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 it still holds truth: life will not be good to your dog if his liver isn’t loved.

Why Your Dog’s Liver Is Critical to His Health

Next to his skin, the liver is the second largest organ in your dog (and the largest gland). Unlike the skin, the liver performs about 1,500 essential functions in your dog’s body. The healthy liver:

  • Manufactures nutrients and controls their release into the body
  • Produces plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
  • Stores some of your dog’s vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, D, K and B12 and the minerals iron and copper and releases them when needed
  • Breaks down drugs
  • Excretes toxic substances from the body

Let’s focus on the latter two functions because they’re critical to your dog’s health.

How Does The Liver Get Toxins Out Of My Dog?

The liver is one of the four major organs that eliminate toxins from your dog (the other three are the kidneys, intestinal tract and skin). The liver plays a few roles in the detoxification process:

liver disease in dogs

  • The liver filters fat soluble toxins circulating in the body and converts them into water soluble substances so they can be excreted from the body
  • It filters large toxins out of the body
  • It enzymatically eliminates chemicals and toxin

There are two parts to this process …

Phase 1 (Oxidation): In this stage, the toxin is converted into a less harmful chemical by the liver through an oxidation process. When oxidation occurs in the body, oxygen molecules in the body can split into single atoms with unpaired electrons called free radicals. Electrons like to be in pairs, so free radicals are unstable atoms that scavenge surrounding atoms and steal their electron … making their neighbor unstable. This process damages your dog’s cells and contributes to aging and degeneration.

Phase 2 (Conjugation): In this phase, the liver cells add a substance (the amino acids glycine or cysteine or a sulphur molecule) to the toxin to make it less harmful. This makes the toxin water soluble so it can be excreted out of the body in watery fluids, such as bile from the liver (the liver has special bile ducts that carry the toxin into the intestines to be excreted) or urine, which is excreted by the kidneys.

How Does The Liver Become Damaged?

Because the liver performs so many oxidative processes, it’s the primary site for free radicals to accumulate and cause cell damage and, ultimately, liver damage. Fortunately, the liver has an extraordinary ability to regenerate itself when it’s damaged and this protects the body because the liver plays so many fundamental roles in its health.

But this ability to restore itself means that you’re not likely to see any signs of damage in your dog until it’s too late and severe damage has occurred. Usually, by the time you see any signs of disease the damage is done and largely irreversible. This makes prevention very important.

So how do you prevent the liver from breaking down?

Toxins That Damage Your Dog’s Liver

The harder your dog’s liver has to work to break down toxins, the more likely it is to be damaged. Unfortunately, dog owners unknowingly stress their dog’s liver every day with toxins, such as:

  • Heartworm medications
  • Dewormers
  • Flea and tick meds
  • Vaccines
  • Drugs
  • Chemical cleaners
  • Flame retardants on furniture and carpets
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • Processed foods
  • Food additives
  • Mycotoxins from grain and peanut products
  • Pollution
  • Heavy metals
  • Tattoo or microchip
  • Viruses
  • Autoimmune disease

It’s ironic that our idea of health care for dogs is actually causing stress to his liver and free radical buildup (which ultimately causes degeneration and premature aging). Your dog’s liver has a finite ability to clear his body from this onslaught of chemicals he was never made to endure. And as your dog’s liver tries to deal with this constant flow of toxins, in addition to the toxic by-products produced with normal metabolism, free radicals build up and cause chronic disease … not just in the liver, but every organ.

liver disease in dogs

This is why it’s difficult to spot liver disease before it’s too late. But there are some early signs you can look for …

The Early Signs Of Liver Disease In Dogs

There are some symptoms you can watch for that might indicate the early signs of stress. This includes:

  • 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 because the signs of early liver disease are so varied, it’s best to assume your dog’s liver is stressed, even if he eats a fresh, clean diet and you avoid medications, because there are so many environmental toxins in your dog’s world … and ultimately because the liver is such an important organ. So let’s look at how you can limit the damage to your dog’s liver … before there are any changes to his bloodwork or irreparable damage to his liver or other organs.

How To Prevent Liver Disease In Dogs

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to keep your dog’s liver healthy (remember, life loves the liver of it)!

1. Remove The Toxins From Your Dog’s Environment

It might be a good time to look at what you thought was preventive health care and start giving your dog a more natural lifestyle. This means avoiding unnecessary vaccinations (most boosters dogs receive are completely unnecessary), avoiding pesticides and drugs and looking for natural alternatives that won’t harm his liver.

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 stress the liver and kidneys and most grains found in kibble can contain cancer-causing molds called mycotoxins. Processing kibble also produces toxic byproducts including heterocyclic amines, acrylamide and other harmful chemicals. Processed pet foods are toxic to your dog’s liver.

A liver-friendly diet would be a fresh, raw diet or at least a fresh cooked diet free of synthetic vitamins.

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

There are healthy foods and supplements you can add to your dog’s meals to help the liver do its job and break down fat soluble toxins.


Glutathione is an important antioxidant that is known for its power to detoxify the liver. Glutathione also has the ability to boost your dog’s immune system.

Glutathione can bind to toxins in the liver before those toxins can cause any damage. Glutathione is even used in conventional medicine in hospitals to detoxify the liver in treating accidental overdoses of Tylenol (acetaminophen).

N-acetylcysteine (or NAC) and S-adenosyl-L-methionine (or SAMe) are both amino acids and glutathione precursors. NAC and SAMe have the ability to improve detoxification, reduce inflammation and serve as an antioxidant.

If you choose to give NAC or SAMe to your dog, this is how much to give …

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

Milk Thistle

Milk Thistle, also known as silymarin, protects the liver cells from toxins, oxidation and helps the liver cells regenerate. Milk Thistle is best used when it it organic and grown fresh. Milk Thistle is also best used for acute treatment and if your dog already has existing liver disease.

Animal herbalists Greg Tilford and Mary Wulff state: “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 a medicine that is best reserved for situations in which the liver is already under abnormal stress.” 

Milk Thistle comes in capsules, tincture (liquid), or powder and can be found in most health food stores. If the milk thistle product is made for dogs you can just follow the instructions provided on the jar. If you purchase a product for humans, here is how much to give to your dog:


  • 100mg per 10 pounds of body weight
  • 2 to 4 times daily
  • Note: split the dose if you are giving it more than once a day


  • 1 to 2 drop per 10 pounds of body weight
  • 2 to 4 times daily
  • Note: split the dose up if you’re giving it more than once a day

Note: Do not give milk thistle to pregnant or lactating dogs. Also, if your dog is on any medications, you should consult with your holistic vet before giving your dog milk thistle.

Antioxidants And Carotenoids

Antioxidants are molecules that have the ability to prevent cell damage. The body naturally produces free radicals as a byproduct of metabolism, due to environmental factors like pollution. These naturally produced and unstable atoms can cause damage to cellular health and kill cells. Free radicals can build up like rust and cause liver disease in your dog.

Antioxidants have the power to prevent this cell damage and stop harming your dog’s liver. One of the most successful antioxidants is Superoxide Dismutase (or SOD). SOD has the ability to deactivate a free radical called superoxide with a process called dismutation. The harmless dismutation process turns the free radical into hydrogen peroxide which then breaks down into oxygen and water.

The best bioavailable sources of SOD are phytoplankton and astaxanthin.

Phytoplankton helps support your dog’s liver. Phytoplankton can provide nutrients to your dog to help restore liver health. The liver also does not have to work for the nutrients phytoplankton provides because it’s absorbed by the mucous membranes (like the gums). Especially in older dogs and those with health issues, the liver can weaken and be unable to absorb vital nutrients. Phytoplankton provides important nutrients without having to go through the digestive system.

If you use phytoplankton powder, give your dog just 1/16 tsp a day.

Astaxanthin – a carotenoid – is another powerful antioxidant. Carotenoids are naturally occurring pigment colors and astaxanthin is a natural red pigment released by microalgae.  It protects the cells by attaching itself to the exterior, interior and lipid layers of the cells and neutralizes free radicals before they can do damage. As an antioxidant, it’s 6,000 times stronger than vitamin C.

Dose for astaxanthin:

  • 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

Fresh Fruits and Veggies

There are certain fresh fruits and vegetables that can help cleanse your dog’s liver. Some of these foods include:

  • Sprouts (clover, alfalfa or radish)
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli rabe
  • Celery
  • Asparagus
  • Lemon and apple cider vinegar
  • Fermented vegtables
  • Lemons

It’s a good idea to include some of these foods in your dog’s diet. Greens should be pureed or lightly steamed so that they’re digestible for your dog.  Ideally you’ll feed a fresh, whole foods, raw meat based diet to support his liver.

Feed liver

Who would have thought that feeding liver benefits the liver? Liver contains 100 times the nutrients of muscle meat. These nutrients include vitamin A, some B vitamins, trace minerals, iron, protein and CoQ10.

When feeding your dog liver, you should start with about a half a tablespoon every few days for a medium sized dog.

Note: Liver is very rich and may cause loose stools if your dog’s not used to it, so start slowly until your dog’s digestive system adjusts. Organ meats (including liver) should be about 10% to 15% of your raw-fed dog’s overall diet.

Feed High Quality Protein

Some veterinarians may recommend restricting proteins for dogs with liver disease, but what’s actually important is to give high quality protein. The body uses protein to build and repair tissues including muscle, skin and the liver.

Amino acids are essential for your dog. Dogs need 22 amino acids to be healthy. They can make 12 of those 22, but the others must come from proteins in their food.

Amino acids in protein help the body produce enzymes, hormones, blood and many other body tissues and chemicals, including the production of energy. This means amino acids  can help the liver regenerate and prevent the onset of liver disease.

Make sure your dog gets high quality protein by feeding a raw meat based diet. Try to find organic and grass feed meats for your dog.

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

liver disease in dogs

If you’re dog is eating a raw diet and isn’t exposed to heartworm meds, dewormers, vaccines and drugs or chemicals, you can cleanse your dog’s liver twice a year. If he’s exposed to these toxins, you might want to do a cleanse every four months.

By cleansing the liver you’re supporting the organ perform its vital functions in the body. Cleansing can help reduce symptoms like allergies, weight gain, fatigue, skin disease, chronic constipation, arthritis, chronic infections, gastrointestinal issues, headaches, depression, anxiety, autoimmune disease, and the free radical damage leading to cancer. Learn more about cleansing your dog’s liver here.

Don’t wait for your dog’s bloodwork to come back with elevated liver enzymes! Take the time today to give your dog plenty of antioxidants and cleanse his liver at least twice a year. Protect your dog from health problems by protecting his liver … always remember his life loves and relies on the liver of it!