How To Spot The Early Signs Of 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 true:

Life will not be good for your dog if his liver isn’t loved.

So let’s jump ahead and look at the signs of a liver that might be struggling.

Why Is The Liver Critical To My Dog’s Health?

Did you know that 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!
These are some of its most important functions:

  • The liver makes nutrients and controls their release into the body
  • It produces plasma proteins and blood clotting factors
  • It stores vitamins A, D, K, and B12. As well as the minerals iron and copper and releases them when needed
  • The liver breaks down medications and exits toxic substances from the body

Let’s focus on the last job … because it’s critical to your dog’s health.

How Does The Liver Remove Toxins From My Dog?

The liver is one of the four major organs that remove toxins from your dog. The other three organs that assist in this process are his kidneys, intestinal tract, and his 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 electron … leaving neighboring atoms in an unstable state.

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 this ability means that you’re not likely to see any signs of damage in your dog … until it’s too late.

Usually, by the time you see any signs of disease … the damage has happened and is irreversible.

This is why prevention is so crucial!

So how do you prevent your dog’s liver from breaking down? First, let’s look at what toxins are leading to this damage.

What Toxins Cause Damage To My 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
Reasons why dogs need liver protection

It’s ironic that 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 radicals build up and can lead to chronic diseases throughout the body.

Luckily there are some early signs you can look for

How Do I Spot Signs Of Liver Disease In My 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 because the signs of early liver disease are so varied … it’s best 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 let’s look at how you can limit the damage to your dog’s liver … before he shows symptoms or bloodwork changes.

How Do I Prevent Liver Damage In My Dog?

The liver lives a hard life … but 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

This is a good time to look at a more holistic approach to health care … and ditch the conventional care that leads to toxin build-up.

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

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.

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: Corn and Dog Food: Aflatoxins and Mycotoxins]

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

These supplements 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 Tylenol (acetaminophen).

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.

Use fresh, organic milk thistle.

Milk thistle can help with acute support … and if your dog already has existing liver disease.

Animal herbalists Greg Tilford and Mary Wulff say:

“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.

If the milk thistle product is made for dogs … follow the instructions on the label.

If you’re using a human product, here’s how to dose:

Milk Thistle powder dose for dogs:

100mg per 10 pounds of body weight- 1 to 4 times daily

**Note: divide the dose equally if you give it more than once a day

Milk Thistle tincture dose for dogs:

1 to 2 drop per 10 pounds of body weight- 1 to 4 times daily

**Note: divide the dose equally if you give it more than once a day

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 I talked about how free radicals can harm your dog?

Antioxidants are molecules that 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.

Phytoplankton and Astaxanthin are excellent sources of SOD.


This powerhouse provides many nutrients to help restore liver health … and as a bonus, it’s easily absorbed by the mucous membranes – like your dog’s gums.

This makes it a great long term liver support option for older dogs …and dogs with digestive issues.

The dose for phytoplankton powder in dogs is: 1/16 tsp a day


This carotenoid provides powerful antioxidant support. Its natural red pigment is released by microalgae.

Its 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

Fresh Fruits and Veggies

Including 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
  • 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?

When feeding your dog liver, you should 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 start 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.

Feed High-Quality Protein

Restricting protein for dogs who have liver disease was once believed to be beneficial.

But holistic veterinarians … and even some conventional vets … now 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 The Liver At Least Twice A Year

So we 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 2 x 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 x each year if :

  • He eats a processed diet
  • Is on chemical parasite preventions
  • Receives 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

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!

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