When To Euthanize A Dog With Liver Failure

When To Euthanize A Dog With Liver FailureTaking care of a dog with liver failure can be a roller coaster ride for many pet owners. There are many ups and downs, good days and setbacks. When your dog is having a good day you start to regret the feelings you had the day before, that it is time to put them down. This can be a very challenging and emotional time for you, your dog, and your entire family.

In this article we will talk about liver failure in dogs, and try to help guide you on how to know when it may be the right time to consider euthanasia.

Signs and Symptoms of Liver Failure

Dogs with liver failure can show any number of symptoms. Some of the more common liver failure symptoms are:

  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Decreased or absent appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Yellow discoloration to skin and/or the white of their eyes
  • Distended abdomen

Sometimes dogs can slowly develop liver failure and not show any indication anything is wrong until it gets really bad. That is why it is good to not ignore any subtle changes to your dog’s behavior, routine, and appetite. If you are ever concerned something is just not quite right with your dog, always schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.

Other times, such as if your dog ate something toxic, they can develop liver failure very quickly and become sick within a 24-hour time period.

Stages of Liver Failure

Early Stages

  • In the early stages of liver disease, when the liver is still able to function to a certain degree, your dog may just be more tired than usual or have a finicky appetite. They also may have some nausea and vomiting. Usually this is when there is on-going inflammation in their liver due to an underlying cause, which we will discuss in a bit. If caught early enough, liver disease can be slowed down by starting your dog on special supplements and food.

Middle Stages

  • As liver disease progresses and your dog’s liver stops being able to do the things it normally does, you may notice more obvious things. These include a yellow discoloration to your dog’s skin, the inner aspect of their ear flaps, or to the white of their eyes. This discoloration is called “jaundice”.You may also notice your dog’s abdomen becoming distended. The liver makes a protein, called albumin, which helps to keep fluid within your dog’s blood vessels and organs. When the liver stops being able to make albumin, your dog will leak fluid into the spaces surrounding their organs in their abdomen, causing them to look “pot-bellied”.

End-Stage Liver Failure

  • Once in end-stage liver failure, your dog may have significant depression and a change in mentality. Other neurologic symptoms may include blindness, dizziness, seizures, disorientation, pacing, and aimless wandering. This is called “hepatic encephalopathy”. This occurs because a normal function of the liver is to rid the body of toxins and to metabolize proteins. As the liver stops doing its job, toxins begin to build up in your dog’s body, causing these neurologic effects.The liver also makes blood clotting factors when it is healthy. Once in end-stage liver failure, another risk to your dog is losing blood since they cannot make blood clots properly.

Causes of Liver Failure In Dogs

There are many causes of liver disease and failure in dogs. All ages of dogs can be affected and there are even some conditions that your dog may be genetically predisposed to or born with that causes liver failure. Certain breeds are even more at risk.

Inherited Liver Disorders:

  • Copper Storage Disease
    • Labrador Retrievers are a breed predisposed to this
  • Portosystemic Shunts
    • Yorkshire Terriers are a breed predisposed to this
  • Congenital Biliary Cystic Malformations

Acquired Liver Disorders Can Be Caused By:

  • Bacterial and Viral infections
  • Parasitic Infections
  • Cancer
  • Trauma
  • Chronic Diseases, such as Cushing’s Disease & Diabetes
  • Gallstones
  • Ingestion of toxic substances

The inherited liver disorders usually start to cause problems early on in life. This is especially true of dogs with a portosystemic shunt. They usually have stunted growth and will show neurologic signs even as puppies.

The acquired liver disorders usually do not show up or cause problems until a dog is middle-aged to older. The exceptions to this are if they acquire an infection, have some sort of traumatic episode, such as getting hit by a car or suffering from heat stroke, or if they ingest something toxic.

Toxic Substances That Can Cause Liver Failure In Dogs

These substances need to be kept away from your dog at all cost. Their toxic properties can lead to liver failure.

  • Xylitol (in sugar-free gum and other sugar-free foods)
  • Blue-Green Algae
  • Amanita Mushrooms
  • Aflatoxins
  • Sago Palm Plants
  • Overdosing certain medications
  • Some anti-inflammatory medications

Try to keep these substances away from your dog. If your dog accidentally ingested too many pills of a medication they were prescribed, call your vet right away to see if it was one that could have harmful effects on their liver. Also, if your dog ever accidentally gets into any of your own medications, always call your vet to see if it was one that could be toxic to your dog.

Diagnosing Liver Failure In Dogs

To diagnose liver failure, your dog will need to have comprehensive blood work performed. This will involve checking what is called a Complete Blood Count and a Chemistry Profile. It will also usually include checking a Bile Acids test. The Bile Acids test gives a good indication if your dog’s liver is able to metabolize proteins and get rid of toxins or not.

Your vet may also want to schedule an abdominal ultrasound for your dog. An ultrasound allows your vet to look inside your dog’s abdomen and liver. This helps them get a better idea of what the underlying cause for liver disease could be such as cancer, infection, gall-bladder issue, or something else.

Treatment for Liver Failure

Unfortunately, once your dog’s liver has progressed to failure, there is not much that can be done. Treating the symptoms with anti-nausea medications, anti-diarrheal medications, and pain medications is all you can do.

If an underlying cause is identified, treatment can also be aimed at that. This may include antibiotics or anti-parasitics for an infection or surgery to remove a tumor or to fix a portosystemic shunt.

Special Food

  • There are special prescription foods available for dogs with liver disease and liver failure. These foods are formulated to help prevent the occurrence of neurologic signs in your dog and are easily digestible. These can greatly help your dog’s quality of life, assuming your dog will not be too picky and will eat the food.


  • There are supplements for everything these days. However, supplements for liver disease are definitely worth starting your dog on to help slow down the progression of liver ailments.SAMe (s-adenosylmethionine) and Silybin are two great supplements for liver disease in dogs. These supplements help to reduce oxidative damage to your dog’s liver cells, which is a side effect of all of the inflammation that is causing stress on their liver.

Life Expectancy Once a Dog Develops Liver Failure

Life expectancy of a dog with liver failure ultimately depends on the cause of the liver failure, how far progressed it is once diagnosed, and the available treatments for your individual dog. This can vary substantially based on the above information.

If it is caught early, some dogs can live for many months to a few years. However, if it has already progressed by the time of diagnosis, your dog may only have a few weeks to months of decent quality of life left. For instance, certain types of cancers can slowly take over until there is not much that can be done for them except keeping your dog as comfortable as possible and treating the symptoms your dog may have.

When to Consider Euthanasia

Deciding when is the “right time” to euthanize a pet can be an agonizing process. Liver disease is an especially difficult case because your dog can still have really good days, but also very bad days. You never know which one you will wake up to.

If you feel comfortable and are able, talk with as many people as you can. Family, friends, your veterinarian and their office staff can help you cope with this decision. Other people may have gone through the same situation and can be great resources for helping you cope. Talk things through, and get an idea for what to expect and what helped them make their decision.

Pay attention to your dog, are they having more bad days than good? Are they able to get up and walk around, doing some of the things they used to enjoy? Are they able to hold their bladder and bowel movements until they get outside or are they starting to have a lot of accidents in the house? Do you still see a light in their eyes?

There is no clear cut answer on this decision and it will be different for every dog. Keep giving them as much love and care as you can. Talk with your veterinarian about your concerns, and try to gauge your pet’s comfort and pain levels daily.

There are 9 comments:

  • Daryn at 10:34 pm

    I just found out today that my 6yr old Great Dane, Garbo, has liver failure. It happened so suddenly and now I feel like there’s not much time left. She’s jaundiced and her belly is distended. I noticed tonight on our walk that her legs are beginning to swell. I can’t believe this is happening. We just lost her older sister, Harlow, in January. She’s been depressed and having seizures ever since.

    I’ll know more once the ultrasound is done but it’s two weeks away. I’m scared spitless. This article has at least given me an idea as to what I’m looking at as far as a timeline with regards to the progression of the disease. I wish they could live forever, or at least as long as we do. It breaks my heart to know that my baby girl may be with her sister sooner rather than later.

    Thank you for the information.
    Daryn & Garbo

    • Stacia at 3:23 pm

      Hi Daryn, so sorry to hear about your Great Dane’s liver failure. Now is definitely the time to get as much time as you can with Garbo. Get pictures! I’m also glad our article can help you through this process and to know what to expect.

  • Tressa Powell at 9:43 pm

    I have worried over the right time to euthanize. This article was extremely helpful and the practical information brought me much needed peace about my decision. My pup is only eating a tiny piece of bread a day and is getting more and more yellow. I’m sure it is time. Thank you for sharing your kind wisdom.

  • K. Youngblood at 10:02 pm

    I was told my baby was diagnosed with a tumor that has consumed her liver which is inoperable. Many of the same symptoms in the article I’m also seeing. Its really hard to tell when she’s ready to let go. This has helped me start to prepare myself.

    • Leslie at 1:23 pm

      Hi, one of the hardest things you can do is make that decision to put your baby down. I believe only you will know when they are suffering. Just watch for those signs of suffering (not eating, not drinking, in pain, sleeping all of the time, sudden change in behavior). Enjoy them as much as possible, take pictures, go for walks, do what they love more now than ever!

  • Linda Edmonds at 7:09 pm

    My dog Molly, is a mix rat terror & Jack Russell and has been diagnosed with liver failure. She had pancreatic in hospital 1st of August one month ago. She recovered, had a good recovery. Now she is diagnosed with liver failure. She is doing great. Still eats great, takes walks & chase squirrels. You wouldn’t know she is sick. She is on denamarin meds and also is on thyroid med. She eats royal canine heptatic food. I know one day she will start having bad days, but I’m going to let her enjoy her quality of life. She is a great dog. Instead of not eating she wants to eat more, but she is dieting. We love our Molly Dog. She is so loved by everyone. Thanks for letting us know what to except down the road.

    • Leslie at 1:18 pm

      Hi Linda, thanks for sharing your story! You are doing well and letting your dog enjoy life as much as possible. The hardest part of this journey is knowing when to put them down so they do not suffer. I’m glad you read our article and now know what to expect down the road. That’s one of the main reasons why we do what we do. Helping people know what to expect because each dog will have different experiences and quality of life with liver failure.

  • Gil Talkington at 3:24 pm

    Good article. My advice is take any necessary action quickly. We took our sweet beautiful 5 year old white boxer (also deaf) for an appointment last Wednesday for a routine CBC (blood work). After her liver values were so high, well over 2,000, x-rays were done, then an ultrasound was done on Friday. We then got the worst news possible. She had a mass on or near her liver, which was also spreading to her gall bladder and kidneys. She had lost 17 pounds in 4 months and 12 pounds in the last 7 weeks. Because she had basically stopped eating, the vet was not optimistic anything could be done. We had to put her down the next day on Saturday. We are in complete shock and devastated. In addition, we lost our 2 older brindle boxers (siblings) last May and last November due to different health issues. Yes, it’s been a very rough last 10 months. In fact, this is the first time in over 35 years we have not had one or more dogs in our home. If you see any signs of liver disease, losing weight, lack of eating, or jaundice, please don’t wait to go to your Vet.

    • Leslie at 1:13 pm

      Hi Gil, so sorry to hear about the loss of your beloved dogs. You are right about not waiting to see your vet at first signs of any health problems.

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