Liver disease in dogs: common causes, symptoms, and treatments

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Dr Matthew Muir

Liver disease can be a worrying diagnosis for your dog, but it’s relatively common. Often, it can be managed with a holistic approach to liver health, including dietary adjustments. Your dog processes everything they consume whether it’s food or medicine, making nutrition a key component of your dog’s recovery.  

Understanding this disease's complexity and nuanced nature can help you manage it for your pup. The organ's remarkable ability to regenerate means that early diagnosis and treatment of mild liver disease often leads to a healthy, happy life for many dogs. 

The liver's role 

The liver is the largest internal organ in the body and is responsible for over 500 functions, including: 

  1. Detoxification: acts like a filter to remove harmful substances from your dog’s blood.  

  2. Metabolism: central to digestion, the liver supports the metabolism of carbohydrates and proteins and produces bile to help digest fats. It also helps to regulate blood sugar levels. 

  3. Storage: stores essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and glycogen. 

  4. Synthesis: clotting factors are produced in the liver to support your dog’s ability to heal itself. Proteins, like albumin, which help to regulate fluid balance, are also synthesised by the organ.  

  5. Immune function: helps to protect the body from infections and disease by producing immune factors and removing bacteria and viruses from the blood. 

What is liver disease? 

Liver disease is a complex set of conditions that prevent the organ from functioning normally. It can be an illness of the organ (primary) or a symptom of a separate underlying health condition (secondary), making it tricky to diagnose.  

Your vet can easily identify if your dog’s liver is under stress via a blood test. The organ can regenerate, so early detection improves your pup’s chances of recovery. But if the disease is left undiagnosed and untreated it can cause irreversible damage and lead to further health complications.  

Consider a wellness blood test as a preventative health check, even if your dog seems healthy.  

Liver disease signs and symptoms 

The liver is central to many of your dog’s bodily functions, so if something is affecting it, these functions are likely to be impacted too.  

Common symptoms of liver disease: 

  • Loss of appetite and weight loss 

  • Vomiting and diarrhoea 

  • Increased thirst and urination 

  • Lethargy and weakness 

  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes, gums, and skin) – caused by a build-up of bilirubin that the liver normally processes 

  • Pale gums 

  • Dark urine 

  • Abdominal swelling – usually caused by fluid accumulation or an enlarged liver 

  • Neurological signs – like seizures, blindness, disorientation, and confusion

Types of liver disease 

Liver disease can be either acute or chronic: 

  • Acute liver disease is most often caused by infectious agents or toxins like Xylitol, leptospirosis, and paracetamol overdose, as well as some poisonous plants and mushrooms. 

  • Chronic liver disease occurs gradually and is a long-term health condition if the root cause isn’t addressed. 

Hepatitis 

An inflamed liver which can be caused by infectious or non-infectious factors. 

Hepatic lipidosis 

A condition in which the liver becomes overwhelmed by fat accumulation, resulting from starvation, obesity, or underlying health conditions such as diabetes and pancreatitis. 

Hepatic encephalopathy 

A build-up of toxins in the bloodstream which can lead to neurological symptoms like disorientation or seizures.  

Liver cancer 

Primary liver cancer means the tumours originate in the liver. 

Secondary (metastatic) liver cancer spreads to the organ from another part of the body and is more common than primary liver cancer. 

Portosystemic shunts 

Abnormal blood vessel structures divert blood away from the liver, bypassing the normal detoxification process and causing a build-up of toxic substances. Portosystemic shunts are either a congenital abnormality or formed over time.  

Copper-associated hepatopathy 

Copper is important to the immune system and heart function. This mineral is regulated by the liver but in copper-associated hepatopathy the liver cannot metabolise it properly, leading to a build-up and eventual liver damage. 

Drug-induced liver disease 

Liver damage caused by certain toxins or medicines including phenobarbitone, carprofen, prednisolone and ketoconazole.  

Chronic liver failure 

If liver disease isn’t treated, the damaged tissue can become severely scarred and rubbery (cirrhosis), which is irreversible. Cirrhosis prevents the liver from functioning properly and can lead to liver failure in dogs. This is a serious and life-threatening condition.  

What causes liver disease in dogs? 

The cause of liver disease may be singular, or it may be triggered by several factors, including: 

  1. Infections: viral or bacterial infections, like leptospirosis, can damage the liver. 

  2. Toxins: some toxins including pesticides, medication, chemicals, or mycotoxins from pet food (or corn-containing pet food) can lead to liver disease. 

  3. Malnutrition: an imbalanced diet can affect liver health. This can include excess carbohydrates or liver in the diet, or high levels of copper relative to zinc. 

  4. Genetics: some breeds are genetically predisposed to liver conditions: 

    • Bedlington Terriers are prone to developing copper-associated hepatopathy. 

    • Doberman Pinschers are at a higher risk than other breeds of developing liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma). 

    • Cocker Spaniels can be predisposed to developing inflammation of the liver (chronic hepatitis). 

    • Labrador Retrievers are more at risk of accumulating fat in the liver causing hepatic lipidosis. 

    • West Highland White Terriers are prone to developing a liver shunt, which is a congenital abnormality. 

  5. Autoimmune disorders: in some cases, liver disease can be caused by a dog's immune system. 

  6. Ageing: senior dog liver problems stem from an ageing liver that’s less efficient at filtering toxins and waste. The accumulation of toxins can lead to liver disease.  

  7. Other diseases: secondary liver disease can be triggered by other illnesses like dental disease, dynamic airway disease, obesity, and hormone imbalances such as Cushing’s syndrome.  

How can I manage my dog's liver disease? 

If you suspect your pup has liver disease, take them to the vet straight away. They may take a blood sample to check for elevated liver enzymes which indicate a problem. The next step is to find the underlying cause, followed by regular check-ups to monitor their health.  

Depending on the severity of the disease, your dog’s treatment plan may include: 

Dietary adjustments 

Everything your dog eats is processed by the liver, making diet central to healthy liver function.  

Dogs with liver disease often need an adjusted diet: low in fat, moderate in quality protein and complex carbohydrates, and high in antioxidants. Some pups may require a copper-deficient diet.

Look for:  

Lean proteins: lean white meat like chicken, turkey, and fish provide essential amino acids for tissue regeneration and energy production.  

Leafy green vegetables: spinach, kale, and broccoli are high in natural antioxidants and fibre to support the organ’s detoxification process and promote a healthy gut-liver connection.  

Vitamin B-rich complex carbohydrates: fresh vegetables, like sweet potatoes, provide a steady source of energy without taxing the liver. They’re also rich in vitamin B which can help to reduce liver inflammation.  

Omega-3 fatty acids: fish or fish oil supplements are high in omega-3 and can reduce inflammation and improve liver function.  

If your dog has been diagnosed with liver disease and the vet has recommended a dietary change, unless it’s copper-related, consider a real food diet like Lyka.  

Changing your dog’s diet is a common way to address liver disease and a great preventative measure. Lyka meals contain liver-boosting real food ingredients and are complete and balanced for optimum nutrition. If your dog has copper-related liver disease, always check any dietary changes with your vet first.  

Avoid: 

Processed dog food*: ultra-processed food can contain mycotoxins: toxic compounds produced by fungi or mould on cereal-containing foods (like kibble), that can damage the liver.  

The organ can also be stressed by artificial additives including preservatives, colourings, and flavour enhancers, often used to make processed dog food.  

Advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) can also be harmful to the liver. These compounds are created when food is cooked at extremely high temperatures, like those used to produce dry food.  
 
*We recommend avoiding ultra-processed dog food, unless it’s a specific therapeutic diet from your vet. If a commercial real food diet doesn’t meet your dog’s clinical needs, our vets suggest home-preparing their meals.

“I recommend unprocessed food for dogs with liver disease (not copper-related), which can significantly reduce the load on the liver and support its healing. By choosing food free from artificial additives, mycotoxins, and advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), you can aid liver health.” — Dr Matthew Muir, Lyka Co-founder and Integrative Veterinarian.


Medication 

Symptoms of liver disease like vomiting, diarrhoea, and jaundice may require medication. Your dog may also need medicine to support their liver function and reduce inflammation. 

Fluid therapy 

Intravenous (IV) fluids may be given to your dog to support hydration and liver function. At home, ensure your dog has plenty of fresh water or consider a pet water fountain to encourage drinking. Consider switching from dry kibble to fresh food meals, like Lyka, that have a naturally higher moisture content 

Management of underlying conditions 

If your dog has secondary liver disease treating the underlying cause may improve liver function. 

Holistic health approaches 

Holistic veterinary practices like acupuncture, herbal supplements, and specialised diets can play a role in managing liver health, in conjunction with medical support.

“A holistic approach to liver disease in dogs creates personalised, comprehensive treatment plans to support liver health and vitality. Real food diets, Chinese and Western herbs, nutraceuticals, and advanced tools like heavy metal testing and microbiome analysis, can be effective integrative veterinary methods.” — Dr Matthew Muir, Lyka Co-founder and Integrative Veterinarian. 


Lyka: better health, powered by real food 

Choosing the right nutrition is fundamental to your dog’s health, especially when they’ve been diagnosed with liver disease.  

Lyka meals are made with no hidden ingredients. No artificial flavours or colours. No high temperatures. Only real, nutritious ingredients, vet-formulated to improve your dog’s health and wellbeing. 

If you’re considering a switch to Lyka to support your dog’s liver disease management, we recommend speaking to a holistic veterinarian who is knowledgeable about natural feeding. 

This article was reviewed by Lyka's veterinary and nutrition experts

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