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7 Common Causes of Liver Disease in Dogs

Medically reviewed by Dr. Paula Simons, DVM

This post is designed to help you understand at least 7 common causes of liver disease in dogs.

My dog, Coco, recently suffered from acute liver disease and was treated with antibiotics.

 Lucky, he had an incredible recovery which inspired me to pass along information I learned throughout the treatment process.

Here’s what happened.

My veterinarian performed a physical examination and then ordered blood work and urinalysis. The results were back that afternoon and, I have to say, my veterinarian was as shocked as I was.

I could hear the worry in the veterinarian’s voice as she told me my dog’s liver enzymes were through the roof!

Two liver markers were elevated, but the one she was most concerned about was the ALT (alanine aminotransferase). These enzymes are released into the bloodstream when the liver has been damaged.

A normal-to-high reading would be about 118. My dog’s reading was 470. I held my breath, expecting a terrible diagnosis. The reality was that we had a way to go before a diagnosis could be made.

Liver disease in dogs

Could my dog have gotten into a toxin?

The veterinarian rattled off a list of potential culprits that may have damaged the liver.

Leptospirosis, pancreatic inflammation, infectious liver disease, toxins, or even cancer were on the list of possibilities.

The first course of action was a prescription of antibiotics (two different types) along with nutritional supplements for the liver. Supplements that contain milk thistle and Vitamin E were also prescribed.

Are you going through a similar scenario?

Keep reading to learn more about liver disease in dogs including causes, diagnosis, and treatment options used to keep your dog happy and healthy for years to come.

Types of Liver Disease in Dogs

Liver disease can mean any number of conditions that affect a dog’s liver. They can be classified as primary or secondary to underlying conditions.

It’s important to note that if the liver isn’t functioning normally, other organs can also be affected.

There are several types of liver disease in dogs, including the following:


The term “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) and is usually secondary to another condition.

Causes of hepatitis can include:

  • Exposure to toxins
  • Leptospirosis
  • Medications
  • Bacterial infections
  • Fungal infections
  • Viral infections

Infectious canine hepatitis, caused by adenovirus-1, can be prevented through a core vaccine known as DA2PP.


Canine cirrhosis can occur in dogs of any age but is more common in middle-aged to older dogs. Dogs need approximately 20-30% of normal liver function to survive. When cirrhosis occurs, scar tissue begins to replace liver cells.

Liver functioning below 20% with cirrhosis is considered a chronic, end-stage liver disease. It can occur in any dog, but the breeds most affected include:

  • Cocker spaniels
  • Doberman pinschers
  • Labrador retrievers

Portosystemic Shunt (PSS)

The liver has a portal vein that collects blood from the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, and spleen. It carries that blood into the liver to remove any toxins or byproducts.

Some dogs are born with a birth defect called a liver shunt (congenital portosystemic shunt). When this happens, it creates an abnormal connection that allows blood to bypass the liver.

Dogs that may be genetically predisposed include the following breeds:

  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Maltese
  • Cairn terriers
  • Irish wolfhounds
  • Old English sheepdogs
  • Labrador retrievers
  • Australian cattle dogs
  • Golden retrievers

Read More About Liver Shunts

Copper Storage Disease

Copper is a trace element and micronutrient crucial for cellular function. An accumulation of copper in the liver leads to cirrhosis because of the progress of damage and scarring.

It can be genetically acquired or could be secondary to another disease. This disease tends to occur in female dogs and is most prevalent in the following breeds:

  • Bedlington terriers
  • Doberman pinschers
  • West Highland white terriers
  • Skye terriers
  • Labrador retrievers

Copper storage disease typically falls into one of three categories:

  • Subclinical (present in the body but not detected by symptoms)
  • Acute (affects young dogs and is associated with hepatic necrosis)
  • Chronic, progressive disease (occurs in middle-aged and older dogs)

Fatty Liver Disease (Hepatic Lipidosis)

Fatty liver disease develops when too much fat builds up in a dog’s liver. This is especially prevalent in toy breeds because of their small body size and high metabolism. Their bodies may store excess fat in their livers if they are overweight.

Toy breeds can also develop fatty diseases if they stop eating for a period (anorexia). This can happen during periods of stress or illness. Without food, the body breaks down stored fat for energy, which can overwhelm the liver’s ability to process it.

Breeds most susceptible to fatty liver disease include:

  • Yorkshire terriers
  • Miniature schnauzers
  • Dachshunds
  • Chihuahuas
  • Pomeranians

It’s important to note that any toy breed can develop fatty liver disease if they are underfed or overfed.

Cancer (Hepatic Neoplasia)

Many types of liver cancer can occur in dogs. They can begin in the liver or spread from another location in the body to the liver (metastatic). The most common type of liver cancer in dogs is known as hepatocellular carcinoma.

Other types of liver cancer in dogs include:

  • Mesenchymal sarcoma
  • Bile duct carcinoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumor
  • Hemangiosarcoma

Unfortunately, dogs with liver cancer may not have symptoms in the early stages of the disease. This means it can be quite advanced by the time it’s diagnosed.

Signs of advanced liver cancer in dogs can include:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Diarrhea
  • Icterus or yellowing of the skin.

Of course, the symptoms above can also point to several other conditions not related to cancer.

Surgical removal of the tumor is the preferred treatment for liver cancer. Although “liver cancer” sounds terrifying, there’s a chance it can be cured through surgery – depending on the type of tumor. The exception would be for malignant tumors that can’t be removed.

Chemotherapy could delay the progression of liver cancer in dogs.

Endocrine Diseases

Diseases that affect the endocrine glands (pituitary, thyroid, parathyroid, thymus, and adrenal glands) can lead to liver problems. Examples of endocrine diseases include:

  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Hypothyroidism

These conditions can lead to impaired liver function.

Some dogs are born with liver shunts.

Diagnosing Liver Disease in Dogs

The first step towards diagnosing my dog was to see if the liver would heal itself. That involved a combination of antibiotics, probiotics, and liver supplements. Weeks later, I brought my dog in for more blood tests.

Luckily, the liver enzymes had fallen back into the normal range and no further action was needed. Some dogs, however, will need a variety of diagnostic tests including:

Physical Exam and History

The veterinarian will perform a physical examination and will ask about things like diet changes, current medications, changes to the dog’s environment, changes in appetite, etc.

Signs of jaundice (yellowing of the skin) may be visible on physical examination with advanced liver disease.

Complete Blood Count

Blood tests will be taken to determine how the white and red blood cell lines are functioning.

Serum Biochemistry Profile

A serum biochemistry profile separates the serum (liquid part of the blood) from the cellular portion of the blood. This profile involves a variety of tests that can help diagnose liver disease in dogs.

The most important enzymes measured in this test include:

  • ALT (alanine aminotransferase)
  • AST (asparate transaminase)
  • ALP (alkaline phosphatase)
  • GGT (gamma-glutamyl transferase)
  • Bilirubin
  • BUN (Blood Urea Nitrogen)
  • Albumin

Serum Bile Acid Concentrations

This test is used to determine how well your dog’s liver is functioning.


Urine tests can help determine whether there are specific crystals present. These include bilirubin crystals or ammonium biurate crystals which could point to underlying liver disease.

Abdominal Ultrasound

This is a non-invasive procedure that allows the veterinarian to see any structural abnormalities in the internal organs.

Liver Biopsy

In some cases, the veterinarian may request a liver biopsy to achieve a definitive diagnosis of liver disease.

Common Symptoms of Liver Disease in Dogs

Unfortunately, there may be few signs of liver disease in the early stages. The following signs can point to any number of other illnesses. These include:

  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach ulceration
  • Depression
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased Urination
  • Yellowing of the Skin
  • Abnormal neurological behavior
  • Bleeding tendencies

Treating Liver Disease

The liver is a vital organ that performs many important functions in the body. A healthy liver has several important functions that include:

  • Regulation of blood clotting
  • Regulating glucose levels in the blood
  • Eliminating toxins from the blood
  • Removing free radicals (molecules that can damage cells and tissues in the body)
  • Metabolizing medications
  • Producing blood proteins

While the liver is at risk of injury, it also has a remarkable way of healing itself, given the chance. Keep in mind that this may only be true in certain cases. It all depends on the ultimate diagnosis.

Summing It Up

As pet owners, it’s important to be aware of subtle changes in our dog’s health. It’s normal for dogs to occasionally vomit, experience a brief bout of diarrhea, or feel temporarily under the weather.

You know your dog better than anyone. If something doesn’t seem right, it’s best to seek the advice of a licensed veterinarian.

I know something wasn’t right when my dog turned his head away from treats! Luckily, the antibiotics and liver supplements got him on the right track.

Early diagnosis is always the best way to get ahead of things like liver disease. If you think something is wrong, make an appointment with the vet right away.


What to Do if You Suspect Liver Disease. (2019, June 17). Veterinary Practice. Retrieved March 13, 2023, from

Cirrhosis in Dogs. (n.d.). Pet Health Network. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from

Portosystemic Shunt in Dogs | VCA Animal Hospitals. (n.d.). Vca. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from

C. (n.d.). Disorders of the Liver and Gallbladder in Dogs – Dog Owners – Merck Veterinary Manual. Merck Veterinary Manual. Retrieved March 14, 2023, from

“Endocrine Glands – Health Video: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Endocrine Glands – Health Video: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.

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