06 Nov, 2023

Liver disease in dogs, symptoms and nutrition

Irina Turcan
Liver disease in dogs, symptoms and nutrition

When we think about keeping our pets healthy, it’s easy to overlook the liver. However, this crucial organ contributes to your pup’s wellbeing in several different ways. That’s why it’s vital to both look after it and be aware of the signs that something is wrong. In this article, we discuss liver disease in dogs – from potential causes and treatments to symptoms to watch out for. We’ve also got nutrition tips, advice on preventing the condition, and information on how milk thistle might help your pup’s liver.

What is liver disease in dogs?

The liver is an extremely important organ, which has several key roles to play in keeping your pooch healthy. It supports digestion by producing bile acids, stores vitamins, minerals, and glycogen, plus metabolises sources of energy. The liver also helps to break down medications and remove toxins from the body. It even makes proteins that are vital for blood clotting. All of which means that the liver is crucial to a multitude of functions and systems within your pup’s body.

Liver disease in dogs is when the liver stops functioning as it should. This could be a chronic condition that manifests slowly over time, or acute liver failure that occurs suddenly. Either way, without medical attention, liver disease in dogs can cause serious issues and even become life-threatening. Thankfully, there are treatments available to stop or slow the progression of liver disease in dogs, plus alleviate the symptoms.

As with many harmful health conditions, time is of the essence with liver disease in dogs. The earlier you spot the problem, the better chance you have of treating it successfully. As such, it’s important to be aware of the main symptoms of liver disease in dogs, which we’ll discuss below. If you notice any of them in your pup, book an appointment with a vet straight away.

In addition, there are steps you can take to lower the risk of your pooch developing the condition in the first place. We’ll talk more about these towards the end of the article. But before that, let’s go over some of the possible causes of liver disease in dogs.

Potential causes of liver disease in dogs

There are a number of different factors that can cause damage to your pup’s liver. For instance, as your pooch gets older, they become more at risk of liver dysfunction. Specific breeds might also be more susceptible to liver damage. As an example, Golden Retrievers, Yorkshire Terriers, and German Shepherds are more likely to have a condition called copper storage disease. This can result in a build-up of copper in the liver, which could damage the organ.(1) 

Trauma, heatstroke, and other health conditions may also cause damage to your pup’s liver. Infections, hepatitis (inflammation of the liver), diabetes, liver cancer, Cushing’s disease, portosystemic shunts, and thyroid disease can all impair liver function.

Moreover, because of the liver’s role in metabolising drugs, certain medications may have the potential to damage it. This includes some antibiotics, high doses of paracetamol, and anti-epileptic drugs. Likewise, if your pup ingests toxic substances (such as mouldy food or poisonous mushrooms), it might result in liver damage. That’s because the liver is the organ responsible for clearing these toxins out of your pooch’s body. 

The liver is able to repair itself to a certain degree, and in most cases, liver disease in dogs is treatable. Knowing the underlying cause of the problem will help your vet to decide the most appropriate course of action. As such, being aware of the most common causes can be useful for pet parents too. However, the more important thing is to know how to recognise the signs of liver disease in dogs. Let’s turn to those now.

Liver disease in dogs: symptoms and signs

One of the difficulties with liver disease symptoms in dogs is that they are not always obvious. You can easily miss some of the initial signs of liver disease in dogs, or mistake them for symptoms of other conditions. That’s why it’s always worth taking your pup to the vet if you notice anything amiss. Diagnosing the disease early gives your pooch a much better chance of having successful treatment.

With that in mind, here are some of the most common symptoms of liver disease in dogs:

  • Lethargy and/or depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Blood in their urine
  • Excessive drooling
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fever
  • Jaundice (yellow skin, gums, and/or whites of the eyes)
  • Disorientation or unsteadiness
  • A painful or bloated belly from a build-up of fluid in the abdomen
  • Problems with blood not clotting
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Seizures or fits
  • Pressing their head against surfaces like walls and doors (this can be a sign of hepatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain condition caused by severe liver disease)

If you spot your pup exhibiting any of these, book a vet appointment straight away. They will conduct a physical examination and run some tests in order to determine what’s wrong and why. When vets are concerned about liver disease in dogs, this may include having urine tests, blood tests, ultrasound scans, and X-rays. The vet might also want to take biopsy samples of your pup’s liver. This will enable them to recommend the most appropriate course of treatment.

The good news is that there are several options available, as we’ll look at now.

Treatment for liver disease in dogs

The specific treatment plan that a vet suggests for liver disease in dogs will depend on a number of factors. These include the cause of the condition, its severity, and your pup’s overall health. Treatment will usually involve addressing both the symptoms and the underlying cause of the disease. There are also likely to be some lifestyle changes you can implement to help your pooch recover.

In terms of medication, the vet could prescribe anti-inflammatories, painkillers, or antibiotics to treat an infection. If your pup ingested a toxic substance, then – depending on what it was – there might be an antidote available. The vet may also give your dog medicine to manage specific symptoms, like vomiting or diarrhoea. In some cases, they might put your pup on a fluid drip. And when liver disease in dogs results from another illness, treatment to address that condition may well be necessary.

Interestingly, one of the most important aspects of treating – and preventing – liver disease in dogs is nutrition. An optimal diet can help to both heal the liver and stop it from being overworked. In addition, there are certain supplements you can add to your pup’s meals to further protect the liver. These types of dietary changes may be temporary or permanent, depending on the cause and severity of the condition. Let’s get into the details.

Nutrition for dogs with liver disease

Good nutrition is crucial for addressing liver disease in dogs.(2) For example, choosing palatable foods which are easy to digest can help address a lack of appetite and reduced digestion. You want to ensure your pup is getting sufficient calories for their body to heal.

However, it’s not only calories that are important. You also need to make sure your pooch is consuming all the vitamins and minerals they require. Because the liver stores several key nutrients, your pup may develop vitamin deficiencies if the organ is not functioning properly. Similarly, if your dog is having problems with blood clotting, then boosting their consumption of vitamin K could be helpful.(3)

Another nutritional issue you might need to think about is restricting your pup’s copper intake.(4) Some cases of liver disease in dogs result from a build-up of this mineral. If that’s the case for your pooch, increasing their zinc consumption could further help to reduce the amount of copper that enters the liver.

Protein is also a key consideration with liver disease in dogs. While you don’t necessarily have to restrict your pup’s protein intake, you do need to choose high-quality, easily digestible sources. This is because ammonia is a toxic by-product of protein metabolism. Animals with liver failure may be less able to convert ammonia to urea, increasing the risk of hepatic encephalopathy. Research suggests that vegetarian sources of protein, such as soy and eggs, are preferable over meat.(5)

To make things easier, you might like to buy foods specifically created to help with liver disease in dogs. However, we recommend talking to your vet before implementing any changes to your pup’s diet. This will give you the peace of mind that you’re making the right choices for your beloved pet.

Milk thistle for liver disease in dogs

Us humans have been using milk thistle for generations as a way to support our liver health. What’s interesting is that this potent plant may offer the same benefits to our canine companions. This means it could be a fantastic functional food to help with liver disease in dogs.

Milk thistle is available in oil and powder form. Both may support the health of your pooch’s liver in several ways. For example, they act as powerful antioxidants thanks to the silymarin in the powder and vitamin E in the oil. Antioxidants defend your pup’s cells against damage caused by free radicals, which are produced when the liver metabolises toxic substances.

Milk thistle can also help to prevent toxins from binding to your pup’s liver cells.(6) This is beneficial for the health of their kidneys too.

In addition, the plant possesses impressive anti-inflammatory properties. This is useful because untreated liver inflammation can result in healthy liver cells being replaced by scar tissue, decreasing the organ’s functionality. Studies indicate that milk thistle could reduce the damage caused by both acute and chronic liver disease in dogs.(7)

You can give your pup milk thistle oil neat. One teaspoon (or 5ml) per 10kg of body weight up to twice a day should be sufficient. To add milk thistle powder to your dog’s diet, simply mix it into their wet food in the following quantities:

  • Small dogs (up to 10kg) – 25-50mg a day
  • Medium-sized dogs (10-20kg) – 50-100mg a day
  • Large dogs (20-50kg) – 100-200mg a day
  • Extra-large dogs (over 50kg) – 200-400mg a day

Always consult a vet before adding milk thistle oil or powder to your dog’s diet. This is because the plant may interact with certain types of medication, which you want to avoid.

Other tips for preventing liver disease in dogs

Feeding your pup a healthy diet and adding milk thistle to their meals are effective ways to support liver health. However, they aren’t the only steps you can take to help prevent liver disease in dogs. Here are a few more top tips:

  • Some viruses, such as canine adenovirus type 1 and leptospirosis, can cause liver disease in dogs. This is just one reason why it’s important to keep up to date with your pup’s vaccinations!
  • Make sure you’re familiar with the signs of liver disease in dogs. If you have any concerns, contact a vet straight away. Spotting the condition early usually makes it much easier to treat.
  • Take your pup for regular check-ups at the vet to confirm they’re in good health.
  • Never give your dog medication without consulting a vet first. Likewise, always follow the instructions carefully when giving them drugs the vet has prescribed. Medications are metabolised in the liver, so can affect the health and functioning of the organ.
  • Do your best to prevent your pup from munching on toxic substances like poisonous mushrooms, antifreeze, and the sweetener xylitol. These may cause liver damage or even liver failure. If you suspect your dog might have eaten something harmful, take them to the vet immediately.
  • Ensure your pup gets plenty of regular exercise and maintains a healthy weight. This helps to reduce the risk of conditions such as diabetes, which may lead to liver disease in dogs.
  • Consider getting pet insurance for your pup. While this won’t prevent liver disease in dogs, it will help ensure you can afford any treatment they might need.