Jaundice in Dogs

Michael Kearley, DVM
By Michael Kearley, DVM on Nov. 21, 2023
A dog gets a check-up at the vet.

In This Article


What Is Jaundice in Dogs?

Jaundice—also known as icterus—is characterized by the yellowing discoloration of a dog’s gums, eyes, skin, and blood. This is a result of an increased accumulation of bilirubin (orange-yellow pigment formed in the liver), a condition known as hyperbilirubinemia.

Hyperbilirubinemia is a symptom of a more severe underlying condition and can be life-threatening, making it a medical emergency.

Jaundice can occur due to an increase in bilirubin creation, often associated with the damage of red blood cells, or decreased removal from the body, which is seen in cases of liver and gallbladder disease.

Any disease that affects red blood cells, the liver, and/or the gallbladder can significantly affect bilirubin creation, thereby leading to jaundice. Though it’s often referred to in the same context as liver disease, it is important to understand that jaundice can occur due to other diseases.

Unfortunately, jaundice is a common occurrence in dogs and a common cause of humane euthanasia. While jaundice itself is not contagious, there are some underlying causes that can be contagious, or even zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from animals to people. This is seen in diseases such as leptospirosis

Symptoms of Jaundice in Dogs

Due to the diverse range of conditions that can cause jaundice as a symptom, your dog may also experience some of the following:

Causes of Jaundice in Dogs

As bilirubin levels rise, jaundice is first noticed in a dog’s blood. With the progression of the disease, the yellowing of the eyes, gums, and skin becomes increasingly noticeable. Because jaundice is a symptom of several diseases, diagnosing the root cause can be difficult for veterinarians.

Some causes of jaundice may include:

  • Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA) or other conditions known to cause destruction of red blood cells

  • Infections:

    • Fungal diseases such as histoplasmosis

    • Tick-borne diseases such as ehrlichiosis

    • Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease

    • Parasites, such as liver flukes and Babesia canis

    • Viral infections such as adenovirus

  • Snakebite venom

  • Toxins:

  • Cancer

  • Liver failure

  • Blood transfusion reactions/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 the accumulation of abnormal proteins within the liver

  • Copper-associated hepatopathy, often seen in specific breeds like Bedlington Terriers, where abnormal copper accumulation within the liver causes damage

  • Portosystemic shunts (PSS) or acquired liver shunts, usually a congenital issue in which a vessel doesn’t close in utero, allowing unfiltered blood (blood containing waste products) to bypass the liver and enter the main circulatory system.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Jaundice in Dogs

Your vet may perform various tests—including a complete blood cell count (CBC), the checking of your dog’s internal organ function, and urinalysis.

These tests can be useful in detecting and diagnosing the underlying cause of jaundice. Since jaundice is a symptom that is easily detected during a routine physical exam, your veterinarian will be able to narrow down the list of tests needed to expedite a diagnosis. 

To provide a definitive diagnosis, your vet may need to take a sample of your dog’s liver. This can be done either surgically or through an ultrasound-guided needle biopsy, where a needle is inserted directly into the liver.

The samples obtained can be submitted for culture (to detect evidence of bacterial infection), histopathology (to examine cell and tissue structure), or toxicology.

Be sure to tell your veterinarian about any recent travel history or exposure to rural areas, standing bodies of water, or regions populated by wildlife.

Some diseases are common in specific areas, and this information will help your vet take proper precautions and fast-track testing and treatment for your pup.

Treatment of Jaundice in Dogs

The curability of jaundice in dogs depends on the underlying cause, and early treatment is key for a successful recovery. Medications and diet are often the primary therapies recommended by vets. 

Medications such as SAMe, acetylcysteine, vitamins E and K, and ursodiol are often used to treat liver and gallbladder disease. Supportive care may also be given. This includes:

  • IV fluids

  • Antibiotics

  • Pain medications

  • Appetite stimulants

  • Antacids

  • Anti-nausea medications

  • Feeding tubes, which might be recommended to slow disease progression and provide the liver with time to regenerate. 

When jaundice is attributed to diseases affecting red blood cells, blood transfusions may be necessary, along with 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 be amendable with chemotherapy or surgery. 

Since the liver plays a vital role in digestion and nutrient metabolism, providing a diet that lessens stress on the liver can be helpful. The diet should be highly palatable and provide enough calories for a dog to maintain body weight, or easy to digest. Depending on the underlying cause, some dogs may be prescribed special diets like Hill’s® l/d or Royal Canin® Hepatic, which are formulated to provide adequate protein, more antioxidants, and lower amounts of certain minerals like copper that can be harmful to a dog’s liver.

Smaller, more frequent meals may be accepted more easily by your dog. Be sure to discuss an appropriate diet for your dog with your veterinarian. 

Recovery and Management of Jaundice in Dogs

The liver has the unique ability to regenerate, and for certain diseases, when caught early and treated aggressively, dogs can have a good prognosis and go on to live a normal life. Conditions like gallbladder mucoceles and certain types of infections and toxin ingestions are good examples.

Other conditions, such as IMHA or acquired liver shunts, can be managed with lifelong medications and diet.

It’s important that you adhere to your veterinarian’s recommendations and recheck guidelines since these dogs will require ongoing monitoring. 

For some dogs with extensive disease or a poor prognosis, humane euthanasia may be recommended by your vet.

Prevention of Jaundice in Dogs

Most diseases that lead to jaundice in dogs are not preventable, but there are some that can be avoided. Here are some tips for reducing your dog’s risk:

  • Do not administer any human medications or improper dosages of drugs to your dog and keep these items securely out of your dog’s reach. 

  • Keep your dog on tick prevention, check regularly for ticks, and stay current with vaccinations, particularly for leptospirosis. 

  • Take steps to avoid sources of possible bacterial contamination:

    • Restrict access to standing water.

    • Avoid contact with wildlife.

    • Use pest control as needed.

    • Control and prevent access to garbage.

Jaundice in Dogs FAQs

Is there at-home treatment for dogs with jaundice?

Treatment for jaundice requires proper diagnosis and therapy of the underlying disease process, which requires veterinary expertise.

Dogs with jaundice are seriously ill and should be evaluated immediately. Do not delay getting your dog the care they need!

Featured Image: eclipse_images/E+ via Getty Images

Michael Kearley, DVM


Michael Kearley, DVM


Dr. Michael Kearley graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. He graduated with a certificate in...

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