Liver disease is a common condition in dogs that can lead to seizures, coma, and even death if left untreated. It is important to know the signs so you can get your dog medical help early when the outcome can be better.
Although the liver looks like a simple brown mass, it is a remarkable and complex organ that serves many essential functions. These include:
The liver also has a large reserve capacity since all of its cells share the same abilities. If one part of the liver stops working properly, another portion can take over. In addition, the liver can regenerate tissue given time and the right circumstances.
There are two types of liver conditions known as chronic and acute. Chronic liver disease occurs gradually and can be caused by an ongoing health condition like cancer or diabetes. Acute liver failure comes on suddenly and requires immediate medical attention. Poisoning is one of the most common reasons for acute liver failure.
Liver disease can have a number of different causes such as:
Liver disease can also be due to congenital conditions. For instance, breeds including Yorkshire Terriers, Schnauzers, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, Poodles, and German Shepherds are prone to copper storage disease where copper builds up in the liver and damages the organ. In addition, puppies can be born with liver shunt, which is a genetic condition that affects the circulation of blood in the liver.
The symptoms of early stage liver disease are non-specific, which means they are common to a number of ailments and do not directly point to a liver problem. This can make detecting liver issues difficult. Early stage symptoms can include:
As the disease progresses, it can cause jaundice where the skin, eyes, and gums turn a yellowish color. This is one of the most telltale signs of liver disease. In addition to jaundice, later stage symptom include:
Neurological problems, such as disorientation, pacing, aimless wandering, or lack of coordination can also happen in the end stages. These are caused by an accumulation of toxins that normally would have been eliminated by the liver.
Diagnosing liver disease requires a blood test to check the levels of enzymes, proteins, and other substances produced by the liver and a urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of the liver and kidneys. Both of these tests can also help diagnose or rule out underlying illnesses.
In addition, X-rays and an ultrasound can be done to see if the liver is enlarged and look for gallstones, cysts, or signs of cancer. In some cases, a liver biopsy might be needed for a more definitive diagnosis.
Treatment of liver disease in dogs is focused on managing the symptoms and addressing the underlying cause if it has been diagnosed. It can include:
If your dog has liver cancer, chemotherapy or radiation could also be part of the treatment recommendations.
If your dog has chronic liver disease, your veterinarian might suggest dietary changes, including store bought or prescription foods that are designed to help promote healthy liver function. Your veterinarian can help you decide if these foods would be beneficial for your dog.
There are things you can do to help prevent both acute liver failure and chronic liver disease. For instance:
It is also important to schedule regular exams for your dog so your veterinarian can check for early signs of liver disease. You can get reimbursed for those exams and more if you have an ASPCA Pet Health Insurance plan and choose one of our preventive care coverage options at an additional cost.
The cost for treating liver disease in dogs depends on the diagnostic tests, treatments, and medications that are needed—and it can get expensive. In 2016, the average claim amount for liver disease submitted by ASPCA Pet Health Insurance customers was over $960, and several claims were for over $4,000.*
A costly and unexpected bill like that can be difficult to manage especially if you don’t have the financial support of pet insurance. If your dog isn’t covered, you can get started now with a free quote.
*Source: Internal Claims Data, 2016