How nutrition can help dogs with liver disease

The liver is an important organ. Responsible for cleaning the blood, the liver plays a major role in waste removal and ensuring overall health in dogs. Sometimes a dog’s liver may get sick or not work properly, resulting in a domino effect and impacting body function as a whole. If you would like to learn more about the liver and hepatic system, liver diseases and how nutrition can help, keep reading!

What the liver does

The liver makes up approximately 5% of your dog’s body weight and may contain 10-15% of the body’s blood supply at any given time! As mentioned above, the main function of the liver is to filter and clean the blood of chemical toxins. In addition to acting as the body’s janitor, the liver also has a few extra functions including:

  • Carbohydrate (glucose) storage and metabolism
  • Fat metabolism 
  • Hormone metabolism
  • Synthesis of compounds such as bile and certain blood proteins

It is often the first organ to encounter nutrients like vitamins, minerals, drugs and toxins that have been ingested by the dog. Once it filters nutrients, the liver will break them down, store them for later use or excrete them into bile. Since the liver also filters toxins in the blood, it is one of the organs most at risk for chemical damage.

German Short haired Pointer puppy German Short haired Pointer puppy in front of a white background dog liver stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

The hepatic system

The liver is a solid organ made up of 4 lobes. Attached (but separate from) the liver is the gallbladder, which stores bile produced by the liver to digest fats.

The liver is situated between the blood supply (called the portal vein) coming from the gastrointestinal tract and the systemic circulation, allowing for it to be the primary filtering and metabolizing organ. 

dog's organ anatomy diagram, vector illustration dog's organ anatomy diagram, vector illustration dog liver stock illustrations

Liver disease

Like all organs, sometimes the organ can become sick and is unable to perform its normal functions. This can result in a very sick doggo. Liver disease can be caused by many factors some of which are:

  • Toxins (environmental or biological)
  • Bacterial infection
  • Molds
  • Untreated heartworm
  • Diabetes 
  • Pancreatic problems
  • Fatty foods
  • Certain medications
  • Age

Since the liver is such a major organ with a big responsibility, when it fails it can greatly affect the function of a lot of other systems. Some symptoms of liver disease include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Wobbly walking
  • Increased urination
  • Confusion
  • Jaundice (yellowed eyes, gums, or tongue)
  • Weakness
  • Blood in urine or feces
  • Seizures
  • Ascites (build up of fluid in the abdomen) 

Fortunately, liver disease is often treatable. The most common treatments include medication, supplements, surgery, and dietary changes, depending on the cause of the disease's progression.

How nutrition can help with liver disease

Diet can have a major impact on reducing the severity of liver disease in dogs. A dog with liver disease will need a diet that is low in fat and low in protein. It is also beneficial to feed a dog with liver disease smaller meals more frequently as this will be easier for them to process and digest. 

Additionally, monitoring the mineral content of the dog’s diet will help reduce the severity of liver disease. According to Volhard Dog Nutrition, “reducing the amount of copper in their diet and increasing the amount of zinc may be enough to cause a significant impact on your dog’s health”. Copper specifically can build up in the liver and can be found in high concentrations in organ meat, salmon, pork and duck. Zinc helps to reduce copper build up and can be found in foodstuffs like red meat, poultry and legumes.

Dietary supplements may also be beneficial for dogs with liver disease. Specifically, milk thistle has an active compound that acts as a liver anti inflammatory.


View Sources

Pet MD. “Liver disease in dogs”. (2019). https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/liver-disease-liver-failure-dogs##1 

Volhard Dog Nutrition. “The Optimal Care for Dogs with Liver Disease” (2020). https://www.volharddognutrition.com/blog/the-optimal-care-for-dogs-with-liver-disease/ 

Thornburg, Larry P. "A perspective on copper and liver disease in the dog." Journal of veterinary diagnostic investigation 12, no. 2 (2000): 101-110.

Doige, C. E., and R. W. Furneaux. "Liver disease and intrahepatic portal hypertension in the dog." The Canadian Veterinary Journal 16, no. 7 (1975): 209.

Gogulski, Maciej, Adam Cieślak, Julia Grabska, Marie Ardois, Małgorzata Pomorska-Mól, Paweł A. Kołodziejski, Kacper Libera, Viola Strompfová, and Małgorzata Szumacher-Strabel. "Effects of silybin supplementation on nutrient digestibility, hematological parameters, liver function indices, and liver-specific mi-RNA concentration in dogs." BMC Veterinary Research 17, no. 1 (2021): 1-14.

Barry‐Heffernan, Caitlin, Joanne Ekena, Sarah Dowling, Marie E. Pinkerton, and Katrina Viviano. "Biomarkers of oxidative stress as an assessment of the redox status of the liver in dogs." Journal of veterinary internal medicine 33, no. 2 (2019): 611-617.


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