Top 7 Symptoms of Liver Failure in Dogs

Jack Russell terrier laying on side on grey couch.
Liver failure can affect any breed of dog.

Getty Images/Photographer, Basak Gurbuz Derman

The liver is an internal organ that is very important to the health of a dog. This organ is located in the abdomen under the diaphragm with most of it being on the right side of your dog. It is dark red in color and has multiple lobes.

The liver plays a vital role in detoxifying the body, producing important factors for blood clotting, producing bile used in digesting food, and many other functions necessary for life. It is also able to regenerate and repair itself to a degree, but can still become diseased. Serious problems with your dog's liver can lead to irreversible and fatal liver failure in some cases so it is important to have any concerns checked out with your veterinarian.

It can be helpful to know what symptoms to look out for. There are numerous signs that a dog is in liver failure, but some are more common than others.

Knowing what to watch for and seeking prompt veterinary attention can help keep your dog healthy and comfortable for as long as possible.

  • 01 of 07


    Dachshund lying on grey couch looking at camera.
    Jaundice can be hard to see in dogs with dark fur.

    Getty Images/katerinasergeevna

    A sometimes obvious symptom, especially in light-coloured dogs, jaundice, also known as icterus, is the yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes.

    Jaundice physically changes the appearance of skin and mucous membranes and a dog will appear to have a yellow hue. It is most noticeable where fur is sparse such as inside the ears and on the belly, as well as in the whites of the eyes, and the gums. Left untreated, this yellow hue will become more obvious or darker in color as time goes on.

    Jaundice is a result of a build-up of bilirubin in the blood. This can happen when the liver is not functioning optimally since the liver normally breaks down bilirubin. Jaundice can also occur for some reasons that are not related to the liver, so it is always important to consult your vet to determine the cause.

  • 02 of 07


    Dalmatian puppy lying down.
    Intussusception can cause a dog to not feel well.

     Getty Images/Patricia Doyle

    The liver plays an important role in detoxifying the body of certain waste products and toxins. If it is failing, these substances may accumulate in the body causing nausea and vomiting. Additionally, since the liver produces bile, an important component in the breakdown and digestion of fat, dogs in liver failure may not produce bile normally and may have more trouble digesting fatty substances.

  • 03 of 07


    Dog lying on stainless steel exam table.
    Dogs with anemia can be very weak.

    Getty Images/THEPALMER

    If a dog is not feeling well for any reason it may become lethargic and less interested in its normal activities including walks, playing with toys, and even interacting with loved ones. Liver failure can be a cause of lethargy due to pain, nausea, fever, low blood sugar, or internal bleeding. Ascites (a build-up of fluids) in the abdomen can also occur in liver failure, making it more difficult for your dog to move around and can also make breathing more labored.

  • 04 of 07


    Maltese refusing to eat bowl of dry dog food.
    Sometimes dogs don't want to eat simply because they are picky.

     humonia/Getty Images

    Anorexia means that a dog refuses to eat. A lack of appetite is likely if a dog with liver failure is uncomfortable, in pain, or vomiting. This can result in rapid weight loss, dehydration, and more severe lethargy.

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Swollen Abdomen

    Dog laying on a rug.
    Ascites can occur in any breed of dog.

     Getty Images/Michael Borst / EyeEm

    Ascites is a medical term used to describe fluid build-up in the abdomen. The swollen abdomen can give the appearance of an inflated balloon. Ascites can be uncomfortable since it makes it harder for your dog to breathe and move around.

    Ascites can be caused by many things including low blood protein levels, electrolyte imbalances, and/or internal bleeding that can be the result of liver failure.

  • 06 of 07


    White dog looking beyond camera with blue background.
    Purebred, male dogs are more likely to have epilepsy than other dogs.

    Getty Images/

    Seizures can occur from liver failure when the liver is unable to remove toxins from the bloodstream. They can also be caused by low blood sugar which can occur in some cases of liver failure. These toxins build up in the blood and cause seizures as well as other neurological changes known as hepatic encephalopathy. This can include a change in their behavior, pressing their head against firm surfaces, or acting confused and disoriented.

  • 07 of 07

    Blood Clotting Issues

    Clumped platelets among red blood cells under a microscope.
    Platelets are smaller than red blood cells and play an important role in clotting.

     Getty Images/Ed Reschke

    The liver creates many proteins that help blood clot. It also helps absorb and recycle some important vitamins that are also needed for clotting.

    If the liver is not functioning well, your dog may have problems with blood clotting. This can cause excessive bleeding from small cuts or any minor trauma. Bruising below the skin may also be observed. Blood in the stool and vomit, as well as bleeding from the gums may be observed in dogs that are having clotting problems.

Many of these symptoms can be seen in dogs with other types of conditions and diseases, so while this list of symptoms may describe many dogs with liver failure or liver disease, it could also describe a dog with another type of problem. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose whether or not your dog is in liver failure.

In many cases, there is no cure for liver failure. Depending on its severity and specific cause, special diets, supplements, and medications may help extend and improve your dog's quality of life. Some common causes for liver failure can be prevented so make sure to do what you can to keep your pooch save. Be proactive about keeping vaccines updated, especially Leptospirosis, which can cause liver failure, and make sure to keep toxins including human medications and toxic plants out of your dog's reach.