Senior Pet Health: Dogs & Liver Disease

Senior Dogs: Liver Health

The liver is an amazing organ that performs over 1,000 life sustaining functions in your dog’s body every day. It is unique because of its regenerative qualities. Similar to how lizards can regenerate their tails if damaged or lost, the liver has been reported to regenerate back to its original size even after three-fourths of the liver has been removed. This means that your dog has a great capacity for recovery from illnesses resulting from poor liver function if the signs are recognized and treatment is sought.

Here is a basic overview of Liver Function in Dogs:

  • Regulates chemical levels in the blood
  • Removes toxins from the blood
  • Produces proteins: the building blocks of your dog’s body
  • Produces factors for blood clotting
  • Stores proteins & disperses them to needy organs in the body
  • Stores & disperses lipids and carbohydrates, which your dog needs for energy
  • Produces, stores and regulates all vitamins (except vitamin C)
  • Stores and disperses nutrients like iron, copper and zinc, that are harmful to other organs and must be regulated
  • Produces bile, which aids in digestion and rids the body of waste products
  • Destroys harmful by-products produced by normal cellular activity & medications. If the liver fails to remove these harmful materials, illness and death can occur.

In the first stage of liver disease the liver will become inflamed. This is usually a reaction to an infection or injury. At this stage, liver disease can be easily treated with diet & medication. Unfortunately, at such an early stage your dog won’t be showing any signs of liver failure.

In the second stage, called fibrosis, parts of the inflamed liver die and the cells are replaced with scar tissue. As the scar tissue takes over, the liver becomes rubbery and hard. The scar tissue restricts blood flow through the organ and keeps it from performing as well as it should. At this stage, abnormalities may show up on a blood screen performed by your vet.

The third stage is called cirrhosis. This occurs when 75 – 80% of the liver has been damaged. It is at this point that your dog will most likely begin to show signs of liver failure.

The signs of Liver Failure in dogs include:

  • Vomiting, diarrhea or constipation
  • Depression & lethargy
  • Weight loss & loss of appetite
  • Jaundice (yellowing of eyes, ears, gums - a severe liver disease warning sign)
  • Swollen abdomen (ascites)
  • Seizures & coma (end stages)

If you notice any of these signs it is important to get your dog to the vet as soon as possible for tests and treatment. The final stage of liver disease is liver failure. Once your dog has lost more than 80 % of their liver function, the liver cannot function and death will occur.

Prevention is important, if your dog has had exposure to any of these things listed below, you may want to have your vet run tests to check liver function and catch any early stage abnormalities.

Some of the underlying causes of liver disease include:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Gall bladder disease
  • Heart worms
  • Hepatitis (bacterial or viral infection)
  • Hereditary (Dobermans, Dalmatians, West Highland Terriers, Pugs and Miniature Schnauzers)
  • Hypothermia (heatstroke)
  • Ingestion of chemicals & poisons, toxic plants
  • Congenital liver shunts (birth defect)
  • Trauma to the liver or other surrounding organs
  • Overuse of antibiotics, de-wormers or anti-fungal medications

If your dog is suffering from any of these conditions, your vet will address and treat the underlying cause and that will allow the liver to heal.
You may want to give your senior dog some specially formulated vitamin chews. These will help supply your senior dog with the extra vitamins and minerals it needs for healthy organ (including the liver) function.
Your vet will also run tests to check for healthy liver function during a wellness exam, which your dog should have once a year.

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