the underlying cause, the better chance your dog has of making a full recovery.
If your dog exhibits any of the early or late signs of liver disease, it is essential you seek the attention of a veterinarian right away. Your dog's medical healthcare team can help you determine the root cause and provide you with the best treatmen

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Kate Stroud


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