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Liver Disease in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, Stages, and More

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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.

Overview of Liver Disease

Although the liver looks like a simple brown mass, it is a remarkable and complex organ that serves many essential functions. These include:

  • Metabolizing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates
  • Storing essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients
  • Producing enzymes that support digestion
  • Breaking down toxins, including medications
  • Eliminating waste from the body

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.

Types of Liver Disease

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:

  • Viral or bacterial infection
  • Cancer of the liver (hepatocellular carcinoma)
  • Cysts or gallstones, which can obstruct the bile duct
  • Endocrine diseases including diabetes, Cushing’s Disease, or hyperthyroidism
  • Trauma to the liver due to an accident or heatstroke
  • Ingestion of a toxic substance

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.

black and tan cocker spaniel resting on a couch

Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs

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:

  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • An increase in thirst, which will cause the dog to pee more frequently
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss
  • Changes in behavior, such as irritability, lethargy, or depression

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:

  • Swelling of the abdomen due to enlargement of the liver or fluid build up
  • Issues with blood clotting
  • Blood in the urine or feces
  • Blindness
  • Seizures
  • Coma

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:

  • Fluid therapy to treat or prevent dehydration
  • Antibiotics to eliminate a viral infection
  • Medications to control symptoms such as vomiting, gastrointestinal bleeding, or inflammation
  • Surgery to remove cysts, gallstones, or cancerous portions of the liver

If your dog has liver cancer, chemotherapy or radiation could also be part of the treatment recommendations.

Dog Food for Liver Disease

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.

dog with sad eyes resting on tile floor

Prevention Tips

There are things you can do to help prevent both acute liver failure and chronic liver disease. For instance:

  • Keep harmful substances including human medications, antifreeze, pesticides, and rodenticides out of paw’s reach. Check out this quick reference site we’ve created to help keep your pet safe!
  • Know which foods could harm your dog and result in liver failure. If you are not sure which foods are harmful, you can read our list of 16 things not to feed your dog.
  • Never give your dog over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen) without consulting with your veterinarian first.
  • If your veterinarian recommends medication for your dog, be sure to follow the instructions carefully to avoid overdosing.
  • Don’t let your dog drink from stagnant or potentially unclean water sources because they can contain molds and blue-green algae, which can cause acute liver failure.
  • Maintain your pet’s weight with a healthy diet and exercise routine. This can help avoid illnesses like diabetes that can lead to liver disease.

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.

Can Pet Insurance Cover Liver Disease?

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

An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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