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’ll stick to the complications that directly impact the liver.

Toxins

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

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

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, neurological symptoms, and more.

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, Lyme disease, and more.

Trauma

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 2 comments:

  • 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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