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Jaundice in Dogs

What Is Jaundice in Dogs?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, manifests as a yellowing discoloration in a dog’s gums, eyes, skin, and blood. This occurs due to an elevated accumulation of bilirubin, an orange-yellow pigment formed in the liver, a condition termed hyperbilirubinemia.

Hyperbilirubinemia indicates a more severe underlying condition, potentially posing a life-threatening medical emergency. Jaundice can stem from either an increase in bilirubin production, often associated with red blood cell damage, or a decrease in its elimination from the body, commonly observed in liver and gallbladder diseases.

Any ailment affecting red blood cells, liver, and/or gallbladder can significantly impact bilirubin levels, leading to jaundice. While jaundice is frequently linked with liver disease, it’s crucial to note that it can result from other conditions.

Regrettably, jaundice is a prevalent issue in dogs and often leads to humane euthanasia. Though jaundice itself isn’t contagious, some underlying causes may be contagious or zoonotic, meaning they can transfer from animals to humans, as observed in diseases like leptospirosis


Because jaundice can arise from various underlying conditions, your dog might exhibit some of these additional symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy or decreased activity levels
  • Heightened thirst and urination
  • Bruising or tiny hemorrhages (petechiae)
  • Abdominal swelling and discomfort
  • Weak pulse
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Changes in behavior
  • Seizures
  • Pressing the head against objects and circling


As bilirubin levels elevate, jaundice initially appears in a dog’s bloodstream. As the condition progresses, the yellowing of the eyes, gums, and skin becomes more apparent. Given that jaundice is symptomatic of various diseases, pinpointing the underlying cause poses a challenge for veterinarians.

Potential causes of jaundice include:

  • Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA) or other conditions leading to red blood cell destruction.
  • Infections:
      • Fungal diseases like histoplasmosis
      • Tick-borne diseases such as ehrlichiosis
      • Bacterial infection like leptospirosis
      • Parasites such as liver flukes and Babesia canis
      • Viral infections like adenovirus
      • Snakebite venom
  • Toxins:
      • Onions and garlic
      • Zinc, often from ingestion of certain pennies
      • Aflatoxins
      • Sago palm
    • Cancer
    • Liver failure
    • Blood transfusion reactions or complications
  • Gallbladder disease:
    • Gallstones (cholelithiasis)
    • Mucoceles, abnormal bile accumulation
    • Inflammation (cholangitis/cholangiohepatitis)
    • Rupture
  • Obstruction of the bile duct
  • Amyloidosis, an inherited disease often found in Shar-Pei, resulting from abnormal protein accumulation in the liver.
  • Copper-associated hepatopathy, frequently observed in specific breeds like Bedlington Terriers, where abnormal copper buildup in the liver leads to damage.
  • Portosystemic shunts (PSS) or acquired liver shunts, typically congenital issues where a vessel fails to close in utero, allowing unfiltered blood containing waste products to bypass the liver and enter the main circulatory system.


Veterinarians employ various tests to diagnose jaundice in dogs, which may include a complete blood cell count (CBC), assessment of internal organ function, and urinalysis.

These tests aid in identifying and pinpointing the underlying cause of jaundice. Since jaundice is easily detectable during a routine physical examination, veterinarians can streamline the necessary tests for a prompt diagnosis. For a conclusive diagnosis, vets may need to obtain a sample of the dog’s liver. This can be achieved through either surgical means or an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy, where a needle is inserted directly into the liver.

Samples collected can undergo culture (to detect signs of bacterial infection), histopathology (to assess cell and tissue structure), or toxicology analysis. It’s important to inform your veterinarian about any recent travel history or exposure to rural areas, standing bodies of water, or wildlife-populated regions.

Certain diseases prevail in specific areas, and such information enables vets to take appropriate precautions and expedite testing and treatment for your dog.


Treatment of jaundice in dogs hinges on the underlying cause, with early intervention being crucial for a successful recovery. Veterinarians often recommend medications and dietary adjustments as primary therapeutic measures.

Medications like vitamins E and K, and ursodiol are commonly prescribed to address liver and gallbladder diseases. Supportive care may also be administered, including:

  • Intravenous fluids
  • Antibiotics
  • Pain relievers
  • Appetite stimulants
  • Antacids
  • Anti-nausea medications

Feeding tubes may be recommended to slow disease progression and allow the liver time to regenerate. In cases where jaundice stems from conditions affecting red blood cells, blood transfusions may be necessary, alongside long-term immunosuppression using steroids or other medications like azathioprine or cyclosporine.

Certain conditions such as cancer, portosystemic shunts, gallbladder stones/mucoceles, and bile duct obstruction may respond to chemotherapy or surgical intervention.

Given the liver’s vital role in digestion and nutrient metabolism, providing a diet that eases the burden on the liver is beneficial. The diet should be highly palatable and provide sufficient calories for maintaining body weight, or it should be easy to digest. Depending on the underlying cause, specialized diets like Hill’s® l/d or Royal Canin® Hepatic may be prescribed, formulated to offer adequate protein, increased antioxidants, and reduced amounts of certain minerals like copper, which can be harmful to the liver.

Offering smaller, more frequent meals may enhance acceptance by the dog. It’s essential to consult your veterinarian for guidance on an appropriate diet for your dog.

Living and Management

The liver possesses a remarkable capacity for regeneration, and in cases where diseases are identified early and treated promptly, dogs can have a favorable prognosis and lead normal lives. Conditions like gallbladder mucoceles and certain infections or toxin exposures exemplify this.

Other conditions such as IMHA or acquired liver shunts may necessitate lifelong medication and dietary management. It’s crucial to follow your veterinarian’s advice and adhere to recheck schedules, as these dogs will require ongoing monitoring. In instances where a dog’s condition is severe or the prognosis is poor, your veterinarian may recommend humane euthanasia.


While many diseases leading to jaundice in dogs are not preventable, there are measures you can take to reduce your dog’s risk:

  1. Avoid administering human medications or incorrect dosages of drugs to your dog, and ensure these items are securely stored out of your dog’s reach.
  2. Maintain your dog on tick prevention medications, regularly check for ticks, and ensure vaccinations, especially for leptospirosis, are up-to-date.
  3. Implement strategies to minimize potential bacterial contamination:
    • Limit access to stagnant water.
    • Avoid contact with wildlife.
    • Use pest control measures as necessary.
    • Manage and prevent access to garbage.

Jaundice in Dogs FAQs

Can dogs with jaundice be treated at home?

Treatment for jaundice necessitates accurate diagnosis and management of the underlying disease, a task that demands veterinary intervention.

Dogs displaying jaundice symptoms are in a critical condition and should be promptly evaluated. Delaying veterinary care is not advisable.

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