The liver helps your dog digest his food, removes toxins from his system and aids in blood clotting. Left undetected, liver disease can negatively impact other major body systems including the brain, though a condition called hepatic encephalopathy. Diagnosed and properly treated, some types of liver damage can be halted or reversed.
Symptoms of Liver Disease
Signs of liver disease can mimic symptoms of other disorders, or be so slight and appear so gradually that you overlook them at first. Your dog may drink more, eat less and lose weight, appear weak or have an unsteady walk, and may seem confused at times. He could experience increased urination, diarrhea and vomiting, constipation or a fluid-filled abdomen, along with orange or blood-tinged urine or bloody or grey feces. One of the most defining characteristics of liver disease is jaundice, or a yellowing of the whites of the eyes, the tongue or gums. This discoloration occurs as a result of a buildup in the dog's system of bilirubin, a yellow pigment formed in the liver as it breaks down dead red blood cells. When the liver is damaged, it doesn't excrete the bilirubin as bile into the intestines properly, releasing it back into the bloodstream instead.
Causes of Liver Disease
Some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop liver disease as they age. It can also manifest as the result of an injury, an underlying medical condition or even through overuse of pain medications used to treat other maladies. A high-fat diet, pancreatic problems, heartworms and diabetes can all bring on liver disease, as can ingestion of some plants, algae and molds. If your vet suspects liver disease in your dog, give him a detailed list of his medications, herbal supplements and foods, including the types of dog food and human food you give him on a regular basis.
Diagnosis of Liver Disease
Take your dog to the vet immediately if you start to notice any signs of liver disease. The sooner you treat it, or rule out other causes of the symptoms, the better chance you have of correcting the problem. Your vet should conduct a physical exam, take blood and urine samples and perform an X-ray or ultrasound to get a detailed look at your dog’s liver. If necessary, he may biopsy a portion of liver tissue for testing, particularly if he finds a growth or other abnormality. Other signs he’ll look for include a high fever, enlarged lymph nodes and unexplained bruising.
Liver Disease Treatment
The treatment your vet recommends for your dog is based on how advanced the condition is and what the disease's underlying cause. For example, if your dog eats high-fat foods, your vet may recommend a change in diet, or if he has a tumor, surgery may be in order. Your vet may also prescribe supplements such as milk thistle, which can assist in recovering damaged liver tissue. He might suggest vitamins E and K to help prevent further damage to the liver. Protect your dog against additional liver damage by keeping him away from poisonous plants and taking him for regular physical exams.