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Liver Disease in Dogs: The Signs, Symptoms and Solutions

Think your dog may be suffering from liver disease? Here's everything you need to know about this condition.

Are you worried that your dog may be suffering from liver disease? While this can be an overwhelming and scary thought, it’s important for you to remain calm. By being aware of the signs and symptoms of this condition, you can catch it early on, ensuring that your furry friend gets the help he needs as soon as possible. Here’s an overview on liver disease in dogs.

There are two types of liver disease in dogs: acute and chronic. If left untreated, acute liver disease, which has infectious or toxic causes, can end up sticking around. As such, it’s important to diagnose and treat this condition as soon as possible.

What Causes Liver Disease in Dogs?
“Dogs are more sensitive to some things than humans,” says Dr. Richard Goldstein, the chief medical officer at the Animal Medical Center of New York City, a not-for-profit animal hospital and institute for veterinary education and research. “They can get liver disease from things that are safe for people, like garlic, onions, human doses of Tylenol and some types of mushrooms.”

Liver disease can also be caused by cancer, toxins, infectious disease or abnormal inflammation, says Dr. Gregory Kuhlman, a veterinary resident instructor at the Small Animal Hospital at Texas A&M. And your dog’s heredity plays a role as well. According to Dr. Kuhlman, this condition can “be congenital in certain breeds, such as Yorkshire terriers.”

How Can You Tell if Your Dog Has Liver Disease?
“Be aware of changes in your dog’s behavior or appetite or other clinical signs that something’s just not right,” says Dr. Goldstein. Some potential signs of liver disease include vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy. You might also notice changes in your dog’s eating and drinking behavior.

If your dog suffers from a severe case of liver disease, he may have seizures or display strange changes in behavior or mental abilities. Your pet may also appear to suffer from jaundice, a condition in which his gums and the whites of his eyes appear to have a yellow discoloration. In addition, your dog may have a pudgy tummy that can easily be mistaken for healthy weight gain. Unfortunately, that pudge comes from fluid and lost muscle.

If your dog exhibits any of these symptoms, you should take him to the vet for an examination. “Treatment is almost always more successful when the liver disease is diagnosed early,” says Dr. Kuhlman. In fact, “a yearly exam by your veterinarian with annual blood work is the best way to monitor for developing liver disease.”

If there’s a chance that your pet may be suffering from this condition, your vet will take blood tests, x-rays or ultrasounds to confirm a diagnosis. But, according to Dr. Goldstein, the best way to know what’s going on is to conduct a biopsy.

How Is Liver Disease Treated?
“Treatment really depends on what is causing the liver disease,” says Dr. Kuhlman. Unfortunately, “not all forms of liver disease can be easily or effectively treated.” However, for those forms that can be treated, vets usually take a two-pronged approach.

The first step often involves improving the health of your pet’s liver. “Traditional Western practices have actually been adapted from thousands of years of practice in the East,” says Dr. Goldstein. “The idea is to reduce the toxicity of bile that flows through the liver.” According to Dr. Goldstein, vets use “milk thistle and medications that prevent oxidation — antioxidants — to prevent and treat liver disease.” He stresses that, like all supplements, these medications should always be controlled and administered by a veterinarian to prevent overdose or adverse reactions.

The second type of treatment depends on the specific cause of your pet’s liver disease. For instance, while your vet will prescribe suppressives if your pet is suffering from an autoimmune disease, he will administer antibiotics if a bacterial disease is the root cause. Similarly, if your dog is diagnosed with cancer, your vet will likely recommend chemotherapy.

Treatment for acute liver disease focuses on removing the toxin in question. For instance, if there’s copper in your dog’s liver and he’s missing the enzyme necessary to process it, your vet will prescribe medications that can help bind and remove the copper. This particular issue is commonly found in Westies. On the other hand, treatment for chronic liver disease aims to improve the quality of your pet’s life, as this type can’t always be cured.

How Should You Care for Your Dog at Home?
If your pet suffers from liver disease, the best way to care for her is to monitor any changes in her behavior and have the dog walker do the same, says Dr. Kuhlman. “Keep an eye out for decreasing appetite, jaundice, vomiting, diarrhea, trouble walking or disorientation. These are signs of worsening liver disease and should prompt a visit to your veterinarian.” It’s also important for you to maintain your dog’s medication schedule and limit his diet to veterinarian-approved foods. And, of course, you should shower your pup with love!

For more on keeping your dog healthy, check out Preparing for a Pet Care Emergency.

Cara Stevens is a freelance writer who lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. She has authored several books for children and writes frequently about parenting, hair care, DIY crafts, food and healthy living. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

*This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.