Hepatic Encephalopathy in Dogs: A Quick Guide

When a steadfast canine companion isn’t feeling well, it’s understandably disconcerting to pet parents. A beloved dog may or may not have struggled with liver issues in the past (age-related or otherwise), but it looks like they may be giving him some health problems now. Whether family members have noticed their pet stumbling around or confused, or even helped him through a recent canine seizure, it is an obvious cause for concern. For those familiar with the symptoms of hepatic encephalopathy, it’s difficult to know if the condition might be to blame – or if it’s just worried nerves talking. 

So the question remains: what’s the best way to find out if he’s affected and ensure his health and safety? This article provides a general overview of hepatic encephalopathy in dogs along with helpful information for dog owners.

What is Hepatic Encephalopathy in Dogs?

It sounds like a scary diagnosis, and while it’s nothing to be ignored, staying informed is important. The name translates as “of or relating to the liver” and “a brain disease caused by toxins in the blood” – in short, it means that a malfunctioning liver is affecting a dog’s health in a severe or observable way. Certain “red flags” in his behavior over the last days or weeks may have been observed, such as:

  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Sudden Unconsciousness
  • “Drunken” or Slow Movement

Hepatic Encephalopathy in Dogs: A Quick Guide | Canna-PetOf these common encephalopathy symptoms, seizures may be the most telling, while the rest may be attributed to a temporary environmental trigger. If any or all of them show up consistently, however, it’s important to make an apointment with your vet as soon as possible, even if it’s at an emergency clinic. These symptoms occur due to the liver improperly processing ammonia within the body, a condition that can arise as a part of a dog’s genetics or from other health issues later in his life. The condition doesn’t discriminate: it affects dogs of any age, breed, or gender, and may appear both gradually or suddenly. 

What Causes Canine Hepatic Encephalopathy?

For dogs with a congenital cause – in other words, born with it – the issue typically arises from a blood flow problem surrounding the liver, known as a portosystemic shunt. When this occurs, instead of the liver acting as it typically does to filter toxins like ammonia out, the blood bypasses the liver and the unfiltered toxins accumulate in the brain. This causes visible symptoms in the congenitally-affected dog, usually starting within the first year of age. 

Even if a pooch isn’t born with the triggering congenital issue, the portosystemic shunt can arise for a variety of other reasons later in life, like from a bad reaction to a medication or certain anesthetics during other medical procedures. In short, if a dog has ever been exposed to an external toxin or a medication that seemed to have adverse effects, it’s important to monitor his condition for the signs of hepatic encephalopathy for the rest of his life. 

While degenerative by nature, catching the condition early gives veterinarians the best range of options for treating an affected dog’s symptoms. It’s important to talk out the pros and cons of any treatment regimen with a vet care team, and to be realistic about the positive outcomes of the therapy pursued. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – an owner is a dog’s best advocate, and he’s counting on his parents for appropriate care.

What Are the Treatments for Canine Hepatic Encephalopathy?

After a veterinarian has determined through an exam and/or blood work that a dog is affected by hepatic encephalopathy, they may recommend hospitalization. This doesn’t necessarily mean the immediate situation is dire; it simply gives them the best setting to observe, treat, and test a furry pal’s condition. This route will be the most likely one if he’s having frequent seizures or bouts of unconsciousness, providing the vet with the best chance of stabilizing the affected pup under a watchful eye. 

Once the vet believes the dog is stable enough to head home, they’ll likely put him on a special diet formulated to help his body fight off canine liver disease. This regimen is intended to reduce potential toxins going into the body, ensuring that the already-taxed liver won’t have to do additional heavy lifting. Other medications, such as supplements or other treatments, may be prescribed to further support his healing. Some experts recommend tucking pills in a spoonful of his favorite moist food, peanut butter, or similar treat to help ease the anxiety and administration associated with medication-time for both pup and parent.

Hepatic Encephalopathy in Dogs: A Quick Guide | Canna-PetIn some cases, the family vet may also tell you that surgery is an option – most notably if there’s a case of the aforementioned portosystemic shunt. While not an instant cure, this procedure will help the dog’s body stop ferrying the toxins to the wrong part of the body, and may ease or eliminate some of the more harmful symptoms like seizures. 

Summary: Proactive Healthcare For Canine Longevity & Wellness

Hepatic encephalopathy occurs in dogs of all sizes, shapes, and ages, even if they seem healthy and happy. Therefore, it’s crucial for owners to remain proactive in their furry pal’s health throughout his life time. Ultimately, the best defense against this degenerative liver-brain disease is a healthy, active lifestyle, a balanced diet, and a great working relationship with a trusted veterinarian.



Clark, Mike. “Hepatic Encephalopathy In Dogs: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments.” Dogtime.com, (no publish date), https://dogtime.com/dog-health/56019-hepatic-encephalopathy-dogs-symptoms-causes-treatments. Accessed June 23, 2019. 

“Brain Disorder Due to Liver Disease in Dogs.” PetMD.com, (no publish date), https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/endocrine/c_dg_hepatic_encephalopathy. Accessed June 23, 2019.

Center. Sharon A. BS, DVM, DACVIM, Department of Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University. “Hepatic Encephalopathy in Small Animals.” Merck Vet Manual.com, (no publish date), https://www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/hepatic-disease-in-small-animals/hepatic-encephalopathy-in-small-animals. Accessed June 23, 2019.

Smith, Katy. “Hepatic Encephalopathy: A guide to the pathogenesis, signalment, diagnosis and treatment of the condition, which is often associated with portosystemic shunts.” Veterinary Practice.com, April 28, 2018, https://veterinary-practice.com/article/hepatic-encephalopathy. Accessed June 23, 2019.


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