Elevated Liver Enzymes in Dogs and What It Means

If your dog has just been diagnosed with high liver enzymes, you may be wondering what it could mean for your furry friend.

The liver has several important jobs in canine body function, leading to complications if their liver is ever compromised.

So what could cause a dog to experience elevated liver enzymes?

In this article we will discuss the details of liver enzymes in dogs, and what could cause a change in these levels.

What Does The Liver Do In Dogs?

Elevated Liver Enzymes in Dogs and What It Means

The liver is an important organ that is responsible for the regulation of many different substances and chemicals within the blood, as well as bile production.

The liver helps to break down components in the blood to make it easier for the rest of the body to use, as well as filter out any foreign substances.

Just a few of the many specific roles that the liver performs include:

  • The production of bile, which is responsible for breaking down fats during digestion
  • The production of multiple proteins that circulate within the blood
  • Converting excess glucose into starch, and storing it for later use when it is needed
  • The storage of blood that can be used in serious injuries or circumstances involving blood loss
  • The conversion of ammonia (that is produced from bacteria in the gut) to urea, which is a safer product
  • Producing some immune factors and helping to fight off infections

The Four Liver Enzymes

When your veterinarian performs a full panel of bloodwork on your dog, there will be four liver enzymes that they will review.

To help you better understand each enzyme that will be discussed, let’s cover each enzyme and its purpose.

AST (Aspartate Transaminase)

AST is an enzyme that can be found in the liver, heart, muscles, red blood cells, and pancreas.

Because it is found in so many other components and structures, it is not the only enzyme examined in search of liver disease or damage.

ALT (Alanine Aminotransferase )

ALT is an enzyme that is present in the liver, kidneys, and intestines.

High ALT in dogs can be an indicator of liver cell damage, so it should always be a sign to look deeper for serious liver damage. 

ALP (Alkaline Phosphatase)

ALP is an enzyme that is found in highest concentration in the liver and the bone.

While ALP can be elevated in growing puppies, an elevated ALP count can point to liver complications once a dog reaches adulthood.

GGT (Gamma glutamyl transferase)

GGT is an enzyme that is often considered one of the most sensitive indicators of liver or bile disease.

This enzyme can often help veterinarians rule out other potential causes of elevated liver enzymes, because if the GGT is not elevated along with the other enzymes, liver disease may not be the issue.

Causes of Elevated Liver Enzymes in Dogs

High liver enzymes can be a result of a few possible factors in our furry friends.

While elevated liver enzymes can be indicators of health complications outside of the liver, we will stick to the complications that directly impact the liver.

Toxins Lead To Elevated Liver Enzymes

Toxins in your environment can lead to elevated liver enzymes in dogs.

Whether it’s due to ingested human medications or mold in your home, these toxins can cause serious liver damage if your dog comes in contact with them.

You may see an elevation in each of the four liver enzymes, especially in the GGT.

If your dog’s elevated liver enzymes are a result of toxin exposure, your veterinarian will likely recommend aggressive hospitalization.

Your pup may be placed on IV fluids, receive fluid additives to restore any deficits, injectable medications for any symptom control, and any other treatments that are recommended for their current situation.

Your veterinarian will often perform an initial blood panel to get a baseline for their values, and continue to check them at the 12-24 hour mark.

Cancer Can Cause Elevated Liver Enzymes

Primary or secondary cancer in dogs is another possible cause of elevated liver enzymes.

Dogs can develop liver tumors that will often grow slowly within the organ, or experience malignant cancer that can spread throughout the body, eventually impacting the liver.

Cancer can cause an initial suspicion due to elevated levels, and is then found by further investigating the organ with an ultrasound.

While you may see an increase in each value, the ALT and GGT may be most impacted.

Dogs with liver cancer generally have two options in terms of treatment.

Some slow growing tumors can be surgically removed, as the liver is able to regenerate even if a large portion is removed.

If the tumor is unable to be removed, some pet owners choose chemotherapy in effort to slow the progression of the disease.

Some owners choose to avoid any aggressive treatment and simply keep their dog as comfortable as possible until it is time to say goodbye.

Viral Or Bacterial Infections Can Cause Elevated Liver Enzymes

Viral or bacterial infections can cause serious damage to a dog’s liver.

These conditions will often cause sudden illness in otherwise healthy dogs, with elevated liver (and kidney) enzymes on their bloodwork.

Though these conditions can impact their liver, you will likely see multiple concerning symptoms that accompany their abnormal blood work.

Dogs with viral or bacterial infections may experience vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, seizures, and neurological symptoms.

If your veterinarian fears a viral or bacterial infection, they will likely recommend aggressive hospitalization.

Some of these conditions can damage their liver and kidneys to the point of organ failure, so aggressive care is often essential.

Some of the most common infections that our pups can experience include leptospirosis, infectious hepatitis, and Lyme disease.

Trauma Is A Potential Cause Of Elevated Liver Enzymes

Trauma to the liver is another potential cause of elevated liver enzymes in dogs.

It can cause serious damage to the liver and the cells that inhabit it, causing a serious decline in liver function.

Liver trauma can range from severe heat strokes, damage from toxins, or even injury to the abdomen.

For example, heat strokes in dogs can injure the hepatocytes within the liver, causing lasting damage if it is not resolved.

If trauma is the cause behind your dog’s elevated liver enzymes, your veterinarian will have to find a treatment plan that caters to the specified trauma they endured.

Because liver trauma can be a result of situations ranging from heat strokes to toxicities, the main issue will need to be addressed in order to support the liver.

Endocrine Disease

Liver changes can be seen in dogs with endocrine disorders such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and Cushing’s disease.

While this is not as a common, long term use of supportive medications in these conditions can begin to impact the liver over time.

This is why it is so important to have your dog’s blood work checked regularly if they are being treated for any of these conditions, as this can allow your veterinarian to stay on top of any changes.

How to Treat Elevated Liver Enzymes In Dogs

If your dog has been diagnosed with elevated liver enzymes, the best treatment plan will vary based on their specific situation.

Each of the factors that we discussed above will require a different treatment approach, and will offer the dog the best chance at treatment.

If the exact cause of a dog’s liver distress is unknown, your veterinarian will likely recommend additional diagnostics to get to the source of the issue.

These diagnostics may include an abdominal ultrasound, x-rays, and even a liver biopsy in some cases.

If a dog presents due to feeling ill and is found to have elevated liver enzymes, the veterinarian will often recommend hospitalization.

Aggressive hospitalization will allow your vet to rehydrate them, offer medication to relieve their symptoms, as well as monitor their liver values for any improvement or decline.

If a dog’s liver values continue to worsen after hospitalization, your vet may discuss their quality of life going forward.

If a dog improves in the hospital or is not critical when they present, your veterinarian may come up with an at home treatment plan going forward.

Your veterinarian can prescribe medication that supports a compromised liver, as well as prescribe a special diet that is easier for the liver to process.

Your veterinarian will likely recommend recurring bloodwork for your pup going forward, as it is important to be aware of any future complications.

How Long Can A Dog Live With High Liver Enzymes

The prognosis of a dog with elevated liver enzymes will vary based on how severe their liver damage is.

If your dog’s elevated liver enzymes were due to a condition that was treated with veterinary care, your pup may go on to live a long and healthy life.

As long as you maintain a close relationship with your vet going forward, these dogs can usually be easy to manage.

However, if your dog’s liver was severely impacted, this can make things a bit more complicated going forward.

While your veterinarian can prescribe liver support in the form of medications and prescription diets, they may still experience a shortened life span.

The average life expectancy of dogs with liver disease or liver damage can range from 6 months to 3 years.

If your dog was diagnosed with liver cancer, their lifespan will vary based on how the cancer was addressed.

If the cancer was surgically removed and the dog experienced a full recovery, they may go on to live a normal life.

These pups will need to be monitored closely for any recurrence of the disease, but can go on to live for years.

However, if you choose not to treat your dog’s liver cancer, their life expectancy can range from weeks to months.

Liver cancer is deadly if left untreated, and can cause a dog to decline in health at a rapid rate when it has become severe.

If you choose to let your dog’s liver cancer take its course, it’s best to speak with your veterinarian about when it is time to say goodbye.

As you can see, elevated liver enzymes in dogs can be due to a number of factors.

Be sure to review the information that we discussed above, and you can better understand their liver values going forward.

There are 5 comments:

  • Michelle swartz at 10:44 am

    Thank you for this information we are trying to save our just 5 yr old chocolate lab Hazel. She was healthy and last weekend she suddenly started vomiting 2 hrs after eating and by Sunday she turned jaundice. Went to vet on Monday and they ran tests and sent her home with meds. Next day vet called and said we needed to get her to the emergency hospital and she has been there since. They cannot find a reason why this happened. She is on lots of meds and has a catheter, a tube in her stomach to drain the fluid so she doesn’t Regurgitate as much. We don’t have dog insurance and this is getting costly but she is worth it just want answers and hopefully can get her to eat because she hasn’t eaten since last Sunday!! Hope to read more to see if something helps us to make her better. Also is there any help for grants to help us pay for her. Thank you we are so saddened by this.

  • Jen Smith at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for this detailed explanation! My 6 lb chihuahua is at the emergency vet now, he’s been there for 4 days on IV dextrose for liver damage due to a small ingestion of xylitol. He didn’t have hypoglycemia initially, but after 24 hr, his ALT became elevated (~450) and his blood glucose started to dip (~80).

    It’s been such a roller coaster and we’re doing everything we can for him. Thankfully, other a high ALT (which increased to 1500) and low BG, he isn’t showing any other symptoms. I was so upset when his ALT went above 1000, but because he is still perky and alert and eating normally, the vets are hopeful he will recover.

    I’ve been to visit him twice, and yesterday we were allowed to walk him around the block. He sure isn’t acting like a dog with liver damage. I checked his eyes and gums for jaundice, but he looks good. They say all his other liver values are within normal.

    He’s been on IV dextrose for several days, and just yesterday his blood glucose started to raise again. But his ALT is still above 1000. I wonder if you have any experience with dogs with very high ALT making a recovery? The vets are pretty hesitant to give me a prognosis, they just keep saying we need to keep his treatment going and see what happens.

    • Amber at 2:33 pm

      I’m glad to hear that your dog is on the way to maintaining a normal blood sugar on his own again! Working in emergency medicine for quite some time, I have seen quite a few dogs with lasting liver damage due to xylitol ingestion.

      I have certainly seen some dogs with an elevated ALT recover and go on to live normal lives, but this often means your dog’s life will change a bit going forward. This will likely include starting your pup on medication to support their liver (your vet will likely prescribe Denamarin), having his liver enzymes checked frequently (every 72 hours to once weekly depending on the situation) until the values drop, and monitoring your dog’s behavior closely in the following months.

      If your pup pushes through this current crisis, it is possible that his liver will be compromised going forward. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he can’t live a full life, but you will just need to keep a close eye on his ALT and other liver enzymes with frequent vet exams and biannual bloodwork. The fact that his blood sugar is beginning to stabilize and that he’s eating and drinking is a wonderful sign, and should offer you some hope. While neither I or your vet team can know for sure, I can assure you that you are doing everything you can and offering your dog the best chance at recovery.

  • John at 10:18 am

    Thanks for your article explaining elevated liver enzymes. Our 9 year old English Cream Retriever, Bella just passed away from liver cancer. Her blood work was great in August. She was showing signs of decreased appetite and acting more tired. We had blood work and her liver enzymes were extremely elevated. Can a dogs liver enzymes change that much from normal to abnormal in just 6 months?

    • Sandy at 9:50 pm

      So sorry about your dog, we were just told our dog has high enzymes and are going in soon for an ultrasound, but she has been on meds since last summer for a tumor in her bladder which is now gone, but now this has came up, it sure is hard when they become sick, and especially when they leave us

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