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Liver Disease in Dogs: Know The Signs Before It’s Too Late

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / March 26, 2018
liver disease in dogs

 What is Liver Disease in Dogs?

Liver disease in dogs is a relatively common condition in pups that pet owners should take very seriously. It can lead to health issues such as seizures, coma, and even death if the disease goes untreated.

Let’s begin with a brief rundown on the vital organ that is the liver.

The Liver

dog with liver disease

After the skin, the liver is the second largest organ in a dog’s body. Yet, for some reason, people tend to gloss over the liver when discussing vital organs. Nevertheless, the liver is massively essential and performs approximately 1,500 necessary functions in your dog’s body. The following are a mere few of the roles that the liver is responsible for:

  • Detoxification of blood
  • Breaking down medications
  • Producing plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
  • Stores vitamins and minerals and releases them when necessary
  • Activates vitamin D
  • Metabolizing sources of energy
  • Producing bile acids that aid digestion
  • Eliminating harmful waste
  • Controls hormones including thyroid hormones

With this in mind, it’s hard to believe that an organ responsible for that many functions could ever be neglected.

Types of Liver Disease

Firstly, there are two types of liver disease in dogs: chronic and acute.

Chronic liver disease in dogs happens gradually over time. Health issues, such as liver cancer or diabetes, are oftentimes the culprit.

Acute liver disease in dogs happens suddenly. The most common cause of acute liver disease is poisoning.

While these are the two main ways to characterize liver disease, there are also conditions that are found more prominently in different breeds.

For instance, hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease in dogs, is most commonly found in cats and toy breed dogs such as Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, and Fox terriers. Hepatic lipidosis is the condition of triglyceride accumulation in the liver. It occurs when there are changes in normal lipid metabolism. Liver dysfunction from unregulated diabetes, pregnancy, or nutritional deficiency causes an increased energy demand and that often results in hepatic lipidosis.

Liver disease in dogs can also be caused by congenital issues. For example, breeds such as Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherds are prone to copper storage disease. Copper storage disease occurs when copper accumulates in the liver, causing damage.

Additionally, puppies can be born with a genetic condition called liver shunt. Liver shunt affects the circulation of blood in the liver and can lead to further complications, including liver disease.

How Liver Disease in Dogs Happens

In order for pet owners to prevent liver disease, we have to understand how and why it occurs.

An essential liver function is breaking down and eliminating harmful waste. The liver is one of four major organs that are responsible for ridding the body of toxins along with the kidneys, intestinal tract, and skin.

The liver handles a few things in the detoxification process:

  • It converts fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble substances. This allows the substances to be excreted from the body.
  • It filters larger toxins from the body.
  • It eliminates chemicals and toxins enzymatically.

As you may be able to tell, the liver is vital in ensuring that your pup is healthy.

There are two parts to the liver removing toxins.

1. Oxidation

The first phase of removing toxins is to convert the toxins into less harmful chemicals through a process known as oxidation. In this process, oxygen molecules split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. These atoms are referred to as free radicals.

While the toxins are less harmful, the frequent need for oxidation results in an exorbitant amount of free radicals in the body. These free radicals are responsible for aging and the degeneration of cells as well as contribute to diseases such as cancer.

In a way, due to the high, frequent demand for oxidation, one issue decreases while another issue increases, furthering the need for pet owners to be explicitly aware of the toxins in their pet’s day to day life.

2. Conjugation

The second phase of removing toxins happens when the liver cells add a substance (commonly amino acids glycine) to the toxins to make them less harmful. The toxin then becomes water-soluble and is able to be excreted from the body in a liquid form such as urine through the kidneys or bile from the liver through the bile ducts.

Why Liver Damage Happens

As the liver performs more and more oxidation processes, the accumulation of free radicals causes more and more cell damage. Eventually, the free radicals will affect the liver, causing liver damage.

The liver is so powerful that it is usually able to heal itself from the damage. However, when symptoms of liver disease in dogs become noticeable, that’s a good sign that the damage is quite severe and largely irreversible.

Elevated Liver Enzymes in Dogs

Enzymes are chemicals that cause reactions in the body. Damaged liver cells release enzymes. Therefore, if your dog’s blood tests show elevated liver enzymes, more often than not, the liver is in poor health. The greater the cellular damage, the more elevated the liver enzymes will be.

A veterinarian will perform the blood test in order to determine the stage of the liver problems and then develop a strategy to heal your pup. A liver biopsy may also be necessary.

Toxins that Cause Liver Damage

vaccines may cause liver disease in dogs

Sometimes, liver disease in dogs happens due to aging or purely genetics. However, sometimes liver disease happens for reasons within our control to manage.

The greater amount of toxins in your dog’s body, the harder it will be for the liver to break them down. Meanwhile, pet owners are contributing to their dog toxin levels unknowingly.

Some of the worst toxin offenders can be found in:

  • Flea and tick medication
  • Deworming medication
  • Heartworm medication
  • Vaccines
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • Processed foods
  • Pollution
  • Heavy metals
  • Viruses
  • PBDE (a flame retardant found in many pet foods- we know, scary!)
  • Household cleaners
  • Fluoride found in drinking water
  • Aflatoxin

Dogs are exposed to toxins nonstop, every day. With this in mind, the toxins need to be continuously removed from the body or else they will hinder necessary bodily functions, ultimately leading to disease.

Although the liver is powerful, it really isn’t equipped to deal with that extent of toxicity. In order to avoid a potentially life-threatening situation, it is important to be aware of early signs and take action right away.

Additional Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

  • Bacterial or viral infection
  • Liver cancer
  • Cysts which obstruct the bile duct
  • Endocrine diseases (diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hyperthyroidism)
  • Liver trauma
  • Canine hepatitis

Signs of Liver Damage in Dogs

signs of liver disease in dogs

Early symptoms of liver damage need to be taken very seriously. Often if the dog is showing signs, the damage is already quite severe. Keep an eye out for:

  • Eye discharge or a pinkish eye
  • Digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea
  • Allergies
  • Thyroid disease
  • Brittle or infected nails
  • Sinus issues
  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine
  • Loss of appetite
  • Ligament or tendon issues
  • Irritability
  • Aggression

The signs of early liver damage are non-specific. Non-specific means that they are symptoms of many different ailments, not specifically liver disease. This makes it difficult for early detection of liver disease. However, it’s still good to know the signs!

Liver Disease Symptoms

One of the most tell-tale signs that liver disease has progressed from liver damage is jaundice of the skin, eyes, and gums.

Additional clinical signs of dogs with liver disease are:

  • Blood clotting
  • Blood in the urine or feces
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Coma

In the end stages of the disease, neurological conditions, such as hepatic encephalopathy, can occur. Hepatic encephalopathy is caused by the build-up of toxins that the liver is no longer able to rid the body of. As a result, disorientation and lack of coordination can occur.

Enlargement of the Liver

As previously mentioned, early symptoms of liver disease in dogs are non-specific. If your dog has any early signs of liver damage or liver disease, it is extremely important that they see a vet.

The vet will be able to do x-rays and ultrasounds in order to check if the liver looks enlarged (a revealing sign of liver issues) and to rule out other conditions.

Dog Vomiting

Your dog vomiting can be a tricky area to maneuver. Vomiting is another non-specific symptom that can be a sign of something benign, such as new food not sitting right with your pup’s stomach. However, vomiting is also one of the first clinical signs of liver damage and as well as liver disease.

It is very important for dog owners to be as aware as possible in these circumstances. Are there any other logical reasons as to why your pup isn’t feeling like themselves? Are other symptoms accompanying the vomiting? If so, do not wait to get your dog to their vet.

Liver Infection Symptoms

Poison and infection are the most common issues that can result in acute liver failure. As a reminder, acute liver failure is one of the two types of liver disease, the other being chronic liver disease.

Poison can lead to immediate liver failure when there are more toxins than the liver can handle.

Common examples of poisoning:

  • Antifreeze
  • Herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides
  • Alcohol
  • Drugs
  • Rat Poison

When infection occurs, the symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of chronic, or ongoing, liver disease in dogs. However, these symptoms tend to come on extremely quickly and can often rapidly turn into hepatic encephalopathy, a liver-related brain disease that we mentioned before.

When the liver becomes infected, it is severely limited in performing the necessary blood detoxification functions that are needed for survival. The body can quickly become overwhelmed with toxins, causing a number of severe symptoms to seem to appear out of nowhere.

Liver Failure Symptoms

Vomiting, weight loss, and poor or no appetite are usually the first symptoms to appear. Very soon after the following will occur:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Jaundice
  • Blood in diarrhea
  • Frequent urination
  • Ulcers
  • Excessive Drooling
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Fluid in the abdomen
  • Disorientation
  • Decrease in coordination
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Coma

These severe symptoms should be seen as an emergency and treated as soon as possible.

Liver Failure Stages

The stages of canine liver disease are often a rapid progression leaving pet owners and veterinarians scrambling for a cure. However, knowing the preliminary signs of liver problems and acting accordingly can make all the difference.

Generally, the stages of liver failure are as followed:

Liver Damage –> Liver Disease –> Liver Failure

Sadly, when the illness is discovered in the liver disease stage, it is often deadly for dogs and cats.

Liver Disease Prevention

processed food

Let’s bring some light to this dark topic. There is hope! There are ways that pet owners can prevent canine liver disease altogether.

1. Remove Environmental Toxins

Environmental toxins are a major factor in liver damage and something that pet owners have the ability to control.

You may want to consider the following environmental changes:

  • Limit vaccinations
  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides
  • Add an air purifier to your home

These small changes could make a world of difference in your dog’s liver health.

2. Remove Food Toxins

Processed food = toxins. There’s really no way around it. Furthermore, processed food is directly correlated to liver health. The less processed food, the fewer toxins that the liver has to detoxify.

The best diet for your dog’s liver would be a fresh, raw diet free of synthetic vitamins.

3. Add Supplements

There are plenty of nutrient-filled supplements that pet owners can add to their dog’s food. We’ll get more detailed about that in a minute.

4. Leaky Gut

Treat your dog for leaky gut so that pathogens are unable to enter their body.

5. Water

Toxins are everywhere, including our water source. Make sure that your pup is drinking filtered water that is free of fluoride. Additionally, stagnant water can contain molds or blue-green algae, which can cause acute liver failure.

Liver Disease Treatment

Your dog’s treatment will be based on what stage the liver disease is caught in. The treatment for liver disease in dogs first focuses on managing the symptoms and then figuring out the underlying cause.

Medical Approach

Your veterinarian may propose:

  • Antibiotics to eliminate any viral infection
  • Medications to control symptoms such as vomiting or gastrointestinal issues
  • Fluid therapy for dehydration
  • Surgery to remove cysts or tumors

If your dog is diagnosed with cancer, chemotherapy or radiation may also be involved.

The pet owner will need to work closely with the vet in order to ensure that liver failure does not occur.

Holistic Approach

While there are situations where canine liver disease may be unavoidable, more often than not, pet owners are able to take preventative measures in fighting the disease before it happens.

Antioxidants And Carotenoids

Antioxidants have the ability to prevent cell damage caused by free radicals that can accumulate in the dog’s body and cause liver disease. One of the most powerful antioxidants is known as Superoxide Dismutase (SOD).

One of the best available types of Superoxide Dismutase is a carotenoid known as astaxanthin. If you haven’t yet heard about this super source, it’s pretty incredible.

Astaxanthin has the ability to protect the entirety of the cell: the exterior, interior, and lipid layers. Astaxanthin neutralizes the free radicals before they can cause severe damage to the cells.

And get this: astaxanthin is 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C! Talk about an antioxidant you want to know about.


A crucial antioxidant, glutathione is known for its ability to detoxify the liver while simultaneously boosting the immune system.

Surprisingly enough, glutathione is even used in hospitals to help the liver in cases of Tylenol overdoses.

The amino acids, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe), are glutathione precursors and serve as anti-inflammatory and detoxifying antioxidants.

Milk Thistle

milk thistle

Also known as silymarin, milk thistle is an additional supplement that protects the liver from toxins and helps the liver regenerate. Milk thistle should be used as a treatment for acute liver disease and existing liver disease.

Milk thistle comes in capsules, powder, or liquid and is available for purchase at most health food stores.

If your dog is on medication, it is important to consult your veterinarian before starting milk thistle supplements.

Additionally, while once regarded as a supplement that you could add to your dog’s daily diet, research is now showing that pet owners should only use milk thistle for situations where the liver is under an abnormal amount of stress.

Fresh Fruits and Veggies

There are also fruits and vegetables that when added to a dog’s diet can aid in cleansing the liver.

  • Spinach*
  • Broccoli rabe*
  • Spouts
  • Fermented vegetables*
  • Lemons
  • Lemon and apple cider vinegar
  • Celery*
  • Asparagus*

*Greens should be pureed or steamed so that your dog can digest them.

Lastly, keep in mind, fruits and veggies should be seen as an addition to an already health-conscious diet. Whole, raw food diets are preferred to limit the number of toxins entering the body opposed to processed foods.

Liver for the Liver

Liver contains 100 times the nutrients of muscle meat including vitamin A, some B vitamins, trace minerals, iron, protein, and CoQ10.

It is important to note that liver is very rich and may cause an upset stomach. You’ll want to slowly introduce the liver supplement into your dog’s diet so that their body can adjust appropriately.

High-Quality Protein

If your dog has liver disease, your veterinarian may suggest that you either avoid feeding your dog protein entirely or suggest a low-protein diet. This is due to the toxic amonia in certain proteins. Dogs with liver disease are not able to detoxify the ammonia, leading to hepatic encephalopathy symptoms developing.

However, this may not always be the case. The most important thing is to make sure you’re feeding your dog high-quality protein. The dog’s body needs protein in order to build and repair tissues, including liver tissues.

Furthermore, amino acids are crucial for your dog’s health. A dog needs 22 amino acids for optimal health. Dogs have the ability to make 12 of these 22 but the other 10 required come from proteins in their food.

Pet owners can ensure their dog is receiving a high-quality protein by feeding an organic, all natural raw-food diet.

Consult with your veterinarian regarding the stage of your dog’s liver condition and how certain protein can help. In cases such as advanced and end-stage liver disease, all protein may have to be removed entirely from the dog’s diet.

Cleanse your dog’s liver

There are two ways to cleanse the liver: with herbs or with homeopathic remedies.

When people consider liver cleansing herbs for detoxifying the liver, they usually only think of milk thistle. On the contrary, people have been using homeopathic remedies for decades for a myriad of reasons.

In short, if your dog comes into contact with toxins (they most definitely are in some way), you may want to perform a cleanse every four months to keep them feeling their best.


A great example of a homeopathic remedy is Chelidonium, which is widely used for liver detoxification. In a study with mice, Chelidonium showed that it could be actually be used to prevent tumors in the liver!

Chelidonium is available at most health food stores.

Studies suggest that you can do a liver cleanse for your dog twice a year provided that you have your dog on a raw food diet and you aren’t exposing them to heartworm medication, dewormers, vaccines, or other chemicals.

Carduus marianus

Carduus marianus is a homeopathic remedy made from milk thistle and is an excellent liver cleanser.


Another potent liver cleanser that is particularly beneficial for dogs with digestive issues.

In fact, pet owners can combine these three remedies or purchase a pre-made combination at many health food stores.

Diet and Exercise

An additional preventative measure that pet owners should take is maintaining their dog’s weight through a healthy diet and exercise. A healthy weight is another way to avoid conditions such as diabetes that can lead to liver disease.

Keep Deadly Foods Away

TOXIC FOOD for dogs

There are many foods that can make your pup ill. However, there are some foods that can result in liver failure if consumed. These deadly foods include:

  • Chocolate
  • Xylitol
  • Gum and candy
  • Macadamia nuts
  • Avocados
  • Garlic
  • Salt
  • Onions
  • Coffee
  • Alcohol
  • Raw yeast dough
  • Tea leaves

A Healthy Liver = A Healthy Pup

In summary, knowing that your beloved four-legged companion’s health is in your hands can be incredibly daunting. You want your dog to live the best life possible. The good news is, you can make a life-changing difference simply by being informed, aware, and acting accordingly.

We live in an extremely toxic world. Toxins are absolutely everywhere. Even if you are avoiding the big toxic offenders such as vaccinations and processed food, there is still an exorbitant amount of toxins in our everyday life. In short, we have to constantly be aware of circumstances that could add to the already high toxicity.

healthy dog liver

Furthermore, early intervention could save a life. There is no time to waste when symptoms of liver disease become present. Knowing the signs to look for and seeking medical attention right away is paramount in making sure your dog gets the help and treatment they need.

Through prevention, early detection, and when necessary, medical intervention, pet owners are able to make sure their furry friends are staying healthy and living their best lives.


What causes liver disease in dogs?

How do I know if my dog has liver disease?

How can I prevent liver problems in my dog?

Can I treat liver disease in dogs naturally?

What do elevated liver enzymes mean for my dog?




Spot The Early Signs Of Liver Disease In Dogs




About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for Honestpaws.com.