Liver Disease in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

 

The liver is the only visceral organ in the body known to regenerate. Liver disease in dogs is a common condition that can lead to seizures a coma or even a fatality.

 

What does the liver do?

The liver’s main duty is to filter blood coming from the digestive tract before passing it to the rest of the body. It detoxifies chemicals and metabolises drugs, regulates most chemical levels in the food and excretes bile, (this helps to carry waste products away from the liver).

It also has a role in helping digestion and blood clotting by removing toxins from the system.

 
 
paddy the golden retriever

 

What causes liver disease in dogs?

Sometimes ageing is simply the cause of liver problems in dogs, sometimes it’s genetic and sometimes it’s due to infection. Certain medications and other diseases can also damage a dog’s liver.

Liver abnormalities could include a birth defect called Congenital Portosystemic Shunt, (CPSS). This is suspected in dogs who have experienced stunted growth, have developed seizures or seem disorientate.
A portosystemic shunt (CPSS) is an abnormal vessel that allows blood from the dog’s intestine to bypass the liver. This results in toxins, proteins, hormones and nutrients being absorbed by the intestines also bypassing the liver and circulating throughout the body. Together, this causes further deterioration of a dog’s liver function.

Endocrine diseases are diseases that affect these endocrine glands. These diseases include dogs with diabetes, Cushing’s disease and hyperthyroidism. They can all cause impaired liver function because of their affects that they have on the organ.

The liver can be infected by bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. The most common viral disease in dogs is canine hepatitis. This can cause inflammation and scarring in the liver but thankfully is vaccine preventable.

Other liver problems include liver cancer in dogs and liver cysts.

 
german shepherd dog breed
 

Signs and symptoms of liver disease in dogs

The following symptoms are similar to signs of other diseases, therefore easy to miss. One of the most common is jaundice and is most noticed in the eyes and gums. It is a yellow-like appearance and happens when the liver doesn’t excrete Bilirubin. Bilirubin builds up in the blood and leads to the yellow appearance in dogs.

Watch out for these signs of liver disease:

  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Increased thirst
  • Unstable walk
  • Increased need for urination
  • Confusion
  • Signs of weakness
  • Blood in the urine or faeces
  • Seizures
  • Ascites (build-up of fluid in the belly)

If not caught and treated early, liver disease can lead to a brain condition called Hepatic Encephalopathy. This is a collection of neurological problems that are caused by poor liver function. Signs of this include dullness, inability to respond to basic commands, circling, aimless wandering, poor coordination, behaviour changes and seizures. All of which are similar to the brain disease, canine cognitive dysfunction, (dementia in dogs).

Treatment for liver disease in dogs

Treatments for liver diseases depend on factors such as the underlying cause, how soon the disease is caught and how much damage has already been caused.

If the cause is addressed before long-term damage occurs, prognosis can be excellent. Severe or chronic liver disease, on the other hand, has a poorer prognosis. In this instance, treatment is limited to managing the progression of the disease and minimising symptoms.

A vet will do an examination to determine the cause of the liver damage. This will include a blood test to check enzyme and protein levels as well as other substances and a urinalysis to check overall function of the liver and kidneys. X-rays and ultrasounds can also be performed to see if the liver has enlarged or to check for cysts.

You may be offered treatments such as:

  • Surgery to remove cysts, gallstones or cancerous parts of the liver
  • Fluid therapy, (IV)
  • Antibiotics or medications to halt vomiting
  • Diet changes to promote healthy liver function
  • Supplements, including milk thistle to help promote cell repair

Before the liver reaches a terminal state, it can recover and heal itself back to normal liver function. This is possible if the correct treatment is received early enough. 

Dog breeds prone to liver disease include: Yorkshire Terriers, Schnauzer, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, Poodle, German Shepherd, Bedlington Terrier, Maltese and Cocker Spaniel.

These breeds are prone to copper storage disease – this is where copper builds up in the liver, causing damage to the organ.

You can help to prevent your dog experiencing a liver disease by keeping up with their vaccinations and taking them for regular check-ups. A liver-friendly diet is always recommended too.

 
maltese small dog breed

 

If you suspect that your dog has liver disease don’t wait until it’s too late to consult with your vet. Although the liver is an incredible organ, it isn’t a miracle worker and needs looking after too!