Signs of Liver disease in Dogs

In the early stages of liver problems in dogs, the liver swells and enlarges. As the disease progresses, the liver cells die and are replaced by scar tissue. The liver then becomes rubbery and firm. This condition is called cirrhosis and is not reversible. Before the liver reaches this terminal stage, it can recover from damage and heal itself to the point where your dog has normal liver function. This is possible if proper treatment is instituted early on; the extent of recovery depends on the exact cause of the liver damage. Eighty percent of liver cells must die before the liver begins to fail.


Knowing what’s normal for your dog will help you spot the signs of liver disease early. The early signs and symptoms can include:

  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Low appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Drinking less or more than usual
  • Vomiting or diarrhoea
  • Shaking caused by nausea or discomfort

Other signs may include:

  • Digestive disorders such as constipation, gas and bloating
  • Dry, brittle or infected nails
  • Dull eyes, corneal or retinal disorders
  • Jaundice
  • Sinus issues
  • Dark urine
  • Ligament or tendon issues
  • Irritability and aggression
  • Seizures or fits
  • High temperature
  • A painful, bloated belly
  • Spontaneous bleeding
  • Pressing their head against things
  • Ascites
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (nervous system disorder)
  • Oedema-swollen lower limbs

Many people mistake these signs as just a normal part of ageing, but since liver disease symptoms are so varied, it’s best to err on the side of caution and have your dog checked by a vet.

Toxins that can be damaging to your dog’s liver

A dog’s liver works hard to break down toxins, and the more it is exposed to, the more likely it is to experience damage. A dog’s liver can become stressed by numerous toxins, including:

  • Vaccines and medications
  • Flea and tick pesticides
  • Heartworm drugs
  • De-wormers
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • Food additives
  • Environmental toxins
  • Processed foods
  • Viruses and autoimmune diseases
  • Flame retardants in furniture and flooring
  • Chemical cleaners

Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

Acute liver failure is most often caused by infectious agents or toxins, poor flow of fluids into the liver and surrounding tissues (perfusion), hypoxia (inability to breathe), drugs or chemicals that are destructive to the liver (hepatotoxic), and excess exposure to heat. Necrosis (tissue death) sets in, with loss of liver enzymes and impaired liver function ultimately leading to complete organ failure.

Acute liver failure also occurs due to extensive metabolic disorders in protein synthesis (albumin, transport protein, procoagulant and anticoagulant protein factors), and glucose absorption, as well as abnormalities in the metabolic detoxification process. If this condition is not treated promptly, it can result in death.

Stages of dog liver failure

Liver disease in dogs occurs in four stages.

1 – Abnormal inflammation is the first stage of this condition, and this can be treated with medication or dietary changes in most cases.

2 – The second stage is fibrosis which occurs when the liver begins to scar and harden. When liver disease is caught at this stage or before, it can be reversed.

3 – Cirrhosis is the third stage, which is characterised by permanent scarring to the liver.

4 – The fourth stage of liver disease is liver failure, at which point the dog’s liver can’t function properly. At this stage, the main goal will be to make your dog as comfortable as they can be in their final weeks or months.

Livers are regenerative, so if liver disease is caught early enough, dogs can recover and live a happy, healthy life. But in severe cases, your dog may require more intensive treatment and in extreme cases, liver disease may even be too advanced to be treated.

Treatment for Liver Problems in Dogs

Treatment of liver failure is directed towards treating the liver disease that is causing it, but hospitalisation is vital for treating acute liver failure. Fluids and electrolytes, along with colloid (the gelatinous substance necessary for proper thyroid functioning) replacements and oxygen supplementation, are key aspects of treatment and care.

Restrict activity

Your dog will be placed on restricted activity in order to give the liver an opportunity to regenerate. Catheter feeding is recommended for highly unstable patients, while enteric feeding (feeding directly into the intestines) in small amounts is recommended for otherwise stable patients.

What to feed a dog with liver disease

A normal protein diet with supplemental vitamins E and K is advised. The common medications used for liver failure are antiemetics, drugs for hepatic encephalopathy (brain disease, with or without oedema), hepatoprotectants (to decrease the activity of aminotransferases), coagulopathy drugs, and antioxidants. There are special foods available for dogs with liver disease that contain additional vitamins and minerals to protect and heal the liver, and that are easier to digest. These foods are normally prescribed to dogs with chronic liver problems, but they can also be beneficial in the short term to help your dog recover.


Vaccinating dogs against the infectious canine hepatitis virus (an acute liver infection), and avoiding the use of drugs that have potentially harmful hepatotoxins as ingredients can act as preventives against acute liver failure. But there are other ways to prevent liver disease in dogs.

  • Keep harmful substances including medications, pesticides, chemical cleaners and antifreeze out of reach from your pets.
  • Know which foods can be harmful to your dog and make sure they can’t get to them.
  • Never give your dog over-the-counter medications without checking with your vet first.
  • Follow the instructions carefully for any medications prescribed to your dog to avoid overdosing.
  • Don’t let your dog drink from potentially unclean or stagnant water sources that could harbour bacteria.
  • Keep your pet at a healthy weight with plenty of exercise every week, which can help prevent diabetes which can lead to liver disease.

How we can help

If you are worried that your dog may be suffering from liver disease or may have symptoms, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today. If you would like to book an appointment for your pet, please click here or give us a call now on 0208 679 6969. Our practice is open Monday – Friday from 9am to 6pm and on Saturday from 9am to 1.30pm. We also provide 24 hour emergency cover.

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