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Liver Disease: Causes, Diagnosis & More

Diagnosing Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver disease in dogs can be caught early with regular blood work. It is important to have an annual physical exam and laboratory testing done at your vet, especially as your dog ages. Young dogs may have a congenital liver conditions such as microvascular dysplasia or a liver shunt and the symptoms may not be apparent until the pet is one or two years old. A blood test may be the only way to know.

Elevated liver enzymes can indicate liver cell damage that has allowed enzymes to leak out of the liver and into the blood. High levels of the following enzymes may be seen in dogs with liver disease:

  • Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT) - An enzyme found in liver cells. When cells are damaged, ALT can leak into the blood.
  • Alkaline Phosphatase (ALKP) - An enzyme produced by the biliary tract (liver) that can be elevated when something is damaging the liver. High levels can indicate bone disease, liver disease, Cushing's disease or bile flow blockage. Some ALKP elevation in older dogs is common.
  • Gamma Glutamyltransferase (GGT) - An enzyme produced in the liver, bile ducts, pancreas and kidneys. Elevations in GGT, especially along with elevations in alkaline phosphatase, can indicate impaired bile flow.
  • Total Bilirubin (TBIL) - Bilirubin is a yellowish brown byproduct from the breakdown of red blood cells. It gives color to jaundiced skin or eyes and to your dog's stool. Elevated bilirubin levels can be caused by a rapid destruction of red blood cells, a bile duct obstruction or liver damage.
  • Albumin (ALB) - Produced by the liver, albumin is a protein that helps control pressure in the tissues. When albumin is low, fluids can leak, resulting in a swollen abdomen. Low levels of albumin can indicate chronic liver or kidney disease, or parasitic infections. High levels indicate dehydration and loss of protein.

A urine analysis and X-rays can provide valuable information as well. If signs and symptoms indicate a dog’s liver is not functioning optimally, additional tests, such as a bile acid test, ultrasound and/or liver biopsy, may be used to determine the underlying cause. Your veterinarian will recommend medications, diet changes and potential surgical procedures upon determining the cause of your dog’s liver disease.

Causes Of Liver Disease in Dogs

There are four main factors that increase the likelihood of your dog developing liver disease: age (more common in geriatrics), breed, obesity, and exposure to medications and/or chemicals. Conventional veterinary treatment for liver disease in pets depends on the cause of the illness. Common causes of liver disease in pets include:

  • Acute liver disease - due to an exposure to a toxic substance or excessive heat.
  • Bile duct obstruction - result of inflammation or infection of the duct; gallbladder mucocele or cholecystitis.
  • Hepatic lipidosis in cats - excessive accumulation of fat in the liver.
  • Side effect of medications - long term use of antibiotics, steroids, parasiticides (flea and tick control), barbiturates (to control seizure activity), NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
  • Viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections.

Certain dog breeds are more likely to be born with or develop liver disease. These breeds include Dobermans, rottweilers, Maltese, Yorkshire terriers and cocker spaniels.

Bedlington terriers, Dobermans, West Highland terriers, Skye terriers, and Labrador retrievers are more susceptible to copper-storage hepatopathy. This condition results from the abnormal accumulation of copper in the pet's liver. It can lead to cell damage, chronic inflammation (hepatitis) and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).

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Originally published Feb 16, 2023
Written by: Susan Davis, Pet Health Nutritionist, CCN
All pet treatment protocols and pet treatment supplements have been reviewed and approved by a veterinarian