Have you owned a dog that had liver disease? Does your current dog have liver issues? Or perhaps a friend or family member has had a pet with liver disease.  If you’ve experienced this situation, like many others, it can be extremely difficult for pets and their owners to cope with.

Watching your beloved companion become ill and deteriorate is completely devastating. What’s worse is many pet owners like yourself, feel there’s little they can do about it – other than feeding commercial pet food prescribed by their veterinarian and pumping their little guy full of meds.

Photo Credit: Hannah K

Photo Credit: Hannah K

Unfortunately, this route doesn’t always solve the issue at hand.

It may mask the illness or temporarily sooth symptoms for a period of time but it doesn’t offer a solution. Commercial pet foods are laden with toxins and heavy antibiotic use can be taxing on the body (especially the liver), which is why it’s important to take a holistic and preventative approach to disease.

One of the best defenses against liver disease in dogs is prevention.

Be aware of liver issues and illnesses and what causes them. With this knowledge, you’ll be better armed to prevent the disease entirely or stop it in its early stages. If you suspect your dog is in the early stages of liver disease, be aware of the signs and symptoms, tests and diagnoses, and holistic treatment options.

Overview of Liver Disease

According to the Canine Liver Disease foundation, “one of the top five leading causes of non-accidental deaths in dogs is canine liver disease.”

It’s estimated that roughly 3% of all disease seen by veterinarians are liver based. Because the liver is one of the most important organs in a dog’s body and is responsible for so many essential bodily functions, its health is of utmost importance. If the liver becomes damaged or compromised in any way, your dog’s health could be in danger.

elderly pug

The liver’s main responsibilities lie in:

  • detoxifying the blood
  • removing waste
  • and producing bile to aid in digestion.

This large organ is involved with just about every biochemical process in your dog’s body (providing energy, allowing growth, aiding in reproduction, fighting disease, and supplying nutrients).

Because the liver plays such an important role in your dog’s body, there are many diseases that can affect it. Likewise, liver disease in dogs can also affect many other parts of the body. This makes diagnosis difficult with symptoms that are often unpredictable and non-specific.

Despite the severity of liver disease, the liver is fascinatingly resilient.

Interestingly enough, it’s reserve capacity is quite large. This means it has the ability to perform its duties even during the onset of liver disease. In fact, the liver can still perform even if it has 70-80% of its mass affected by disease. It’s capable of shifting into overdrive in a split second to increase it’s output and efficiency.

If one section (lobe) is infected with cancer, an infection, or traumatized, the remaining sections (lobes) will work harder and compensate to make sure the body’s vital functions are fulfilled.  In addition, every section (lobe) of the liver performs the exact same tasks; this makes it possible for the liver to carry out vital functions even if parts of it are affected.

While it’s certainly remarkable that a dog’s liver can keep them alive despite illness…

There’s a catch 22:

The diagnosis of liver disease in dogs is extremely difficult. Not only because dogs can’t accurately tell us what’s wrong, but because it could be advanced or virtually untreatable before symptoms begin to surface.

This is also why finding conclusive results from various liver function tests can be challenging. Sadly, it’s believed that many liver conditions go on for a while before either an owner or veterinarian recognizes signs or symptoms.

Here’s the good news: the liver has the ability to regenerate itself.

Regeneration of body parts is something that is not normally possible in mammals like it is for some reptiles or amphibians.

Except for the liver!

The liver is the only organ in the body that’s capable of complete regeneration. There have been many cases where large parts of the liver are surgically removed, yet within a year or so the organ has regrown to its original size with no loss of function or abilities. Liver regeneration amazes clinicians all the time.

This means if we can successfully treat the disease, there’s hope for recovery.

Canine Liver Function

The liver is the largest internal organ in the body. It’s located at the front of a dog’s abdomen, behind the chest cavity. It looks like a large, red/brown mass and is attached to the gallbladder. Though it may be hard to tell upon examination, it’s comprised of several sections called hepatic lobes.

canine anatomy

Photo Credit: Yr11 Biology

The liver is an amazing organ. In fact, it’s been said that it performs over 1,000 different tasks all of which could not be carried out else where and are vital to life.  To list all of the functions it performs, would fill an entire book. But it’s important for you to understand what it does in the general sense if you hope to prevent liver disease or treat it.

It’s responsible for:

  • Digestion
  • Detoxification
  • Waste Removal

Digestion Explained

Protein Production

The liver aids in several areas of digestion, the first area being the production of proteins.

Amino acids (the building blocks of protein) are metabolized in the liver. Some of the important blood proteins manufactured in the liver are “albumin” and “globulins.” Their duties consist of maintaining the pressure gradient in blood vessels, transporting compounds, and performing immune responses to protect the body.

One such example is blood clotting. Amino acids as well as other proteins are not only manufactured but also stored within the liver. The liver manages these protein supplies for efficiency, only storing what is needed, and producing extra when necessary.

Therefore when it comes to proteins, the liver produces, metabolizes, stores, and monitors these substances.

Fat and Carbohydrate Metabolism

The liver is involved in another area of digestion: the metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids. Carbs and lipid (fats) are the energy stores in your pet’s body.

The liver is in charge of the storage and release of these substances. Basically everything that is absorbed by your pet’s digestive tract goes to the liver first. Glucose, one of the main sources of quick energy is extracted from the blood and converted to glycogen. This is stored in the liver until needed.

The liver also stores and metabolizes fatty acids, triglycerides and other fats.

Vitamin, Mineral, and Nutrient Storage

Most vitamins and minerals (A, D, E, K with the exception of Vitamin C) are stored or somehow regulated by the liver.

It’s worth noting the importance of the liver’s storage abilities because some vital substances, like metals (zinc, copper, iron) can be irritating to other types of tissue within the body. The liver pulls through making sure they are always available.

Quantities of valuable vitamin, minerals and other nutrients are always carefully monitored because excessive amounts could also be damaging to cells. The liver also stores a lot of blood, which is why it’s able to transport a large quantity of blood into general circulation if your pet were to lose large amounts of blood.

Approximately 15-20% of all blood in the body is within the liver at any time.

Bile Production

The liver also produces bile, which consists of the compounds that are produced or excreted by the liver. Bile is released through the gallbladder with the bile duct into the small intestines. Bile aids in the breakdown of food. While bile is in fact an accumulation of waste products that will eventually be excreted from the body, it also aids in digestion.

Detoxification Explained

Detoxifying the blood is another main responsibility of the liver.

Thousands upon thousands of miles of blood vessels run through the liver and come in contact with liver cells every day. As this occurs, the liver is constantly taking from, adding to, or changing the blood that passes through it in some way.

Therefore, if your dog’s body needs a compound or substance that is manufactured or stored in the liver, chemical communications tell your dog’s body to release it into the blood stream to be carried to the necessary parts of the body.

On the other hand, other materials are collected from the blood and stored for future need. While this is occurring, potentially harmful substances are filtered and destroyed. To illustrate just how large a role your liver plays in cleaning up and providing valuable substances in your blood, view your liver like a saturated sponge. When squeezed, it would expel large amount of blood. 15-25% of the blood in the body goes through the liver.

The liver is the first tissue that absorbs the nutrients from the stomach and intestines since every blood vessel leaving the gastrointestinal tract goes straight to the liver.

Waste Removal Explained

Another key area of importance in the liver is waste removal.

The liver is able to break down and excrete various compounds. Some result from the by products and waste of normal cellular activities (urea from protein metabolism, worn out hemoglobin, cholesterol, hormones, etc.).

Others are not natural to the body such as (antibiotics, medications, sedatives, anesthetic agents, or other agents administered to pets). This destruction of harmful substances is a serious matter. If the liver cannot eliminate these harmful substances, your pet could die.

Causes of Liver Disease

There doesn’t seem to be a universal or single cause for liver disease in dogs. Trauma, other diseases, poor breeding and genetics, chemicals, drugs and antibiotics, toxins, or a poor diet can potentially damage the liver. Here are some known causes:

Diseases that are known to affect the liver:

  • Canine hepatitis
  • Leptospirosis
  • Cushing syndrome
  • Primary and metastatic tumor
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Fungal and bacterial infections (including heartworms)
  • Cancers
  • Parasites

Chemicals known to affect the liver:

  • Carbon tetrachloride
  • Pesticides
  • Herbicides
  • Insecticides
  • Rodenticides
  • Toxic amounts of lead, phosphorus, selenium, arsenic, and iron
  • Bleach and other household chemicals
  • Household cleaners
  • Paint chips

Drugs known to affect the liver:

  • Anesthetic gases
  • Antibiotics
  • Antifungals
  • Anabolic steroids
  • Dewormers
  • Diuretics
  • Analgesics (including NSAIDs)
  • Painkillers
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Testosterone preparations
  • Corticosteroids
  • Chemotherapy drugs
  • Cortisone
  • Corticosteroids
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Certain parasiticides given over extended periods
  • Phenylbutazone
  • Phenobarbital

Toxic Plants and herbs known to affect the liver:

  • Ragwort
  • Certain mushrooms
  • Blue-green algae
  • Certain molds (aflatoxins) – which have been  found in some commercial dog foods! See here for more.

Liver Disease Symptoms

As mentioned earlier, canine liver disease is hard to spot because the liver is capable of functioning despite a majority of its mass being affected by disease. Early symptoms are usually non-specific since they mimic symptoms of a range of other diseases, illnesses, or ailments.

However, some generally accepted early signs of liver disease include the following. If you begin to notice any of these symptoms, it warrants a trip to the vet and investigation into the matter.

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Chronic intermittent vomiting and diarrhea (vomiting is usually more common)
  • Drinking and urinating more often than normal
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Disinterest in normal activities
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness

In the early stages of liver disease, the liver will typically swell and enlarge.

As it progresses, the liver cells being to die and are replaced by scar tissue. This will lead to the liver becoming firm and rubber like. This is called cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is end stage liver disease and cannot be reversed.

It’s important to get to your dog before he or she reaches this terminal stage. If your dog is before this stage, it’s possible to recover and for the liver to heal itself and regain normal liver function. This means proper treatment needs to be introduced early on.  80% of liver cells must die before the liver will begin to fail, so there’s time!

The signs of liver failure are:

Jaundice – Due to impaired liver function, bile accumulates in the body and blood staining the tissues yellow

  • Yellow appearance to the whites of eyes, in mucous membranes like the gums and tongue, or inside ears
  • Urine turns dark brown like the color of tea
  • Putty colored stools

Hepatic Encephalopathy – Brain dysfunction that is created by high levels of ammonia and other toxins in the blood. Diseased livers have trouble removing ammonia

  • Incoordination
  • Sporadic weakness
  • Disorientation
  • Head-pressing
  • Behavioral changes
  • Drooling
  • Stupor
  • Mental dullness
  • Seizures and possible coma

Ascites – the accumulation of leaked fluid in the abdomen due to the lack of albumin which keeps fluid in the blood vessels

  • Swollen or bloated look
  • Thumping on abdomen produces dull, flat sound

Dependent Edema – Albumin production (which keeps fluid in the blood vessels) diminishes and fluid is leaked

  • Swollen lower limbs

Bleeding – spontaneous bleeding can occur as diseased livers have problems with blood clotting

  • Found in stomach, intestines, and urinary tract, vomit, stools, or urine
  • Punctate hemorrhages on the gums
  • Bruises on lips or skin

Liver Disease Diagnosis

Besides receiving a physical exam to look for the above symptoms, blood work and diagnostic testing is often employed.

A CBC (complete blood count) and is usually performed to check for symptoms of liver disease. They look for a decrease in red blood cells (anemia). They also check for elevated or decreased white blood cell counts. Though neither of these necessarily indicates liver disease.

A comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP) is a complete chemistry screen that can be administered to check for the concentration of several enzymes that may indicate alterations in liver health. These can include:

  • ALT
  • AST
  • GGT
  • Bilirubin
  • Glucose
  • Urea
  • Electrolyte levels
  • Albumin
  • Globulin
  • Bile acid levels

In addition, a urine analysis, radiograph of the abdomen, ultrasound of the liver, or biopsy of the liver can be performed.

Holistic Treatment Options for Liver Disease

Since canine liver disease is caused by a myriad of different assaults from trauma, injury, disease, toxins, chemicals and drugs – there’s no magical drug or antibiotic that will cure it.

In fact, all of the chemicals and drugs your dog is surrounded by on a daily basis can cause or contribute your dog’s liver disease. This includes any harmful lawn chemicals or household cleaners used on floors and surfaces. It can also include any drugs or antibiotics given to your dog throughout his or her life.

The foundation for preventing and even treating liver disease is proper nutrition.

If you’re dog is in optimal condition nutritionally, then he or she will not need the countless drugs or antibiotics shelled out at your veterinarian’s office every year (which may or may not be contributing to liver dysfunction). If you’re dog isn’t in optimal condition, it’s time to start. There’s no point in only treating early stage liver disease with drugs and antibiotics since they can contribute to liver disfunction.

One of the best ways to stay out of the veterinarian’s office is to feed a species appropriate raw diet. Raw food contains valuable and natural enzymes, vitamins and minerals, which are destroyed in commercial pet foods. It’s also the biologically correct food for your companion. In addition, commercial pet foods are full of chemicals, preservatives and toxins and are the very reason dogs are sick today. Contrary to what many people believe or may have heard, a raw diet can be an appropriate diet for dogs with liver disease.

You’ll also need to work hard to remove dangerous chemicals and toxins from your dog’s environment. You must take a holistic approach to disease by working to prevent it. Even if your dog has already begun to suffer from the early stages of liver disease, monitoring nutrition closely, providing supplementation and removing chemicals and toxins from his environment are of utmost importance and may be the key for recovery.

Please note: Comments are best used for discussion on the topic as a whole. Feel free to help others by sharing knowledge, something that has worked for your dog, or provide suggestions for others looking for help with liver disease.

If you’re looking to discuss your dog’s medical condition, contact me through email. I’m no longer able to respond to individual health queries in the comments area. But I will continue to approve comments so that you can converse with other readers.

And last, I’m not currently providing liver disease recipes due to legal/liability reasons but am looking into how I can best offer this in the future! Sign up for the Primal Pooch email list (through the homepage) to stay abreast of these changes.



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Comments (23)

  • Kelly Frazier

    Thanks for sharing information about liver disease among dogs. I believe pollution and drugs are the main reasons for this. Consulting a vet occasionally can help us to identify and prevent this disease at the earliest.

    Reply to Kelly
  • Patrica

    We got a rescue dog 7 months ago. Vet put her on an antihistamine and prednisone for the serve allergy problems. As much as I didn’t want to she was scratching all the time. And the vet said this was the best course of action. After being on it on and off for the past 7 months I asked the vet to do take blood wrk as I was concerned. Her liver enzymes went from 270 to 4000. So the vet out her in a supplement with milk thistle. Wants to do this for 3 weeks then do the blood test again. I asked about food and she said to just feed her the same kibble food, vet presc Royal Can hydr protein for dogs with allergies. She had been in this course for almost 2.weeks and in the past 5 days has thrown up twice always in the morning when I am trying to give her her pills. Isn’t there something else I can feed her. I just lost a dog to cancer less than a year ago and I don’t want to lose another! Please any information and help about food would be appreciate. I need specific food and amounts as I am not knowledgeable about this route. Thank you

    Reply to Patrica
  • Chris

    Can you please send me the raw diet for my 9 yr. old 100 lb lab girl Tasha Lee Marie? She was diagnosed with high liver enzymes & i was also give prescription food which I didn’t want to get. Also she is developing lumps under her skin which the vet says is normal for a lab. is this true??? Thank you in advance for your time

    Reply to Chris
  • madeline montez

    i have a weiner dog name minime he is diagnosed whit bad liver he eats and takes his milk thrisle and liver med i got on internet bot he is skinny he just worry me is eye are getting yellow is there anything else i can give him i dont want to loose him he is my baby i cry all the time can you please help me

    Reply to madeline
  • Barbara gamble

    I have a gold lab who is having liver probs please send me info on raw food diet got him please

    Reply to Barbara
  • Kris

    Hi Amy! I am just wondering what credentials you have regarding animal health and nutrition. I would like to discuss my dog’s situation with you.

    Reply to Kris
  • Paula Brown

    Hi Amy, I have a 8 year old Dobemann male, who has always be fed a raw BARF diet and has just been diagnosed with CAH. He began drinking excessive amounts of water about a week ago and I took him to the vet yesterday, he has also been off his food for us couple of days. After ex ray, ultrasound, bloods and urine tests, fluid removed from his abdomen he was diagnosed with CAH. He has ascites, no jaundice as yet. I was told to feed him a low protein diet, I refused commercial liver support, and was told they couldn’t help me with what I should feed as they don’t know. I came across your advice and wondered if you could advice me what to feed him. I have him on steamed Bass and sweet potato which he is happy to eat. This dog has always been on a raw diet of fresh meat and vegetables. I have also put him on Milk Thistle. The vet has put him on Prednisilone 0mg once daily, Frucemide 40mg 1 and half tab twice daily and Metronidazole 800 mg twice daily. He weighs 48 kg and has never been sick a day in his life except an epulis removed along with a tooth late last year. So I am concerned with the diagnosis and drug therapy and wondered if you could advise me of what to feed him and if these drugs are going to help him.
    I would appreciate any help you could advise, cheers Paula

    Reply to Paula
  • Denise Ellliott

    Our 6 yr old standard poodle was just diagnosed with sone form of liver disease (ALT over 2700, now fluctuating between 1400-1600)
    Symptoms were vomitting, not eating, weight loss). Currently on med regime from vet, but was advised to put on raw diet that is low in fat! Can you please email to me a copy of your raw diet that you use! Thank you!

    Reply to Denise
  • Kathy

    16 mini schnauzer diagnosed with liver failure. Is experiencing Putty colored diarrhea & vomiting from time to time. Is taking Sam E weight began at 13 pounds 3 months ago…is down to 9 pounds Has never been on a raw diet….we have always cooked for her rice, chicken peas carrots lean beef and turkey ETC- could you please email me a copy of your diet

    Reply to Kathy
  • Rachel

    Our dog died today. We took him to the vet Thursday, today is now Sunday. We were worried because he wad losing weight extremely fast. He wouldn’t eat, was bloated and started acting confused and lethargic…the vet said he was okay. Last night he had a bowel movement that looked like tar..we were ready to go to vet this morning. Before we were leaving he started having a seizure and foaming at the mouth. He was trying to move but running into things as we tried to hold him. It eventually took three people to get him into the car. Once at the vet he took a ultrasound of his liver and said it would be extremely expensive to see if surgery would help but that was very unlikely. Unfortunately, not knowing what I just read could have saved his life. The one question I have is how one vet on Thursday said he was fine and today he is gone. If your pet stops eating, loses weight, stomach is dissented..get him to bet fast. Actually if he has gone more than a few days not interested in food at all and is acting lethargic at all, losing weight extremely fast just get him or her there. More info on the diets would be very helpful to those still looking for an answer. My family suffered a great loss tofay and I believe it could have been prevented…get good references for your vet..as two within three days caused the death or the possible outcome of what we have experienced. Concerned for all dog owners…my only reason for sharing…good luck!

    Reply to Rachel
    • Amy Marshall

      Rachel, I’m terribly sorry to hear of your dog’s passing. I’m sure you did everything you could and hopefully you have peace knowing that you provided a loving and caring home for him all these years. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the goal of helping someone else that may be going through the same thing. I agree, it’s always better to be safe and call your vet if your dog is exhibiting abnormal symptoms. I’m hoping to get some raw diet recipes for liver disease on the site soon. You’ll both be in my thoughts <3

      Reply to Amy
  • Lori

    Hi Amy…my 10 year old lab mix has elevated alkp enzymes, 7000, and slightly elevated alt,250, she has no symptoms and has the vet stumped. Her urine test was normal and her xrays looked normal. She eats orijen senior dry dog food. Any ideas? My vet wants to do an ultrasound next and a few more urine tests.

    Reply to Lori

    My 10 yr old Min pin has been at the vets 4 times in a week prior to being admitted last Thursday to the hospital. Today he had surgery to take biopsies of his liver and some lymph nodes that are enlarge and of the intestines. He has had 3 ultra sounds in the week all seem to be about the same. liver was grossly abnormal and rounded (not sure what that means) gallbladder was thickened but they did not remove it because they could express it. (again whatever that means). They also said he had some nodules on the liver which they did not mention with any of the ultra sounds. His biopsies are going to the lab but will not be back until Wed. or Friday. He is supposed to come home tomorrow but isn’t eating for me. The diagnosis was if it is chronic liver disease of one form he could pass in 4 months or if it is another I could have him 4 more years. (providing its not cancer. No one has ruled that out yet). I feel as though this is a lot of information over a week and a half with still no direction on treatment as yet. btw eyes are not yellow, and he doesn’t throw up. His stool was paste like and golden yellow brown this past week one day then next day green and mucus and the third day back to golden yellow brown. no one would comment on that or the reason. Can anyone tell me a course of action if I get him home tomorrow and he isn’t eating. Oh and they have him on amoxicillin and Mondoazole. My vet threw in Baytril because he had a fever, but hospital removed that. Please help, I want him home but I don’t want him to be dihydrated by the time the report on the biopsies are back. Where do I get the milk thistle and is it safe to try an introduce a raw diet if he hasn’t eaten in a week outside of iv drip since thursday?

    Reply to DONNA
  • Laura Russell

    My miniature Schnauzer had blood work this week and came back with elevated enzymes in his liver he had this back 2014 when I took him to the vet to get neutered and they couldn’t do the procedure because his enzymes were elevated then I was reading all the comments and I saw you suggested raw dog food diet would you have one I can start him on. I love my little guy and can’t lose him as I lost my baby brother a week ago who gave him too me.

    Thank You in advance


    Reply to Laura
  • more

    I simply want to tell you that I am very new to weblog and truly liked you’re web page. Most likely I’m likely to bookmark your website . You definitely have really good stories. Many thanks for sharing your blog.

    Reply to more
  • Tina

    Thanks for sharing about liver diseases. We should consult a vet periodically to make sure that our pet is perfectly healthy. Also, we have to make sure that the food we are giving our pet is completely natural and doesn’t cause any harm to them. I shop dog food online from http://www.petsmopolitan.com/food-treats/ for my 9 year old Donut and he is perfectly healthy.

    Reply to Tina
  • Jaime

    Hello, I’m interested in your raw diet recipes for my 14 year old long haired chihuahua. He has no ALT liver enzymes. Thank you

    Reply to Jaime
  • Jaime

    Hello sorry I meant he has “high” ALT liver enzymes. Thanks

    Reply to Jaime
  • Gloria

    My mastiff boxer mix has a liver condition his stomach is all bloated he’s 13 yrs old 100 lbs
    What’s the best food and supplements can I give him

    Reply to Gloria
  • Sherry Morgan

    We just lost our 15 year old chihuahua to liver disease and the last days/hours were horrible. I wish I had been more motivated to try raw food diet years earlier than we did. I wish I had sought a holistic veterinarian long before I did. I wish I had been more stringent in the outside areas I let her walk in to make sure chemicals hadn’t been used prior. In short, the past is our best teacher. Don’t hesitate to take your furry children to a more expensive holistic vet, change to a healthy raw diet ASAP, read and learn as much as possible concerning holistic medicine and realize that the FDA and regular vets will not always be supportive of alternative methods of treating our babies. Learn about how to correctly massage an animal, join groups that are supportive of your dog’s particular needs.

    We have a dog with EPI and if it weren’t for the EPI4dogs website, I don’t know how I would have survived that ongoing diet balance for her. Because of them, I found I can feed her Vit B12 with intrinsic factor through capsules instead of costly injections from the vet. Support groups are a necessary adjunct to your vet. They handle many diseases, but a support group is zeroed in on just one disease with mitigating corresponding diseases.

    Love your furry babies and treat them well and not cheaply. I switched for Forza 10 dog food 2 years ago in an effort to feed my dogs healthy kibble without fillers, grains, legumes, etc. Raw was the next step. For your peace of mind and for your pets’ total health try it.

    Reply to Sherry

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