Liver Failure in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prognosis

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The liver is responsible for many functions in a dog. Among its main tasks, the liver detoxifies the body by removing waste products. It also produces proteins important for blood clotting, breaks down fats to make energy, helps with digestion, and stores several vitamins and minerals. It is understandable why liver failure in dogs produces a variety of symptoms that can affect almost every system in their body.


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What is liver failure in dogs?

Liver failure occurs when there is a loss of hepatic function greater than 75 percent.‌ In other words, your dog's liver has a great ''reserve capacity,'' which means that it is still capable of functioning well even when a good part of it has been affected by disease. While this is beneficial, the negative side is that once liver disease progresses and symptoms of liver failure appear, it might be too late to treat it. Yet another impressive quality of the liver is that it is the only organ in the body that is capable of regenerating itself. Therefore, if a hepatic disease is caught early enough — and depending on the cause of the liver failure — some dogs can recover.


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Causes of liver failure in dogs

Liver failure in dogs can be attributed to a variety of underlying causes. If you know that your pet has experienced any of the following causes of liver disease, speak with your DVM (veterinarian) about liver disease and your dog's liver function.


* Poisoning (including xylitol and antifreeze)

  • Exposure to toxins (heavy metals, insecticides)
  • Certain medications (some anti-fungals, NSAIDs, anti-convulsants)
  • Trauma (acute liver injury)
  • Infectious diseases (including leptospirosis)
  • Liver cancer/tumors of the liver
  • Heatstroke
  • Heartworm disease
  • Chronic hepatitis

Symptoms of liver failure in dogs

Dogs affected by liver failure can develop a variety of symptoms given that so many body systems depend on the liver for proper function. If you suspect that your dog is experiencing clinical signs of liver disease, it is important to contact your veterinarian promptly. Your pet's health depends on it. Symptoms include:


  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Excessive thirst and urination (PU/PD)
  • Ascites (enlarged abdomen due to the presence of fluids)
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Unexplained bleeding or bruising
  • Seizures
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, or gums)
  • Neurologic signs (poor coordination, weakness, head pressing, circling, behavioral changes)
  • Coma (occurs in end-stage liver failure)


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Diagnosing liver failure in dogs

Dogs presenting with symptoms suggesting possible liver failure will undergo a series of tests. These could include blood tests such as a complete blood count, a biochemical profile (which will flag abnormalities in liver enzymes), serum bile acids, and ammonia levels. Your veterinarian will likely suggest a urinalysis as well. Further diagnostic tests for dogs with liver problems might include a liver biopsy, X-rays, an ultrasound, and even exploratory surgery.



Treatment of liver failure in dogs

Dogs affected by liver failure, especially acute liver failure, are generally hospitalized and offered aggressive supportive care. Fluids, electrolytes, and dextrose might be given to hydrate, correct metabolic imbalances, and help raise low blood sugar. If there is excessive vomiting, dogs are offered anti-emetics. Antibiotics are provided as necessary. In addition, diuretics may be given to help reduce ascites, and vitamin K might be administered if blood clotting is affected. A gastroprotectant to prevent stomach ulcers, antioxidant liver support supplements, and a prescription diet might be provided as well.


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Prognosis for dogs with liver failure

Prognosis largely depends on the extent of liver damage and the time frame that has passed between early symptoms of liver disease being spotted and the initiation of treatment. All medications prescribed should be given as directed, and pet caregivers should adhere to regular follow-up appointments. Generally, dogs who respond well to aggressive treatment during the first few days have higher chances of making a good recovery.


The bottom line

The canine liver is a resilient organ. It can maintain function even with significant damage, and it can also regenerate itself. However, when the liver succumbs to disease and does finally reach the point of failure, almost every body system can be affected, from the gut to the brain. If your dog has liver failure, symptoms might include yellowing of the skin or mucus membranes, weakness, or vomiting and diarrhea. Any of these signs call for a prompt veterinary visit, where diagnostics might include bloodwork, ultrasounds, or biopsies. Treatment for liver failure usually includes hospitalization. Prognosis can be good, but it depends on how long the liver function has been compromised as well as the cause of the liver failure.


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