How to Spot (And Treat) Early Dog Liver Disease

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liver disease

As they age, dogs become increasingly vulnerable to health complications. You’re probably familiar with issues like arthritis, but you may not be expecting liver disease. What exactly does it mean, and how worried should you be?

What Is Liver Disease in Dogs?

A dog’s liver functions just like a human’s to filter everything moving through the body. In fact, the liver plays not just one but 500 essential roles in the body. Detoxification, vitamin and mineral storage, food digestion, protein synthesis, and so many other responsibilities are all directly influenced by the liver.

As a result, damage naturally occurs to the liver over time. Years of strain and overuse degrade the liver and threaten its ability to perform sufficiently. This explains why liver disease is such a common health affliction in older dogs. It’s among the top five leading causes of non-accidental death in dogs.  

Overall, liver disease is a general medical term that encompasses any disorder of the liver. It’s marked by elevated blood levels of the liver enzyme and can manifest itself in many different ways. Though a dog’s liver can function even when more than half is affected by disease, it’s still vitally important to treat and manage this condition to prevent additional complications.

How Do Dogs Contract Liver Disease?

Your dog may develop liver disease for one of two main reasons — or even a combination of both.


The first is simply old age. Your dog’s liver can only sustain so much damage before its performance diminishes. As the “workhorse” of the body, the liver is always working at top speed to produce bile for digestion, metabolize macronutrients, support blood clotting, remove toxins, and break down drugs. Every bit of damage the liver endures accumulates over time until disease sets in.

Long-Term Medication Use

Alcohol abuse is one of the leading causes of liver disease in humans, but for canines the main culprit is long-term use of medications like ibuprofen or antibiotics. These drugs work their way through the body and end up in the liver, where they need to be broken down and filtered out.

This makes the liver a hotspot for free radicals and other damaging toxins. While the liver has extraordinary regenerative abilities, long-term medication use does gradually damage liver tissue and function until liver disease develops.

Watch Out for Symptoms of Liver Disease

Since liver disease develops gradually, symptoms evolve over time. Frequent vomiting is the main early-stage indicator of liver disease and signals that something in the body has become imbalanced. If your dog vomits more than once a week, it may be the first indication of liver problems.

Symptoms of dog liver disease

The stages of liver disease may also exhibit themselves through other symptoms:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Lethargy and lack of energy
  • Jaundice, yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Diarrhea and other digestive disorders
  • Sinus issues
  • Dark urine
  • Unusual irritability or aggression

In isolation, any of these symptoms can be misinterpreted as another health condition or the consequences of aging, but when your dog experiences multiple symptoms and clearly doesn’t feel like himself, liver disease could be the culprit.

What Happens If Dog Liver Disease Goes Untreated?

You’ve heard it here before, and we’ll say it again: prevention is the best treatment. If you’re unable to prevent liver disease in your dog, it’s essential to treat it as soon as it’s diagnosed. If your dog’s liver disease isn’t properly treated, the health complications become severe.

Untreated dog liver disease can be compared to cirrhosis in humans. Previously healthy liver tissue will hemorrhage and die, leaving scar tissue in its place. When the liver can’t function to filter toxins out of the body, those toxins accumulate and travel to other areas of the body. This causes a systemic effect and triggers symptoms in other areas of the body:

  • Seizure episodes
  • Neurological and behavioral problems
  • Edema (swelling) in the legs and abdomen
  • Infections
  • Hypertension

Since early- and late-stage liver disease can be identified and treated, you can be sure to give your furry friend the medical care they need to live a longer and healthier life.

Best Treatments for Early Dog Liver Disease

Early-stage liver disease is often identified randomly and unexpectedly in standard blood work screenings. Your pet’s vet may notice elevated liver enzymes, pair blood work results with behavioral observations and other small health issues, and come to the conclusion of liver disease.

Fortunately, an early-stage liver disease diagnosis can be effectively treated using a few different techniques.

First, your dog needs medications to soothe their liver and open up bile ducts. Liver disease triggers a buildup of bile, so creating an outlet for that bile helps your dog feel more comfortable. Antibiotics are also used to address the potential of bacterial hepatitis in the liver.

Your dog’s vet should also look carefully at their oral health to treat early-stage liver disease. If your dog has bad teeth, their oral bacteria will travel through the bloodstream and into the liver. Any abscessed teeth trigger infection and bacteria that may cause bacterial hepatitis and disease in the liver. Simply cleaning your dog’s teeth can dramatically lower their liver enzyme levels and minimize symptoms of liver disease!

Best Treatments for Late-Stage Dog Liver Disease

When dental cleaning, antibiotics, and other medications fail to reduce liver enzyme levels or reverse liver disease symptoms, the condition is likely more severe. An ultrasound of the liver can rule out a tumor, gallstones, or any other major problem that would need evaluation.

Once late-stage liver disease is identified, the most common treatments are designed to minimize symptoms and maximize comfort:

  • Antibiotics to slow the progression of bacterial hepatitis
  • Medication to control nausea
  • Stronger drugs to help the liver flush toxins out of the body

Unfortunately, late-stage liver disease is difficult to stop or reverse. It’s a fatal and progressive disease that attacks liver tissue aggressively. This is why prevention and early treatment are so valuable.

How to Prevent Dog Liver Disease

When it comes to liver disease, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of prevention and early treatment. The simple key is to order annual blood work for your dog. If your dog is more than eight years old, blood work can even be completed every six months to more efficiently identify changes and catch liver disease before it begins.

You can also help prevent liver disease by using herbs, nutraceuticals, and lifestyle habits that keep your dog healthy and support optimal liver function. Many pet owners utilize milk thistle and fatty acids to improve liver filtration, keep bile ducts open, and maintain liver health.

Of course, diet and food choices are also essential. A poor diet may lead to obesity or diabetes, which in turn aggravate the liver and increase the likelihood of liver disease. A healthy body weight and balanced blood sugar make it much easier for a healthy liver to combat the progression of disease.

The Bottom Line About Dog Liver Disease

You never want to watch your best friend suffer, but liver disease is an especially painful and miserable experience. Basic preventative measures, annual blood work, and the advice of an experienced veterinarian can make all the difference to your pet’s quality of life.

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