The liver is an important organ in a dog’s body. When it becomes diseased, it is almost always fatal unless treatment is initiated in the early stages. However, symptoms frequently do not appear in the early stages, so by the time the dog is diagnosed with liver disease, it is often too late.
As dog liver disease progresses, the liver swells larger and larger. Cells in the liver start to die off, and the liver becomes rubber-like. When 80% of cells have died, the liver begins to fail. This is called cirrhosis, which cannot be cured.
It can be difficult to diagnose dog liver disease because the symptoms are vague. They are common symptoms that can point to any disease. This is especially true because the liver is involved in so many bodily functions.
The early stages of dog liver disease include the following:
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of energy
- Increase in thirst
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
As the disease progresses, more noticeable symptoms may be evident, including the following:
- Yellowing of the skin and eyes
- Changes in fecal color
- Blood in the vomit, urine or feces
In the advanced stages of liver disease, the liver begins to fail. Here are some signs to look for:
- Loss of coordination
The vet will perform a physical exam to see if the dog is showing any signs of liver disease. He or she will look for jaundice, an enlarged abdomen, behavioral changes and dehydration. If you have noticed any changes in your dog’s behavior, now is the time to let the vet know. He or she will ask about your dog’s stools and any neurological problems, such as lack of coordination and tremors.
Several blood tests will be performed on the dog. These tests will check primary enzymes that, when elevated, point to liver disease. Other tests will check bile acid levels to see how well the liver is working. A urine sample and fecal evaluation will also be performed.
Sometimes more advanced methods of diagnosis and testing may be needed if liver disease is suspected but not positively diagnosed. X-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans, biopsies and fluid samples from the abdomen can all more definitively determine if the dog does, in fact, have liver disease.
The treatment for liver disease will depend on the cause. Liver disease can be diverse in dogs. It can be hereditary or caused by toxin ingestion or infection. Long-term care is often needed any may include the following:
Modified diet – In order for the liver to regenerate, a balance of nutrients and calories is required. High-quality protein is needed, such as that from eggs or dairy products. Salt intake should be limited. Dogs with liver disease may also need vitamins.
Medication – Steroids are the most common course of action for liver disease, as they are helpful in prolonging life. Colchicine may be used in cases of liver fibrosis. There are other medications available to control ulcers and bleeding.
Blood transfusion – Liver disease can cause bleeding and blood clotting problems. Therefore, a blood transfusion may be helpful. Fresh blood works best as it has lower amounts of ammonia than frozen blood.
Supportive care – This is most often done in advanced cases when no other treatment options exist. It involves treating only the symptoms and keeping the dog calm and secure. The dog is kept at a comfortable temperature and has access to fresh water at all times.
Surgery – If liver disease is caused by cancer, surgery may be an option. The mass can be fully removed in some cases, although sometimes the cancer has spread too far.