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Canine Liver Problems: Important Facts Every Pet Owner Needs to Know

Updated on March 18, 2015
DonnaCosmato profile image

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

White-coated small breed dogs may have a predisposition for liver problems
White-coated small breed dogs may have a predisposition for liver problems | Source

Liver problems manifest slowly, so it is possible for your best friend to be suffering from liver disease but not show any symptoms before irreversible damage occurs.

Some early warning signs are increased thirst or urination, but these can also be symptoms of other health conditions such as diabetes.

In a recent interview, Dr. Cathy Alinovi of HealthyPAWsibilities answered some of the most frequently asked questions about canine liver disease and pet health.

Early diagnosis and proper treatment can be a life saver for dogs with liver problems
Early diagnosis and proper treatment can be a life saver for dogs with liver problems | Source

Question 1: What is liver disease? How does it manifest in dogs?

Dr. Cathy: Liver disease is a broad term for anything that makes the liver not function normally. It can mean infection, cancer, or cirrhosis (loss of tissue and function due to repeated problems); it can refer to the liver itself or the gall bladder and the parts of the liver that contribute to the gall bladder.

Most commonly, the dog with liver disease stops eating or starts vomiting. Sometimes a liver patient has orange-yellow feces or urine, perhaps yellow eyes, and very often, yellow vomit.

Q2: What toxins might cause liver problems?

Dr. Cathy: Strong chemicals like Tylenol and xylitol can be toxic, and it doesn't even take a very large dose. However, sneaky toxins include heavy metals (from pollution and vaccinations), chemicals in air fresheners and laundry products, and by-products absorbed through the food.

These sneaky toxins are things most pet owners do not even realize are there let alone could be affecting their dog until much later. Phenobarbital, a medicine frequently used to control seizures, is also known to cause liver damage. Because the liver is responsible for so many great detoxification functions, a buildup of many little things as result of the detoxification processes can eventually lead to liver damage.

Regular veterinarian checkups may help detect developing health conditions such as liver disease
Regular veterinarian checkups may help detect developing health conditions such as liver disease | Source

Q3: How can pet owners protect their dogs from these toxins?

Dr. Cathy: The adage to use only what your great grandma would have used serves humans and our canines well. If there are ingredients in a product that you cannot pronounce, it is not good for our dogs or us.

Vaccines can have a strong effect on the liver, so the less we vaccinate, the less stress will occur on the liver. Similarly, the fewer chemicals dogs are exposed to, the stronger their livers will be as the liver detoxifies the chemicals. Finally, a twice a year liver detox diet that lasts two weeks will really help too. (See liver diet below.)

Q4: What diseases or medical conditions can cause problems with a dog's liver?

Dr. Cathy: Congestive heart failure can cause back up of blood into the liver and can cause liver disease. Cushing's disease, thyroid disease and other endocrine problems can lead to liver enlargement too. Seizures/epilepsy can affect the liver indirectly as phenobarbital is the most commonly used anti-seizure medicine, and it has liver toxic side effects.

Many of the medications prescribed for our dogs can cause liver side effects. For example, non-steroidal anti inflammatories (like Rimadyl) can cause liver problems, especially in Labradors. Chronic use of steroids can also lead to liver disease.

Q5: Are there breeds that are pre-disposed to liver disease?

Dr. Cathy: Little white dogs of many breeds seem to be most commonly affected by portosystemic shunts, which is a developmental problem where their blood does not flow properly through the liver.

At the other end of the age spectrum, there are several breeds likely to develop chronic liver disease. See table below for a list of these breeds.

In the case of some of these breeds, it may it be a direct predisposition to liver disease as much as a predisposition to other conditions, which result in use of medications that lead to liver disease. For example, Cocker Spaniels have many skin and allergic issues, but the over use of steroids to control the symptoms can then lead to liver conditions.

Breeds Predisposed to Liver Disease

Cocker Spaniels (English or American)
Springer Spaniels
Great Danes
Doberman Pinschers
Cairn Terriers

Q6: Does liver disease strike younger or older dogs?

Dr. Cathy: Liver disease can manifest at any age but for different reasons. The young dog usually has either congenital (from birth) problems or infectious liver disease. Older dogs can have liver disease caused by infectious agents just like the young dog, but also cancer, gall bladder sludging, and cirrhosis from a lifetime of subtle liver assault.

Q7: How many types of liver disease are there?

Dr. Cathy: There is a huge list! The cause determines liver disease. Causes range from bacterial or viral infection, toxins, cancers or developmental, dietary, inflammatory, and metabolic causes.

Liver Problems in Pets

Q8: How is liver disease diagnosed?

Dr. Cathy: Bloodwork is often the first test. Six to eight blood chemistry numbers evaluate liver function. From there, a combination of diagnostics from ultrasound to biopsies will identify the type of liver disease.

Q9: What kind of symptoms would pet owners notice?

Dr. Cathy: Vomiting is usually the first symptom. Sometimes simply not eating is a sign. Every now and then, a dog may keep things hidden until his eyes, gums and skin turn yellow.

Q10: Is liver damage reversible?

Dr. Cathy: Liver damage can be reversible, especially if it is caught early enough and the true underlying cause is corrected. Liver shunts in young dogs can be difficult to reverse, other than surgically, and that does not always work. Cancer can also be hard to reverse if it's affecting the whole liver. What is great though, regardless of the type of liver disease, is that in most cases a liver detoxification diet can do wonders to buy some time and quality of life. I have provided a recipe for our readers at end of this interview.

Q11: What is the prognosis for dogs with liver problems?

Dr. Cathy: It depends on the cause. Again, liver shunts give a poor prognosis, but infection has a good prognosis if the diet is suitably changed. Cancer can have a good prognosis if it is only one part of the liver, but a poor one if the whole liver is affected- it is a matter of type of cancer.

Q12: What are the traditional Western methods of treatment?

Dr. Cathy: A prescription diet and nutraceuticals containing milk thistle or SAMe are general liver treatments. From there, treatment depends on the illness; for example, antibacterials are used for bacterial infection, surgery for cancer or liver shunts, and symptomatic care like anti vomit medicine for those dogs with vomiting.

Q 13: What types of alternative treatments are helpful?

Dr. Cathy: It's funny because the therapy principles are the same as for western medicine, but the actual medicines are different. Therefore, one approach is feeding real food, such as the ingredients in my recipe, as opposed to processed, prescription food to start.

Herbal therapy may include milk thistle, or it may include any of a number of other liver helpful herbs such as like dandelion or burdock. A herbal blend like Long Dan Xie Gan can be helpful. Homeopathic medicine might use chelidonium or gentian.

Acupuncture can help the liver work better or help the gall bladder drain. There is even a muscle/organ relationship between the liver and the shoulder stabilizer muscles so that an animal chiropractic can help a liver patient feel better. The great thing about alternative medicine is how many options are available. Since some patients do not tolerate some treatments, it's good to have other methods to address the illness.

Q14: What role, if any, does diet and nutrition play in reducing the risk or mitigating the damage of liver disease?

Dr. Cathy: Diet is a huge factor and can control liver issues for years in many dogs. Regardless of the cause or type of liver diseases and their treatment, feeding the liver detox diet (use the recipe provided below) can work wonders.

Q15: What else would you like pet owners to know about canine liver disease?

Dr. Cathy: In older dogs, liver disease is usually a side effect of a lifetime of exposure to "stuff." This "stuff" is everything that has happened in your dog's life: vaccines, medicines, pollution, chemicals, food. By trying to keep to simple, pure living, your dog may avoid liver disease.

Dr. Cathy's Liver Detox Diet for Dogs

Prep time: 20 min
Cook time: 45 min
Ready in: 1 hour 5 min
Yields: Depends on size of dog


  • 1/2 cup new white potatoes, cut up
  • 1/2 cup sweet potatoes, cut up
  • 1/2 cup zucchini, diced
  • 1/2 cup string beans, celery or summer squash, diced
  • 2/3 cup cod fillet, poached


  1. Wash the potatoes well and cut them up crosswise into 2" pieces so the skin circles the potatoes.
  2. Simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour and remove the skins.
  3. Wash the zucchini and cut up with string beans, celery or squash and steam or cook until very tender.
  4. Poach the cod fillet in a frying pan with water until fish is white.
  5. Mix all ingredients together until well blended.
  6. Feed for two weeks for a semiannual detox. Dogs with systemic liver disease can eat this diet indefinitely.


5 stars from 1 rating of Canine Liver Detox Diet

© 2014 Donna Cosmato

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