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Liver Disease in Dogs

By Colleen Williams
published: October 11, 2018 - updated: July 7, 2023 • 5 min. read
scruffy dog wearing sweater

Key Takeaways

  • The liver aids the body with detoxification, metabolism, and digestion.
  • Liver issues can cause jaundice, neurological issues, and stomach upset.
  • Common liver disorders in dogs include portosystemic shunts and endocrine diseases.
  • Early intervention is important for liver disease in dogs.

The liver is a powerhouse in the body – it detoxifies the blood, metabolizes sugar and carbohydrates, facilitates digestion with bile, and even helps blood to clot. Because it is such a vital organ that affects so many different systems, it is important to know any signs of disease, failure, or chronic condition, and take your pet to the vet immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • Jaundice: Signified by a yellowish hue to the skin, eyes, gums, and ears, jaundice is due to the liver not processing bilirubin (bile) correctly.
  • Neurological Issues: Everything from seizures to disorientation, depression to blindness.
  • Tummy Issues: Dogs suffering from liver disease will show any of the following: anorexia or decreased appetite, vomiting and diarrhea, weight loss, fluid retention in their belly, increased drinking and urination, and changes in stool color.
black scruffy dog wearing sweater
Bonnie, the day after surgery

Bonnie’s Story

“We adopted Bonnie from a shelter who had taken her in as a stray; she’d been found with foxtails and badly matted,” begins pet parent Sharon. After surgery for the foxtails, Bonnie didn’t find any takers. “My daughter who volunteers [at the shelter] called and told me of a sweet dog that nobody showed interested in adopting, so I adopted her! Luckily, something told me to purchase pet insurance on this adoption.”

scruffy dog connected to tubes
Bonnie, enjoying music as she receives oxygen

Two years passed before Sharon had to put her Healthy Paws policy to use. Bonnie had stopped eating and was acting strange. “Bonnie wouldn’t walk more than the length of two houses. With a lot of work, I got her farther and farther, but she was fighting diarrhea. We went a few rounds of medication where it would clear up and then start once the medication was gone,” explains Sharon. “I took her to the emergency clinic and she underwent surgery that day.” Bonnie had a Cholescystoduodenostomy, where the gall bladder is detached from the liver, and this was the first sign of any liver trouble. She was released for home care, but each month, Sharon and Bonnie were back at the vet for abdominal issues. It wasn’t until after a thyroid panel and liver value test almost 8 months after the initial claim that Bonnie was diagnosed with liver disease.

“She is now on Denamarin for the liver and thyroid medication for life,” says Sharon. “She has testing every three to six months or as needed.” While Bonnie had struggled with getting well, she’s finally on the right track. And the good news? “She has come out of her shell and is a very inquisitive and verbal dog, so walks are both a blessing and a curse! She does have a comical personality guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone.”

Protect your pet

Common liver disorders in pups

There are multiple reasons for liver disease, some of which are congenital, and others can be derived through infection. Here are some of the most common liver disorders seen at the vet:

  • Portosystemic shunts: One of the most common liver disorders can be a birth defect or an acquired condition, called portosystemic shunt. In these cases, a blood vessel is present that bypasses the liver, causing a buildup of toxins that the liver would normally take care of.
  • Endocrine Diseases: Certain endocrine disorders can lead to liver problems like diabetes, Cushing’s disease, and hyperthyroidism by putting undue stress on the organ. While treating the underlying endocrine disease, you actually improve liver function as well.
  • Infectious diseases: Since the liver filters all of the blood, infectious diseases can hit the liver too. Bacteria, viruses, parasites, or fungi.
    • Viral: The most common would be canine hepatitis, which can cause inflammation and scarring. This is a vaccine-preventable disease, so ask your vet about preventing hepatitis. (Healthy Paws does not cover preventative care vaccines or wellness visits)
    • Bacterial: Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection that can lead to liver disease, though it has been linked to kidney disease as well. Leptospirosis is spread through contaminated water, and can be prevented by a vaccine available at your vet. (Healthy Paws does not cover preventative care vaccines or wellness visits)
    • Fungal: Contaminated soil produces diseases like coccidioidomycosis and histoplasmosis, the two most common sources for fungal causes of liver disease. Dogs inhale or eat spores in the soil and start exhibiting symptoms that can require antifungal or parasitic treatments.
  • Cysts & masses: Congenital or acquired with age, cysts can be benign but still cause symptoms of liver disease. Surgery is usually required.
  • Liver cancer: Often linked to liver disease (or shows the same symptoms), cancer of liver can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of all three.

Certain breeds are more susceptible or even pre-disposed to specific liver conditions. Ask your vet about Copper storage disease that usually affects Labrador Retrievers, Bedlington Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, Skye Terriers, and Westies (West Highland Terriers). The condition can lead to chronic hepatitis, and then liver disease. Furthermore, amyloidosis, a disorder caused by a malformed protein that accumulates in the cells, is a disease of Chinese Shar-peis, Beagles and Foxhounds, and can also lead to liver or kidney disease.

Diagnostics & treatment

scruffy dog on couch
Bonnie today

Your vet will test your pet’s liver function via blood, urinalysis, ultrasounds, and x-rays. If liver disease is determined, your vet will develop a treatment plan that works best for your situation that may include prescription medication or a special diet. The prognosis for liver disease varies per case.  If your dog has avoided long-term damage they may bounce back through ongoing therapies. In chronic or severe liver disease cases, however, treatment is usually limited to managing symptoms and keep the disease from progressing. By enrolling in pet insurance prior to symptoms, these extensive and sometimes expensive treatments can be covered.

“Healthy Paws has been wonderful, not only covering the surgery and hospital stay but also the lifetime medication since they are a result of the surgery they covered,” says Sharon of Bonnie’s treatments. “By my last calculation, Healthy Paws paid well over $28,000 in just a year and a half. Plus, they are quick to process claims (38 so far!) and happy to answer any questions for concerns. I couldn’t ask for a better pet insurance company.”


While not all cases of liver disease can be prevented, especially those that may be congenital or hereditary, you can take certain precautions such as annual vaccinations, pet-proofing your home, and knowing the signs. One of the most interesting facts about the liver is that it is a regenerative organ, meaning it can be helpful if the disease is caught early. Most vets concur that early intervention and subsequent treatment is one of the key factors in beating liver disease.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

While vet bills can be sky high for serious complications and surgeries, your stress level doesn’t have to follow suit. Healthy Paws sees claims of $2,000 and up for initial liver disease visits, as well as $50 a month for prescriptions. With our dog insurance policy, depending on your deductible and reimbursement rate, you could see those bills be covered up to 90%. Get a free quote today.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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