Liver Disease in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Four Minutes
Oct 12, 2023

Much like in humans, a dog’s liver filters out toxins from their body, making it an essential part of their daily body function. When liver disease creeps up, it can disrupt their daily life and potentially be fatal. The good news is liver disease is highly treatable, especially when identified early. Knowing the signs and causes of liver disease in your dog is the best way to protect your pup from long-term complications.

Read on to learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment of liver disease in dogs.

What Is Canine Liver Disease?

Liver disease is a general term for several illnesses that target the liver and negatively impact the liver’s ability to remove toxins, store vitamins and iron, and perform other vital functions. While the illnesses may affect different parts of your dog’s body, they all stem from a complication between the liver and the respective organs. If not treated, liver disease can result in serious health complications for your dog.1

Some of the diseases that can arise may include:1

  • Bacterial infections
  • Chronic hepatitis
  • Cirrhosis (permanent scarring to the liver)
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (impaired brain function caused by toxins from the blood)
  • Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen)
  • Portosystemic shunt (a malformation that causes blood to bypass the liver)2

There are two types of liver disease that can occur in dogs: Chronic and acute.

Chronic liver disease is caused by ongoing health conditions, such as diabetes or liver cancer1 — two common dog diseases.

Acute liver disease happens more suddenly and requires immediate veterinary attention to provide supportive care to the liver.1

A MetLife Pet Policy May Help Cover Liver Disease Costs

See What's Covered

What Causes a Dog To Get Liver Disease?

Liver disease is caused by a variety of factors, including1

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Toxic substances (certain plants, pesticides, or xylitol)
  • Infections
  • Drug reactions
  • Diabetes
  • Liver cancer
  • Pancreatitis
  • Fatty liver disease (caused by obesity)
  • Trauma (hit by a car, heatstroke, or other emergencies)1

If not treated, chronic liver disease can lead to more permanent damage. This is known as chronic liver failure.1

Stages of Liver Disease in Dogs

There are four stages of liver disease that a dog may experience. As the disease progresses, the symptoms can lead to more permanent damage. The four stages of liver disease include:3

  • Stage one: Abnormal inflammation
  • Stage two: Fibrosis (scarred and hardened liver)
  • Stage three: Cirrhosis (firm and rubbery liver with permanent scarring)
  • Stage four: Liver failure, where the dog’s liver can no longer function

Because livers are regenerative, stages one and two typically can be reversed with treatment. Stages three and four cannot.3

What Are the Symptoms of Dog Liver Disease?

The symptoms of early-stage liver disease can sometimes present as normal signs of aging. This can make it tricky to notice liver disease in your pup. One of the more noticeable symptoms of liver disease is jaundice, a condition that presents as a yellowish tinge to the eyes, gums, and ears. This happens when the liver has a buildup of bilirubin in the blood, which causes the yellow tint.1

Some other signs of liver disease in dogs can include:1

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Increased urination
  • Increased thirst
  • Bleeding disorders

If possible, it’s a good idea to be proactive and have your dog checked by your vet routinely.

dog being held at the veterinarian's office

How Vets Diagnose Liver Disease

Liver disease can be determined through a blood test to check the levels of enzymes, proteins, albumin, and glucose in the liver.4 A blood test to determine bile acid concentrations can help evaluate how your pet’s liver is functioning.

In addition to the blood tests, the veterinarian may do a urinalysis to check the health of the dog’s liver and kidneys.

The vet may also conduct an abdominal ultrasound on the liver and gallbladder and additionally perform a liver and/or gallbladder biopsy to provide a more specific diagnosis.4

Treatments for a Dog with Liver Disease

While hearing that your pup has liver disease can be scary, there are several treatment options available to help get your furry friend back to full health. These treatments can vary based on the diagnosis and how severe the liver problems are. Some treatments your vet may prescribe include:1

  • Dietary changes, including a prescription diet
  • Antibiotics, antioxidants, and steroids to eliminate a viral infection
  • Supplements
  • Fluid therapy to treat or prevent dehydration

In the case of liver cancer, treatment may include chemotherapy or surgery to remove tumors or affected lobes of the liver.5

How To Prevent Liver Disease in Your Pup

While you may not be able to completely prevent potential liver disease, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk for your pup.1

  • Keep toxic substances — such as plants, medications, and chemicals — out of your pup’s reach.
  • Make sure your pup is well hydrated to promote healthy kidney function and overall liver health.
  • Ensure your pup’s vaccinations are up to date.
  • Make sure your dog is exercising and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Take your pup for their yearly vet exams.

Pet Insurance Can Help With Liver Disease Treatment Costs

Whether your pup is dealing with a chronic illness or something more sudden, having a pet insurance policy with MetLife Pet can make the costs associated with liver disease more affordable. If you’re wondering if pet insurance is the best call for you, here’s how we helped a family with treatment for liver disease.

Louie was a happy little Maltese in Idaho who suddenly started to lose weight and stop eating. His owners noticed these changes and took him to the vet right away. His parents found out that Louie was dealing with liver disease. In total, the exam cost around $727. Thankfully, Louie’s parents had a MetLife Pet dog insurance policy and got over $445 reimbursed. Now Louie is well on the road to recovery.6

Get customizable, award-winning pet insurance from MetLife Pet, so you can focus on your dog’s care instead of the vet bills. Start by getting your free, personalized quote today.

We Can Help You Protect Your Pup

**As with any insurance policy, coverage may vary. Review our coverage and exclusions.

1 “What is Liver Disease in Dogs?,” Beyond Pets Animal Hospital, 2023

2 “Portosystemic Shunt in Dogs,” VCA Animal Hospital

3 “Signs of Liver Disease in Dogs,” Vale Veterinary Clinic

4 “Testing for Liver Disease,” VCA Animal Hospital

5 “Liver Tumors,” VCA Animal Hospital

6 All claims paid amounts are based on MetLife internal claims data from October 2022. Story altered for illustrative purposes.

Coverage issued by Metropolitan General Insurance Company (“MetGen”), a Rhode Island insurance company, headquartered at 700 Quaker Lane, Warwick, RI 02886, and Independence American Insurance Company (“IAIC”), a Delaware insurance company, headquartered at 11333 N Scottsdale Rd, Ste 160, Scottsdale, AZ 85454. Coverage subject to restrictions, exclusions and limitations and application is subject to underwriting. See policy or contact MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions LLC (“MetLife Pet”) for details. MetLife Pet is the policy administrator. It may operate under an alternate or fictitious name in certain jurisdictions, including MetLife Pet Insurance Services LLC (New York and Minnesota) and MetLife Pet Insurance Solutions Agency LLC (Illinois).

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