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Liver Disease in Dogs

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What is liver disease?

The liver is an important organ with many functions, including the digestion and conversion of nutrients, the removal of toxic substances from the blood, and the storage of vitamins and minerals. Because the liver works to rid the body of so many different substances, it is susceptible to damage from many different sources. An abnormally functioning liver has rapid and widespread effects. Liver disease results in inflammation, known as hepatitis. If untreated, this can lead to loss of function as healthy liver cells are replaced by scar tissue. Diseases elsewhere in the body can also affect the liver’s function.

Fortunately, liver disease can be effectively managed and progression limited. Many dogs go on to live happily, years after their diagnosis. Proper nutrition and continuous dialogue with your veterinarian are key to managing your dog’s liver disorder.

What causes liver disease in dogs?

Factors that increase your dog’s likelihood of developing liver disease include:

Age: Several diseases, including liver dysfunction, are common in geriatric dogs.

Breed: Certain dog breeds, such as Dobermans, Rottweilers, Yorkshire terriers and cocker spaniels, are more likely to be born with or are prone to develop particular liver problems.

  • Some breeds, such as Bedlingtons and West Highland white terriers have been known to have difficulty excreting copper, which can impact a dog’s liver or copper-associated hepatitis. This genetic disease predisposes these breeds to chronic hepatic disease characterized by copper accumulation in the liver.
  • Chronic hepatitis in Doberman Pinschers is an inherited, copper associated disease that affects female dogs more than males.

Medications and chemicals: Medications containing acetaminophen can damage the liver in dogs.

Other factors may include:

  • Viral and bacterial infections
  • Poisonous substances your dog has eaten
  • Altered blood flow to the liver due to heart disease or other congenital abnormality

Does my dog have liver disease?

The signs of liver disease can be very similar to those of other conditions. If you notice any of the following signs in your dog, contact your veterinarian for a complete examination. Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Poor or loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Jaundice (yellowing of skin and whites of eyes)
  • Increased thirst
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Changes in behavior
  • Excessive drooling
  • Lack of energy or depression

Other possible signs of liver disease in dogs include dark-colored urine, pale gums or a buildup of fluid in the abdomen that could be mistaken for sudden weight gain. Your veterinarian can administer tests to diagnose liver disease.

Common signs of liver disease

IMPORTANT: The signs of liver disease are not very specific, making it difficult to recognize. If your dog is not eating, consult your veterinarian immediately.

Treatment: The importance of nutrition

If your dog is diagnosed, you may be wondering how to take care of your dog with liver disease. Treatment of any hepatic disease is aimed at resting the liver and minimizing those functions that have to do with metabolism of fats, proteins, carbohydrates and drugs. Controlling nutritional copper intake may benefit dog breeds predisposed to accumulate toxic levels of copper in the liver. When your dog has liver disease, it’s even more important to feed the right dog food.

For accurate diagnosis and treatment options, always consult your veterinarian and ask them to recommend the best food for your dog’s liver health.

Questions to Ask Your Veterinarian on Liver Disease:

  1. Are there any foods I should avoid giving my dog to ensure a healthy liver?
    • Ask how human food can affect your dog’s health.
  2. Would you recommend a Hill’s® Prescription Diet® dog food for my dog’s liver health?
    • Ask about special nutritional concerns for your dog
    • How much / how often you should feed the recommended food to your dog
    • Discuss which treats you can feed your dog with the recommended food
  3. How quickly should I expect to see signs of improvement in my dog’s condition?
  4. Can you provide me with written instructions or a handout on liver health?
  5. What is the best way (email/phone) to reach you or your hospital if I have questions?
    • Ask if you need a follow-up appointment.
    • Ask if a reminder email or notice will be sent.