Your dog’s liver performs over 1,500 functions, including detoxifying blood, metabolizing energy, regulating hormones, processing medications, storing nutrients, assisting in digestion and removing wastes from the body. Because of how important this organ is, if the liver isn’t functioning properly, your dog’s body can shut down, leading to death.
Unlike some body parts, your dog’s liver is capable of repairing itself over time by regenerating liver tissue. Unfortunately, too much damage can prevent the liver from being repaired, whether this happens rapidly or over long stretches of time. This is what causes liver disease and its many harmful effects. When the liver is diseased, it may experience inflammation and fluid buildup. It may also stop processing and removing toxins, causing dangerous accumulation within the body.
Chronic vs. acute liver disease
Dogs may be susceptible to two different types of liver disease: chronic liver disease and acute liver failure. Chronic liver disease occurs gradually over time. This form of disease is often a result of ongoing damage caused by another chronic health problem. Normal wear and tear on the body can result in liver disease in your pet’s old age, while conditions like cancer can put undue stress on the liver.
Acute liver failure, on the other hand, occurs suddenly and often without warning. In most cases, acute liver failure is a direct result of poisoning—when your dog ingests a large quantity of toxic material that the liver can’t effectively process. Liver trauma can also cause acute liver failure.
With chronic liver disease, the condition can often be managed with a treatment plan you devise with your veterinarian. These treatments might include dietary changes, medications and supplements to support liver function and keep your pup’s body working as long as possible.
Unfortunately, treatment is much more difficult in the case of acute liver disease. Dogs experiencing a rapid decline in liver function must be seen by a vet immediately. Waiting too long to seek help could result in total liver failure and death.
Causes of liver disease in dogs
Unfortunately, there are many potential causes of liver disease in dogs, both acute and chronic. Here are a few of the most common.
- Acute poisoning: If a dog ingests a moderate amount of a toxic substance, it could cause severe or fatal liver damage as the body works to remove the toxin. A few common substances that cause liver damage include xylitol (a common ingredient in sugar-free candy), antifreeze, blue-green algae and human medications. Poisoning from any of these substances must be treated immediately by an emergency vet.
- Pet medications: Some medications designed and prescribed for pets are also capable of causing liver damage that leads to disease. Some medications are extremely dangerous for the liver if too high of a dose is administered. These cases should be treated like poisoning and acute liver failure. Other medications might have the potential for liver damage when used over extended periods of time. Always discuss the risks and side effects of medications with your vet to know what to look for.
- Bacterial and viral infections: Some infections caused by bacteria or viruses can be taxing enough on the body to cause liver damage. One common bacterial infection known for liver damage is leptospirosis, which is transmitted through contaminated urine.
- Chronic disease: Multiple chronic diseases that affect your dog’s endocrine system can also cause liver damage. Health problems like diabetes, hyperthyroidism and autoimmune conditions can result in inflammation of pancreas, which can interfere with liver function or cause damage to the liver itself. These problems typically cause chronic liver disease that may be able to be managed over time.
- Trauma: Major accidents have the potential to cause significant trauma to your dog’s liver. If the damage done is significant enough, it could result in acute liver failure.
- Cancer: Liver cancer is an unfortunate reality for many older dogs. Tumors can originate in the liver or spread from other areas of the body, degrading liver cells and interrupting liver function. If the tumor goes unnoticed for too long, irreparable damage might be done, causing liver failure.
While some types of liver disease can be prevented, it’s not always possible to shield your pup from the dangers of liver disease entirely. Do what you can to keep your dog safe from toxic poisoning, bacterial infections and trauma, but also understand the signs of liver disease to ensure you get your pup treatment as early as possible if they do succumb to this ailment.