The Life Span of Dogs With Liver Disease

By Betty Lewis

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 keeps going, doing its job after it’s suffered significant damage. The life expectancy for a dog with liver disease depends on the disease as well as how long his liver has been affected. The good news is the liver is resilient, able to regenerate new tissue.

Liver Problems

One of the first signs that a dog’s liver is compromised is jaundice, the yellow hue his eyes, skin and mucus membranes take on when his liver isn’t healthy. Other symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite and lethargy. The vet has a variety of tests that will help diagnose what’s wrong with him and narrow down what sort of liver ailment your dog has. Common causes of liver disease found in dogs include trauma, infection, portosystemic shunts, cirrhosis and cancer.

Acute Liver Failure

When a dog's liver suddenly loses 70 percent or more of its ability to function due to tissue death, the dog is in acute liver failure. 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, he must receive emergency veterinary treatment. He'll receive fluid therapy, as well as treatment and medication to stabilize his other bodily functions. The life span for a dog suffering from acute liver failure depends on how quickly he received veterinary treatment and the extent of resulting damage. If he is able to pull through his emergency situation, his prognosis will depend on addressing the cause of his liver failure.

Liver Cancer

There isn’t just one type of liver cancer for dogs. The typical signs of liver disease apply -- vomiting, anorexia, lethargy -- and also may include excessive thirst and urination, fluid accumulation in the abdomen, as well as seizures, weakness and loss of coordination. Hepatocelluar carcinoma is the most common form of liver tumors. Treatment usually includes a lobectomy, and the prognosis ranges from good to poor, depending on how far the cancer has spread and how much of the liver is affected. Life expectancy for a dog with hepatocelluar 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 6 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 metastasize.

Chronic Hepatitis

When a dog suffers from ongoing inflammation of the liver, he has chronic hepatitis. There are many different causes for chronic hepatitis, including long-term or repeated exposure to toxins, infections and some breed dispositions. In some cases, the cause of the liver's degradation is never known. Veterinary treatment is crucial for this liver disease, and the prognosis varies widely; the Merck Veterinary Manual notes some dogs can live more than 5 years after diagnosis. As with other liver disease, the sooner a diagnosis is made and treatment initiated, the more positive the outcome is for the dog.

Cirrhosis of the Liver

Cirrhosis of the liver is the final stage of chronic liver disease and the outlook for a dog with cirrhosis is unfavorable. When a dog has reached the point of cirrhosis, the liver's healthy tissue and functioning cells have been replaced by scarred tissue. The liver is no longer able to regenerate and heal itself. Veterinary care at this point is focused on quality of life, providing supplements and medication to help a dog live comfortably in his final months.