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Jaundice in Dogs

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Severity: i Critical

The color yellow is normally associated with happiness, friendship, and feelings of summer warmth. However, in medicine, the color yellow can mean serious problems. If your canine companion suddenly develops yellowing of the skin or eyes, it could be a sign of jaundice in dogs. 

Jaundice is an uncommon but serious condition in dogs, and while it is not always life-threatening, it can be a warning sign of underlying health issues that require prompt veterinary attention. In this article, we’ll dive into the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for jaundice in dogs, as well as precautions you can take to prevent some of its causes.

What is Jaundice?

Jaundice, also known as icterus, is a visible yellow discoloration of the skin, whites of the eyes and gums. Jaundice is a result of excessive levels of bilirubin (a yellow pigment) in the bloodstream or the organs of the body. 

Normally, bilirubin is produced when the body breaks down old or damaged red blood cells. The bilirubin is transported by the bloodstream to the liver, which metabolizes it into a form that can be excreted. Bilirubin is then stored in bile in the gallbladder and ultimately excreted in the stool.

Most people are familiar with jaundice in newborn babies, as it is very common. In fact, according to the American Association of Family Physicians, about 50 percent of full-term babies and 80 percent of premature babies will develop jaundice in their first week of life. Most of the time, jaundice in babies doesn’t need to be treated and is not a very serious problem.

Humans aren’t the only species to develop jaundice. Jaundice is commonly treated by veterinarians in dogs, cats, horses, and a variety of other animals.

What Does Jaundice Look Like in Dogs?

Jaundice can be much harder to diagnose in dogs than in people due to the presence of their fur coats. In dogs with light-colored skin, owners may notice a yellow discoloration on their inner ear flaps or on the hairless parts of their bellies. In most dogs, jaundice will be apparent on their gums, but some dogs have dark gums, making it tough to tell. The easiest place to detect jaundice in dogs is typically the sclera, or whites of the eyes.

Causes of Jaundice in Dogs

When it comes to what causes jaundice in dogs, we need to first break it down by the type we’re dealing with. Typically, jaundice (or icterus) is divided into three main categories: Pre-hepatic, Hepatic, and Post-hepatic.

Pre-hepatic icterus may occur in cases of severe hemolytic anemia (low levels of red blood cells due to bursting of the cells). This happens because there is more bilirubin to process than the liver can keep up with. Possible causes of hemolytic anemia in dogs include:

Hepatic icterus, the most common type of icterus, can occur anytime there is serious liver disease in dogs, which prevents the liver from processing bilirubin or from moving bile into the gallbladder. This can occur due to several different causes including:

Post-hepatic icterus in dogs can be seen with obstructions of the common bile duct or gallbladder. Examples of conditions that can lead to post-hepatic jaundice include:

  • Severe pancreatitis
  • Abdominal tumors
  • Gallbladder mucocele
  • Gallstones
  • Gallbladder rupture

Other Symptoms Associated with Jaundice

According to a recent study in dogs, the most common symptoms present along with jaundice were:

  • Vomiting 
  • Inappetence 
  • Lethargy 
  • Fever 

Other symptoms pet parents should watch out for are:

Diagnosing the Cause of Jaundice in Dogs

Vet looking at dog's eyes

As you can see, jaundice can have many different causes. Since most causes of jaundice in dogs are quite serious, it’s critical that you take your dog to your veterinarian at the first sign of jaundice or any of the associated symptoms. 

Your veterinarian will need to take a detailed history to ensure your dog has not been exposed to any toxins, drugs, or infectious diseases that could be playing a role. Next, she will need to take blood for a complete blood cell count and blood chemistry panel, as well as urine for a urinalysis. This is a good starting point and will guide your veterinarian to the next best steps. 

Most causes of jaundice will also require an abdominal ultrasound to guide the diagnosis. If the jaundice is determined to be hepatic in nature liver clotting tests, leptospirosis testing, and liver biopsies will need to be performed. 

Treating Dogs for Jaundice

Treatment for jaundice in dogs is based on the determined cause or probable cause. However, many dogs with jaundice present to veterinarians in serious to critical condition, and stabilizing them while waiting for the results of testing is imperative. 

Initial stabilization usually involves intravenous (IV) fluids to correct dehydration and possibly IV antibiotics if there is a high suspicion of infectious causes. Dogs with sudden or chronic liver failure often have low blood sugar, which also requires prompt attention by administering a sugar solution.

When jaundice is caused by anemia, treatment often involves blood transfusions and steroids. Dogs that have abnormal blood clotting capabilities often require plasma transfusion, especially before having invasive liver biopsies performed.

Surgery is typically only performed for cases of post-hepatic jaundice where the bile duct or gallbladder is obstructed or ruptured.

Prognosis for Dogs with Jaundice

Prognosis for dogs with jaundice is variable and depends on the cause. A recent study that followed 115 dogs with jaundice showed that about 50 percent of them died from their disease. Of the different causes of jaundice, the prognosis was worse for dogs with pre-hepatic jaundice from hemolytic anemia than those with hepatic or post-hepatic causes. 

How to Prevent Jaundice in Dogs

While there is nothing you can do to prevent all causes of jaundice in your dog, there are a few precautions you can take to prevent certain causes. These include:

  • Keeping your dog up to date on her leptospirosis and adenovirus vaccinations
  • Never giving your dog over-the-counter medications without first consulting your veterinarian
  • Never giving any prescribed medications at higher than recommended doses
  • Performing drug monitoring when your pet takes medications on a long-term basis
  • Preventing your pup from eating foods containing xylitol, a sweetener found in sugar-free gums and other products, which is toxic to dogs
  • Keeping toxic plants such as Sago Palm away from your dog
  • Having regular screening blood work performed on your dog as this can help catch issues before they progress to jaundice