The liver is an amazing organ in your dog’s body that helps with all sorts of functions from their metabolism to their immune system. Any chemicals, vitamins, or other substances your dog eats will all be broken down in the liver, and it is nature’s most effective detox system.
But that means when your dog has a problem with their liver, their health can go downhill fast. There are a number of different infections and diseases that can affect your dog's liver, and canine hepatitis is one of the most common liver diseases.
Given how common it is, it’s important for pet owners to be able to identify possible symptoms of hepatitis in dogs. And if your dog is diagnosed, you’re sure to want answers about how the condition will affect them. In this guide we’ll tell you all about hepatitis in dogs, from its symptoms to side effects, and how it’s diagnosed and treated.
Hepatitis in dogs is a common condition that causes your dog’s liver to become inflamed. It’s not a specific disease, it’s just a way of describing inflammation. Although one type of hepatitis called “infectious hepatitis” is a specific disease which is caused by a contagious virus.
As well as infectious hepatitis, there are a few other different types of hepatitis that can affect your canine companion. Your dog’s symptoms can vary depending on the type of hepatitis they have, and it will determine the treatment they need.
There are two main types of hepatitis in dogs, chronic or infectious. Most forms of hepatitis will fall into one or both of these categories. So, what’s the difference?
Chronic hepatitis means that your dog’s been ill and their liver has become inflamed over a period of weeks or months. It’s the most common type of chronic canine liver disease in dogs and one study found 12% of dogs had chronic hepatitis by the time of their death.
Chronic hepatitis in dogs often results in necrosis, which is when healthy liver cells are damaged or destroyed and scar tissue takes its place.
Infectious hepatitis is a contagious disease caused by the virus “canine adenovirus 1” or CAV-1. (Meanwhile, CAV-2, causes respiratory problems and conditions such as Kennel Cough.) Sometimes infectious hepatitis is just called canine adenovirus, or “Rubarth’s Disease”.
Infectious hepatitis causes inflammation and damage to your dog’s liver, but it can also affect their kidneys, spleen, lungs, and the lining of their blood vessels. Sometimes, it can affect other organs in their body too.
Infectious hepatitis in dogs is usually acute, meaning it occurs very suddenly with a dog becoming sick within a matter of hours or days.
Although it’s much rarer than chronic or infectious hepatitis, there is another condition called autoimmune hepatitis. This is when the dog’s own immune system attacks their liver cells, causing inflammation.
One final type of hepatitis in dogs is non-specific reactive hepatitis which is caused by a reaction to endotoxins in the body.
As well as different types of hepatitis, your vet might describe your dog’s condition as “active”. Active means that there is current and ongoing inflammation and liver cell damage.
Hepatitis itself is not contagious, however a number of the diseases and viruses that can cause it are contagious.
For example, the virus CAV-1 which causes infectious hepatitis is highly contagious in dogs.
Similarly, dogs can develop hepatitis as a result of infections like leptospirosis, which is also contagious. (Leptospirosis can also spread between humans and dogs.)
Many dogs contract infectious hepatitis and other contagious diseases by coming into contact with bodily fluids or faeces of an infected dog. They could sniff, lick, or eat an infected dog’s poo, urine, saliva, or nasal discharge. For example, they could become infected if they share toys or a water bowl with an infected dog, or if they eat a strange dog’s poo during walkies.
Additionally, dogs with infectious hepatitis will continue to shed infectious particles in their bodily fluids for at least 6 months after they were sick. This means that your dog could spread hepatitis for months even after they have recovered, putting other dogs at risk.
Hepatitis in dogs can be life-threatening, especially in younger dogs. However, it’s less likely to endanger your pet’s life if it’s diagnosed and treated early.
Acute and infectious hepatitis is more likely to be life-threatening and will require prompt treatment. It’s thought that the mortality rate for infectious hepatitis is between 10-30%, and the risk of death is higher in young dogs. This is because unvaccinated puppies have no protection against hepatitis, and their immune systems have not fully developed so cannot fight the infection.
Chronic hepatitis can put your dog’s life at risk at its later stages. However, if it’s caught early and your dog is given treatment to manage their condition, they can live for many years.
The life expectancy of a dog with hepatitis can vary depending on the type of hepatitis they have and how well they respond to treatment.
Acute hepatitis can make a dog seriously ill within a matter of days. It could kill them, but dogs who survive often go on to live a long and normal life. Sometimes, acute hepatitis can develop into chronic hepatitis.
Meanwhile, chronic hepatitis can impact your dog’s lifespan because it’s a progressive disease. But medical treatment will slow the progression of the disease and most dogs can live for months or years with the condition.
That being said, the median lifespan of a dog with chronic hepatitis is 18.3 to 36.4 months (1.5 to 3 years). However, that’s only the median survival time, and some dogs may live less than this, but many live for longer.
Hepatitis can affect all dogs of any age, breed, or gender.
Infectious hepatitis is more common in puppies and unvaccinated adult dogs because they have no protection against the virus which causes it.
Meanwhile, chronic hepatitis is more common in middle aged or older dogs. It also appears to be more common in female dogs.
Certain breeds of dog seem to be more at risk of developing chronic hepatitis. The breeds at greater risk of hepatitis include:
American Cocker Spaniels
All cases of infectious hepatitis are caused by the virus “canine adenovirus 1” (CAV-1). However, other bacterial and viral infections, like leptospirosis, can damage your dog’s liver and lead to chronic hepatitis as a secondary condition.
The most common cause of acute hepatitis in dogs is the ingestion of toxins. This could be a poisonous plant, drugs, chemicals, or a toxic food such as xylitol or alcohol. Many human medicines, such as paracetamol, can damage a dog’s liver and cause hepatitis.
Certain kinds of mould which are found on grains can also cause hepatitis, but this is uncommon.
Excessive copper build-up or a copper storage disease can lead to chronic hepatitis. Bedlington Terriers are predisposed to issues excreting copper from their body, making them prone to copper toxicosis or hepatitis as a result.
In some cases, a dog may have an immune-mediated disease which causes inflammation in their liver, leading to hepatitis.
However, many cases of hepatitis in dogs are idiopathic, meaning there is no single identifiable cause. Either there will be no apparent reason for your dog’s illness, or there could be a complex web of factors which could have caused it.
Hepatitis often results in necrosis, which is the scarring of liver tissue. When this happens, a dog’s liver will no longer be able to work as well as it once did because there are fewer healthy, working cells.
Dogs who have suffered from infectious hepatitis can also suffer from kidney damage, as the virus can affect other organs in their body.
Infectious hepatitis can also cause a condition known as “blue eye”. This is when the cornea of a dog’s eye becomes blue and cloudy, similar to cataracts. Sometimes blue eye will clear up with treatment, but it can remain permanent in some dogs.
The most effective way to prevent hepatitis in your dog is to vaccinate them. There are safe and effective vaccinations available which protect your dog against canine adenovirus, which causes infectious hepatitis. There are also vaccinations against leptospirosis and other infections which can damage your dog’s liver and cause hepatitis as a secondary condition.
The more dogs that are vaccinated in an area, the safer the whole doggy population will be as fewer dogs can be infected and spread the virus. Because of this, cases of hepatitis in dogs are uncommon in areas with high vaccination uptake. In the case of leptospirosis, vaccination also protects people from becoming infected too.
Most dogs get their vaccinations as puppies, with one jab at 7-9 weeks and then a booster a month later. After that, they need a booster every 3 years to maintain their protection.
Meanwhile, most cases of acute hepatitis in dogs are caused by a dog eating something toxic. Therefore, making sure your dog can’t eat anything they shouldn’t will help to prevent poisoning and liver problems.
The symptoms of hepatitis in dogs can vary from mild to severe depending on the type of hepatitis your dog has and what organs are affected.
For young dogs, the first symptom is often a fever of over 40°C. The symptoms are more varied and non-specific in older dogs, but your vet will be able to diagnose them.
In cases of chronic hepatitis, a dog will often only show signs of illness once the condition has reached an advanced stage.
Symptoms of hepatitis in dogs includes:
Vomiting (Which might be bloody)
Discharge from the eyes and/or nose
Jaundice (Yellow eyes, gums, skin.)
Ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen.)
Poor body condition
Red dots on their gums and skin
Neurological signs (EG: confusion, unsteadiness, seizures.)
If your dog shows any signs of illness it’s important you take them to the vet. Hepatitis in dogs can progress quickly and could make your pet seriously ill in a matter of hours or days, and early treatment is vital to give your dog the best chance of survival.
Your vet will run blood tests to check your dog’s liver function and assess their white blood cell count. Hepatitis and liver disease can also impact their blood clotting ability, so your vet might test a sample of blood to see if it clots normally or not.
They might perform a urine analysis, which will help to rule out other conditions and provide a greater understanding of your dog’s symptoms.
Your dog may need an ultrasound or an x-ray of their abdomen so the vet can examine their liver. They will check if the organ is an abnormal size, if there are signs of trauma, tumours, or if there’s anything else going on inside your pooch that could be causing their illness.
The only definitive way to diagnose hepatitis is to take a liver biopsy. This allows the vet to examine your dog’s liver tissues for signs of necrosis (scarring) and the presence of other symptoms. From the biopsy your vet can confirm if your dog is suffering from hepatitis, as well as the type and severity of their condition.
A liver biopsy may be surgical or laparoscopic. Laparoscopy is a keyhole surgery so it has a faster recovery time and less chance of infection, but it requires specialist tools and doesn’t give the vet the opportunity to examine the liver and other internal organs.
Meanwhile, open surgery carries a slightly higher risk of infection and a longer recovery time, but it gives your vet the opportunity to examine your dog’s internal organs and they may be able to identify and treat any physical problems while your dog is already under anaesthetic.
Acute hepatitis can often be cured and recovered dogs can go on to live a long and normal life.
However, there is no cure for chronic hepatitis, but the condition must be treated to manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Dogs with chronic hepatitis will need ongoing treatment to improve their quality of life and wellbeing, but they can live a normal and happy life.
Many dogs will require hospitalisation when they are first treated for hepatitis. This will include IV therapy to restore their fluid levels and prevent dehydration. This can also help to flush out any toxins in their system. Some dogs might require a blood transfusion if they have suffered blood loss or a bleeding disorder because of their hepatitis.
Your vet may perform abdominocentesis to treat ascites and fluid retention. This is where they use a needle to remove the fluid from your dog’s abdomen.
Once your dog is out of the veterinary hospital, they will be prescribed medication to manage their condition. They will also need regular blood tests to monitor their liver function. Dogs with chronic hepatitis might need regular check-ups for the rest of their life to monitor their condition and how well it is being managed.
How your dog’s hepatitis is treated will depend on the type of hepatitis they have and the results of their biopsy. The aim of all treatment is to reduce the inflammation of the liver and to stop the progression of the disease.
Hepatitis caused by a bacterial infection can be treated with antibiotics. However, antibiotics will not work against viral infection, such as infectious hepatitis caused by CAV-1.
For other forms of hepatitis, your vet may use an anti-inflammatory to reduce inflammation in your dog’s liver. They might also use immunosuppressive medication to prevent the dog’s immune system from attacking their own liver cells, which will also reduce inflammation.
Your vet will also prescribe medications to treat any symptoms that your dog has. These could include medications to prevent seizures, treat fluid retention, and decrease ammonia levels in their body.
There are no home remedies or natural supplements that can cure hepatitis in dogs. However, your vet might advise adding some supplements to your dog’s diet to help manage their condition.
You may be prescribed vitamin E, which is a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Meanwhile, vitamin K helps the blood to clot normally and can benefit dogs with a bleeding disorder as a result of hepatitis. These can both be provided as a supplement, or it may be possible to include more of these vitamins in your dog’s diet under the guidance of your vet.
Zinc can prevent copper absorption into the body, which may benefit dogs with abnormal copper build-up that caused their chronic hepatitis.
Meanwhile, a herbal remedy called milk thistle is used in both human and veterinary medicine for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Milk thistle is often used to treat liver disease in dogs and is sometimes used to manage hepatitis too.
Finally, S-Adenosyl-L-methionine or “SAMe” is a natural compound in the body that is involved in various liver functions. There is some evidence that SAMe supplementation could benefit humans with hepatitis, but limited clinical study into its effect on its use in dogs.
Getting your dog to eat is one of the most important parts of treating hepatitis in dogs especially if they have been refusing food and had no appetite.
At first, you just want your dog to eat any kind of complete dog food to make sure they get the calories and nutrients they need to maintain their body condition and have the energy needed to begin to heal.
If your dog is struggling to eat, there are a few ways you can try and entice them.
You can warm their food up or mix it with warm water to make it more appetising. Changing the consistency of their food with water can also encourage them to eat.
Mixing their food with water can also make it possible to perform assisted feeding with a syringe, where you can squirt a soupy mixture of food into your dog’s mouth.
You could also try hand feeding your dog. Initially, you might have to “force” feed your dog, which is a bit like giving them a tablet. Take a little bit of food and put it in the back of your dog’s mouth, then hold their mouth shut to encourage them to swallow. As you can see, this isn’t actually forceful, but it will get your dog to eat and receive some energy and nutrition that they need to survive and recover.
Once your dog is eating more, you can look into changing their diet to one that is more suitable for managing liver problems. This is usually a low-processed food which contains high-quality protein, but low phosphorus levels.
Your pooch’s prognosis can vary dramatically depending on the type of hepatitis they are affected by, and how well they respond to treatment. Some dogs may be completely cured, while other dogs might sadly pass away.
Dogs are likely to survive if they’re diagnosed and treated early, however the more severe your dog’s illness is, the more life-threatening it is.
Although chronic hepatitis in dogs can’t be cured, many dogs can live for years without signs of illness and a good quality of life as long as they receive treatment to manage their condition.
Meanwhile, many dogs who survive acute hepatitis can be completely cured and go on to live a long and normal life, while others may develop chronic hepatitis.
In short, your dog has a good chance of surviving if they are diagnosed and treated early. And as long as your pooch gets the right help, they could live happily for many more years despite having hepatitis.
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.