A dog's liver is a workhorse, metabolizing carbohydrates and fats; breaking down toxins; and producing bile, proteins, and cholesterol. Vulnerable to a wide variety of illnesses, the liver often keeps going even after it's suffered significant damage. But in some cases of severe illness, like toxicity or cancer, the liver can fail. A pet parent should know that the dog liver disease life expectancy depends on the disease, how long the liver has been affected, and if the liver gets the help it needs in a timely manner.
How long can a dog live with liver disease?
"Liver disease" is a broad term. Dogs with liver disease can live anywhere from days to years depending on what medical condition they have, how manageable it is, and how they are being treated. Common causes of liver disease found in dogs include:
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- Infection, e.g. leptospirosis or adenovirus-1
- Cushing's disease
- Thyroid disease
- Portosystemic shunts
- Genetics/breed predisposition
Signs of liver disease in dogs
One of the signs that a dog's liver is compromised is jaundice, which is a yellow hue that occurs in the eyes, skin, and mucus membranes. Other symptoms include:
- Increased thirst
- Increased urination
- Trouble with blood clotting
- Loss of appetite
- Swollen abdomen due to ascites (free-floating fluid)
- Weight loss
- Loss of coordination
Your veterinarian has a variety of diagnostic tools that will help narrow down what sort of liver ailment your dog has. These tests include:
- Liver function blood tests, such as liver enzymes, bile acids, bilirubin, albumin, and blood clotting factors
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Liver tissue biopsies performed during the ultrasound
How long can a dog live with liver failure?
A dog with true liver failure may live for a few days to a few months depending on the cause, how treatable the condition is, what treatment is administered, and how quickly treatment was started. Acute liver failure is when a dog's liver suddenly loses 70% or more of its ability to function due to tissue death. The liver could have been healthy to begin with, or it could have already been diseased and experiencing additional injury. Since there are a variety of causes of acute liver failure, the symptoms may vary. Generally, they include a loss of appetite and vomiting as well as jaundice.
If a dog is suffering from acute liver failure, they need emergency veterinary treatment. They'll receive fluid therapy and medications to stabilize their bodily functions.
The survival rate depends on how quickly a dog receives veterinary treatment and the extent of resulting liver damage. If they can pull through the emergency, prognosis depends on the cause of liver failure.
Types of liver cancer in dogs
Even though chronic liver inflammation can potentially lead to liver cancer, oftentimes, the cause of liver cancer in dogs is unknown. Liver cancer, however, is a type of liver disease that can progress to liver failure. There are some breeds that are predisposed to liver cancer, such as Rottweilers, golden retrievers, and German shepherds.
Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of liver cancer in dogs. Treatment options usually include a lobectomy if the cancer is caught early. The prognosis ranges from good to poor depending on how early the cancer was detected, how much of the liver is affected, and if it has spread. Life expectancy for a dog with hepatocellular carcinoma can be several months to as long as three years depending on how localized the tumor was when discovered.
Dogs with bile duct tumors have a poor prognosis, generally surviving a median of six months after surgery, as this cancer tends to recur locally and metastasize. Other liver cancers, including neuroendocrine tumors and hepatic sarcomas, tend to have a poor prognosis, as they're aggressive, and they metastasize.
Chronic hepatitis in dogs
Hepatitis is the most common liver disease in dogs. It tends to appear in dogs who are between the ages of 4 and 10 years. When a dog suffers from ongoing inflammation of the liver (i.e., two to three weeks or longer,) they have chronic hepatitis. There are many different causes for chronic hepatitis, including long-term medications, toxins, bacterial or viral infections, immune mediated disease, and genetics.
In many cases of canine hepatitis, the underlying cause of the liver's inflammation and deterioration is unknown. This is called idiopathic chronic hepatitis. It's more common in middle-age and older dogs, but there is no breed predisposition.
Some dog breeds that are genetically prone to chronic hepatitis are:
- West Highland white terriers
- Labrador retrievers
- Cocker spaniels
- Skye terriers
- Bedlington terriers
- Doberman pinschers
This type of liver disease requires prompt veterinary treatment and possible dietary changes. The prognosis varies widely. Chronic hepatitis is not curable. Dogs can live about two to three years after diagnosis, though it can be longer or shorter. As with other liver diseases, the sooner diagnosis and treatment is initiated, the more positive your dog's outcome.
Cirrhosis of the liver in dogs
Cirrhosis of the liver is the end stage of chronic liver disease, and the outlook for a dog with cirrhosis is unfavorable. When a dog has reached the point of cirrhosis, scar tissue has replaced healthy, functioning liver cells. The liver can no longer regenerate and heal itself. Veterinary care at this point focuses on the quality of life, providing supplements and medication to help a dog live comfortably in their final weeks.
Canine liver disease is a broad term that can mean anything from a bacterial or viral infection to toxicity or cancer. Due to the wide variety of liver problems, the life span varies widely from days in severe cases of acute liver failure to years with age-related abnormalities. Prognosis depends on what condition a dog has, how early it is detected, and how the condition is managed.