Diagnosing Liver Disease in Dogs

The liver is one of the largest organs in the body and is responsible for processing biochemicals produced by the body or ingested. It fights disease, provides nutrients and energy to the rest of the body, and helps with growth and reproduction. As it is involved in so many body processes, it is not surprising that there are many different causes for liver failure in dogs.

What Is Liver Disease In Dogs?

The general term used to describe liver disease is hepatitis, but several variations and different diseases present as liver failure. These include:

  • Infectious Canine Hepatitis, which you can prevent with annual vaccinations. This form spreads through fluids, such as nasal mucus when your dog sneezes, or by using the same bowl and bedding as an infected dog.
  • Chronic Active Hepatitis, which you can prevent with vaccinations. The leptospirosis virus usually causes this form, which is transmitted in a similar way to Infectious Canine Hepatitis.
  • Copper Storage Disease, also known as Copper Toxicosis, which usually affects terrier breeds. Excess copper in the blood stream can lead to poisoning, which in turn causes liver failure.

Liver Disease Due To Accidents And Trauma

Your dog’s liver can be badly damaged if your pet is involved in an accident. Bruising can cause liver disease, although this is usually treatable, or the liver may become inflamed and produce toxins that are released into the blood stream. A badly damaged liver could also bleed into your dog’s abdomen; if your vet does not detect and treat this internal bleeding, it can prove fatal.

Liver Disease In Dogs Due To Infections

The liver processes all the biochemicals in the body, including bacteria and viruses. An untreated infection can overload the liver and eventually cause liver disease. This situation is more common in dogs that have already suffered from diseases such as Infectious Canine Hepatitis and Parvovirus, although infections can also be caused by ruptured internal abscesses.

Symptoms Of Liver Disease In Dogs

The symptoms for any kind of canine liver failure are similar. They will intensify as the disease progresses. Look out for:

  • Loss of appetite or acute anorexia
  • Weight loss
  • Excessive thirst and frequent urination (polydipsia and polyuria)
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Jaundice, which you’ll see as a yellowing of the whites of the eyes
  • Pale gums with a slow capillary refill time
  • Anemia
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • A change in the color of stools and urine — stools become unusually pale, while urine becomes darker than normal.
  • Distended abdomen


When you describe the symptoms to your vet, they will run a number of tests to figure out what’s wrong. The easiest is taking your dog’s temperature.

Your vet will take a blood sample for testing. They will look at the white blood cell levels to identify whether there is an infection or not, and the red blood cell count, which will show whether the dog is anemic. They will also check protein and essential amino acid levels.

Your vet will also take a urine sample to see if there is any blood, protein, or sugar present. These substances may indicate the presence of diseases such as diabetes, which can lead to liver failure if left untreated.

Your dog may need X-rays to reveal if the liver is enlarged, and to highlight internal bleeding or excessive levels of fluid in the abdomen.

Your vet may perform an abdominocentesis. In this diagnostic test, the vet inserts a long needle into the distended abdomen and draws out some fluid, which is tested for evidence of liver or heart strain.

Finally, your vet may take a biopsy, wherein a small sample of liver cells is harvested and sent to a pathology lab to look for abnormalities.


As with most ailments, liver disease can usually be treated effectively if it’s diagnosed early. However, if you allow the disease to progress undiagnosed, your dog may need to go into hospital. These are some of the treatments your vet may prescribe:

Fluid therapy: your dog gets an intravenous drip (IV) to prevent dehydration and replace any electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea.

Broad spectrum antibiotics: your dog gets a broad spectrum antibiotic to help the immune system deal with the bacteria causing an infection.

Specific medication: if your dog has an underlying condition that caused liver failure, such as diabetes, your vet may prescribe other drugs to treat that condition. In the case of diabetes, insulin is likely.

Dietary changes: a change in diet can sometimes help with the treatment of liver failure. For example, a low-fat diet will help your dog’s liver to work more effectively, while a low-copper diet can help with copper storage disease.


You cannot always prevent liver disease in dogs. It can affect any dog at any age, although older and unvaccinated animals are more likely to get it. By keeping your dog fully vaccinated and treated for worms and other parasites, you are doing your best to prevent the development of infectious diseases that could lead to liver failure. Regular exercise will also help keep your dog’s weight down, and thus keep its heart healthier.

While the prospect of liver disease may seem scary, if your dog is up to date with its shots, gets plenty of exercise and eats a healthy diet, you are effectively minimizing the risks. If the worst happens, remember that the liver has an amazing ability to regenerate and repair itself, both in dogs and humans. Take your dog to the vet if you notice any of the symptoms listed above, because the sooner diagnosis is made, the better the chance of successful treatment.