How To Spot The Early Signs Of Liver Disease In Dogs

liver disease in dogs

“Life loves the liver of it …” The great American poet Maya Angelou knew a lot about your dog’s liver! Her quote actually referred to living life large … but the saying still holds true …

Life will not be good for your dog if his liver isn’t loved. So it’s important to know the signs that show your dog’s liver might be struggling.

What Does Your Dog’s Liver Do?

The liver is the second largest organ in your dog (after his skin) … and the largest gland. The liver performs about 1,500 essential functions in your dog’s body. So it’s critical to your dog’s health. Your dog’s liver …

  • Makes nutrients and controls their release into the body
  • Produces plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
  • Stores vitamins A, D, K, and B12
  • Stores the minerals iron and copper and releases them when needed
  • Breaks down medications and exits toxic substances from the body

That last one is especially critical to your dog’s health.

How Your Dog’s Liver Removes Toxins

The liver is one of the four major organs that remove toxins from your dog. The other three organs are his kidneys, intestinal tract, and skin. The liver helps the body with detoxification by:

  • Filtering out fat-soluble toxins circulating in the body. These toxins are then converted into water-soluble substances for removal.
  • Using enzymes to break down chemicals and medications.

There are two phases in this process …

Phase 1: Oxidation
The liver converts toxins into less harmful chemicals through the oxidation process. This causes oxygen molecules to split into single atoms with unpaired electrons … resulting in free radicals in the body. Electrons like to be in pairs, so these free radicals are unstable atoms that scavenge surrounding atoms and steal their electrons … causing neighboring atoms to become unstable

This process damages your dog’s cells … and contributes to aging and degeneration in his body.

Phase 2: Conjugation
The liver cells add the amino acids glycine, cysteine or a sulfur molecule to the toxins … to make them less harmful. The toxins then become water-soluble.

The liver and kidney work together to remove these water-soluble toxins via the bile and urine.

Liver removing water-soluble toxins via the bile and urine

What Causes Liver Disease In Dogs?

The oxidative processes of the liver make it the main place where free radicals accumulate. Free radicals build up like rust in the body and cause cell damage … and eventually, a damaged liver.

Fortunately, the liver has an extraordinary ability to regenerate itself when it’s damaged. This protects the body … because the liver plays so many fundamental roles in its health.

But the downside of this ability is that you might not see any signs of liver damage in your dog … until it’s too late. Usually, by the time you notice signs of disease … the damage has happened and is irreversible.

So … prevention is crucial! How do you prevent your dog’s liver from breaking down? First, what toxins lead to liver damage.

What Toxins Damage Your Dog’s Liver?

The harder your dog’s liver has to work to break down toxins … the more likely it is to become damaged. Unfortunately, your dog’s liver is stressed every day with toxins, such as:

  • Heartworm drugs
  • Dewormers
  • Flea & tick pesticides
  • Vaccines
  • Medications
  • Chemical cleaners
  • Flame retardants in furniture & carpet
  • Pesticides & herbicides
  • Processed foods
  • Food additives
  • Mycotoxins from grain & peanut products
  • Environmental toxins
  • Heavy metals
  • Tattoo or microchip ID
  • Viruses
  • Autoimmune diseases

It’s ironic that a lot of conventional health care for dogs actually stresses his liver … causing free radical buildup that leads to degeneration and premature aging.

Your dog’s liver has a finite ability to clear his body from this onslaught of chemicals. And don’t forget this toxin load is on top of the toxins the body naturally produces. The excess free radical buildup can lead to chronic diseases throughout the body.

Luckily there are some early signs you can look for …

How To Spot Signs Of Liver Disease In Your Dog

Knowing your dog and what is his “normal” will help you spot some symptoms of liver disease:

  • Digestive disorders (constipation, diarrhea, gas or bloating)
  • Dry, brittle or infected nails
  • Dull eyes
  • Eye discharge or a pinkish eye
  • Corneal or retinal disorders
  • Sinus issues
  • Dark urine
  • Poor appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Ligament and tendon issues
  • Irritability or aggression

But you might just mistake these for normal aging problems. So because the signs of early liver disease are so varied … it’s safest to assume your dog’s liver is under stress.

Even if he eats a fresh, clean diet and you avoid medications when possible … we live in a toxic environment. So you want to limit the damage to your dog’s liver … before he shows symptoms or bloodwork changes.

How To Prevent Liver Damage In Your Dog

The liver lives a hard life … but there are a few things you can do to keep your dog’s liver healthy!

1. Remove The Toxins From Your Dog’s Environment

This means avoiding unnecessary vaccinations, pesticides, chemicals and drugs … and using natural alternatives.

Now’s the time to take a more holistic approach to health care … and ditch the conventional care that leads to toxin build-up.

2. Remove Toxic Foods From Your Dog’s Diet

If you’re feeding your dog a processed diet, you’re feeding him toxins. Period.

Synthetic vitamins and minerals in most pet foods add stress to the liver and kidneys. And most grains found in kibble can contain cancer-causing molds called mycotoxins. Even grain-free kibbles are full of pesticides and other toxins.

Processed foods also contain toxic byproducts … like heterocyclic amines and acrylamides. These add even more stress to your dog’s liver.

Liver-friendly diets include:

  • a fresh, raw diet
  • a fresh gently cooked diet
  • food that’s free of synthetic vitamins

RELATED: Learn more about why kibble’s not a good choice for your dog …

3. Add Liver-Healthy Supplements And Foods To Your Dog’s Diet

There are supplements that can help the liver do its job to break down fat-soluble toxins.


Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that can detoxify the liver. It can also boost your dog’s immune system. It binds to toxins in the liver before they can cause any damage. (That’s why hospitals use glutathione to treat accidental overdoses of acetaminophen (Tylenol).

The amino acids N-acetylcysteine (or NAC) and S-adenosyl-L-methionine (or SAMe) are glutathione precursors. NAC and SAMe improve detoxification, reduce inflammation and are antioxidants.

The dose for NAC or SAMe for dogs is:

  • Small dogs: 25mg/day
  • Medium dogs: 50mg/day
  • Large dogs: 100mg/day
  • Giant dogs: 100-300mg/day

Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle is also known as silymarin. It protects cells from toxins and oxidation … and helps liver cells regenerate. Milk thistle can help with acute support … and if your dog already has existing liver disease.

Herbalists Greg Tilford and Mary Wulff offer this caution: “Despite much of the publicity that has been generated about this ‘wonder herb,’ milk thistle should not be used as a daily food supplement. Milk thistle is best reserved for use when the liver is already under abnormal stress.”

You can find milk thistle in tincture (liquid) or powder form at most health food stores. Buy organic milk thistle.

If the product is made for dogs … follow the instructions on the label. If you’re using a human product, here’s how to dose (divide the dose equally if you give it more than once a day):

Milk Thistle powder dose for dogs:
100mg per 10 pounds of body weight – 1 to 4 times daily

Milk Thistle tincture dose for dogs:
1 to 2 drops per 10 pounds of body weight – 1 to 4 times daily

Caution: Do not give milk thistle to pregnant or lactating dogs. If your dog’s on any medications, consult your holistic vet before giving milk thistle.

Antioxidants And Carotenoids

Remember how free radicals can harm your dog? Antioxidants can prevent cell damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals can build up like rust … leading to liver disease in your dog.

One of the most effective antioxidants is Superoxide Dismutase (or SOD). It uses a process called dismutation to deactivate the free radical, superoxide. This converts the free radical into hydrogen peroxide … which then breaks down to oxygen and water. Astaxanthin is an excellent source of SOD.

Astaxanthin is a carotenoid that provides powerful antioxidant support. Its natural red pigment is released by microalgae. ts power is its ability to attach itself to the exterior, interior and lipid areas of cells to neutralize free radicals. As an antioxidant, it’s 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C!

The astaxanthin dose for dogs is:

  • Small Dogs (under 20 lbs): 1/2 tsp once daily
  • Medium Dogs (21-49 lbs): 1 tsp once daily
  • Large Dogs (over 50 lbs): 2 tsp once daily

RELATED: Here are more powerful antioxidants for your dog …

Fresh Fruits And Veggies

Feeding certain fresh fruits and vegetables will help cleanse and support your dog’s liver. Foods with great antioxidant support include:

  • Sprouts (clover, alfalfa or radish)
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli (especially sulphoraphane-rich broccoli sprouts)
  • Celery
  • Asparagus
  • Lemons and apple cider vinegar
  • Fermented vegetables

Note: Greens should be pureed or lightly steamed so that they’re easily digestible for your dog.

RELATED: 11 Reasons To Feed Your Dog Fruits And Vegetables

Feed Liver To Support The Liver

Who’d have thought that feeding liver benefits the liver? But the liver contains 100 times the nutrients of muscle meat! Some of the vitamins in liver include vitamin A, some B vitamins, trace minerals, iron, protein, and CoQ10.

How Much Liver Do I Feed My Dog?

Start with about a half a tablespoon every few days for a medium-sized dog. Adjust as needed for smaller or larger dogs. Just remember … liver is very rich and may cause loose stools if your dog’s not used to it.

So go slowly until your dog’s digestive system adjusts. Organ meats (including liver) should be about 10% to 30% of your raw-fed dog’s overall diet.

RELATED: Why your dog needs to eat more liver …

Feed High-Quality Protein

Vets often used to advise restricting protein for dogs with liver disease. But holistic veterinarians and now even some conventional vets … know that’s not the best thing for dogs with liver disease.

The body uses amino acids from proteins to build and repair tissues … including muscle, skin and the liver. So you need to feed high-quality proteins to your dog. Your dog needs 22 essential amino acids to work on these repairs. He can make 12 of these 22 on his own … but the others need to come from quality protein in the diet.

Feeding organic and grass-fed raw meats to your dog provides the tools he needs for self-repair.

Phases of liver detoxification

4. Cleanse Your Dog’s Liver At Least Twice A Year

So now you know how and why the liver becomes diseased … and the foods and supplements you can feed to support your dog’s liver. Now it’s time to talk about a liver cleanse for the toxins you can’t avoid.

How Often Should I Cleanse My Dog’s Liver?

Cleanse your dog’s liver twice each year if

  • He eats a raw fresh diet
  • You use natural solutions for flea, tick, and heartworm prevention
  • You avoid unnecessary vaccinations and medications
  • Your dog has limited or no chemical exposure in his environment

Cleanse your dog’s liver 4 times each year if …

  • He eats a processed diet
  • Is on chemical parasite preventions
  • Gets regular vaccinations
  • Lives in an environment with a lot of chemical exposure

Cleansing the liver helps it to perform at its best … and a healthy liver will reduce symptoms like:

  • Allergies
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Skin disease
  • Chronic constipation and other gastrointestinal issues
  • Arthritis
  • Anxiety …. and many more

RELATED: How to detox your dog …

Take the time today to give your dog plenty of antioxidants to protect and cleanse his liver. And always remember his life loves and relies on the liver of it!

5 minutes a day. Healthier Dog.

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