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Jaundice in dogs is characterized by the yellowing of skin, eyes, gums, and other mucous membranes. Seeing your dog’s skin change color can be alarming, but it’s important to understand that jaundice is not a disease — it’s a symptom of an underlying health condition.
If you notice changes to your dog’s skin, such as yellowing or a change in color, it likely indicates a health issue. Determining the underlying cause of jaundice is crucial because it can help provide your pet with the early treatment needed to manage or treat various health concerns.
While jaundice is not an underlying disease, it can be a visual symptom of a serious health problem. Keep reading to learn more about jaundice in dogs, what it is, its causes, and treatment options.
What is Jaundice?
Jaundice in dogs, also known as icterus, occurs when the pigment bilirubin — a yellow pigment produced in the liver— accumulates in the tissue and mucous membranes.1 Every dog and human naturally produces bilirubin, but yellowing only occurs when bilirubin accumulates.
Bilirubin is a byproduct of the breakdown of hemoglobin, which is responsible for carrying oxygen in red blood cells and is excreted through bile.2
When there is an increased rate of blood cell breakdown, high levels of bilirubin can accumulate, leading to the yellowing of tissues and mucous membranes. In jaundice, the inability to excrete bilirubin normally causes its accumulation.
Jaundice isn’t a disease; rather, it’s a visible symptom of an underlying condition, which affects either the normal functioning of the liver — how the bilirubin is produced, or disrupts the flow of bile — how the bilirubin is excreted, resulting in accumulation of bilirubin.
The most common symptom of jaundice in dogs is the yellowing of the eyes, skin, and gums. However, depending on the underlying cause, other symptoms may accompany jaundice in dogs, including:
- Abdominal pain
- Reduced appetite
- Changes in the color of urine and feces
- Increased urination
- Increased thirst
- Weight loss
What Causes Jaundice in Dogs?
There are three types of icterus, and determining the type can help your vet diagnose your dog with an underlying condition.
- Prehepatic icterus: Prehepatic icterus occurs when the bilirubin is produced much more quickly than the liver can excrete it in bile.1 This is typically seen in conditions where red blood cells are rapidly destroyed.
- Hepatic icterus: Hepatic icterus occurs when the liver can’t excrete bile properly.1 In these cases, the dog’s body isn’t producing more bilirubin than usual, but their body simply can’t get rid of it, leading to an accumulation.
- Posthepatic: Posthepatic occurs when the liver is properly excreting bilirubin, but the biliary system — the organs that make and store bile and release it into the GI tract — isn’t functioning properly.1
Causes of jaundice in dogs vary depending on the underlying condition. Any disease that causes the destruction of red blood cells or ineffectiveness of the liver and biliary system can cause jaundice. For instance, liver diseases like hepatitis, liver tumors, or liver failure can affect this organ’s ability to process bilirubin, leading to jaundice.
Additionally, conditions affecting the bile duct can disrupt the proper flow of bilirubin, causing jaundice. Identifying the specific underlying cause of jaundice in dogs is crucial for determining the appropriate treatment method.
Common causes of jaundice in dogs include:
- Toxicity like xylitol, prescription medications, heavy metals, etc
- Side effects from prescription medications like Meloxicam
- Infectious diseases like leptospirosis
- Metabolic diseases
- Inflammatory disease
- Anemia and other blood disorders
- Pancreatic disorders like pancreatitis
- Biliary system rupture1
Jaundice itself is easy to diagnose as a symptom because it’s visible. However, since it’s a symptom of a potentially serious underlying condition, your vet will aim to diagnose the underlying cause of jaundice in dogs.
When you visit your vet, they’ll perform a detailed physical examination of your pet and look for signs of jaundice, such as skin, eyes, and gum yellowing. They’ll also review your dog’s overall health and medical history to determine if any previous illnesses, medications, or recent exposure to toxins can help them determine the underlying cause of jaundice.
Your vet may also perform laboratory testing, such as blood testing and urinalysis, to help diagnose underlying conditions that may affect your dog’s ability to produce or expel bilirubin. For instance, a complete blood count can help determine changes in red blood cells that may have led to jaundice.2
The tests performed will ultimately depend on your vet’s assumptions based on the examination and medical history. For instance, they may use more specific tests to help identify underlying causes of jaundice in dogs. Imaging techniques like X-rays and ultrasound may help evaluate the liver, bile ducts, and other internal organs.2 These tests can help identify abnormalities like enlarged liver, tumors, and obstructions.
Through testing, a physical exam, and medical history review, vets can determine the underlying cause of jaundice in dogs. Then, they can find the appropriate treatment method to improve your dog’s condition.
Since jaundice in dogs is a symptom of another underlying condition, your vet will aim to treat the condition causing the yellowing of the eyes, skin, and gums; they won’t target jaundice specifically. Instead, treating the underlying condition will address your dog’s symptoms.
The treatment for jaundice depends on the diagnosed underlying cause and severity of the condition.2 Depending on their findings, your vet might use medical management, dietary adjustments, supportive care, surgery, and overall disease management.
For instance, if your dog is diagnosed with prehepatic jaundice, treatment may include long-term treatment of anemia. Meanwhile, if your dog is experiencing jaundice because of poisoning, your vet will provide supportive care to support the liver and help it expel the toxins.2
Surgery may also be necessary if an obstruction or tumor affects liver function.2 In addition, your vet may offer a solution for managing an underlying disease that leads to jaundice in dogs, such as inflammatory diseases.
Is jaundice painful for dogs?
Jaundice is not painful for dogs, but the underlying condition that causes this symptom can be. For instance, if your dog suffers from an inflammatory disease, they may experience pain when you touch their belly. At the same time, other diseases and conditions, such as obstructions, can cause severe discomfort.
While jaundice may be the most visible, underlying diseases often cause other symptoms that can be uncomfortable or painful for your dog, such as loss of appetite, lethargy, and GI issues.
If your dog has jaundice, you should consult your vet immediately because it could mean they’re experiencing a serious health issue that leads to pain and discomfort.
What is the main cause of jaundice?
Jaundice in dogs is a symptom of an underlying condition. The main cause of the yellowing of the eyes, skin, and gums is the accumulation of bilirubin, a yellow pigment produced during red blood cell breakdown in the liver. The liver processes bilirubin, excreting it through bile. However, a disruption in this process can cause bilirubin to accumulate, causing a yellow appearance in dogs.
Several diseases can cause jaundice as a symptom, such as liver disease, blood disorders, bile duct obstructions, infections, and poisoning. Only a vet can determine the underlying cause of your dog’s symptoms. Using physical examination and diagnostic testing, they can identify the underlying cause to find an appropriate treatment plan.
Can dogs survive jaundice?
The jaundice in dogs survival rate depends on the underlying cause. Since jaundice is a symptom, dogs can survive it, but some serious underlying health conditions can drastically shorten their lifespan.
Because jaundice is a sign of an underlying illness, it should be addressed as soon as possible.
Understanding that jaundice is not a disease but an underlying symptom of a potentially dangerous illness or disease can help you take action faster, getting your dog the early intervention they need for the best prognosis possible.
Only a vet can tell you why your dog is experiencing jaundice and provide appropriate treatment for the underlying condition it signals. Talk to a Dutch vet today if you’ve noticed jaundice in your dog. Our telemedicine for pets platform provides pet parents with access to professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, and treatments to help your dog receive the care they need. Try Dutch today.
Boag, Amanda. “The ICTERIC Patient .” World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2015, www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?id=7259222&pid=14365.
“Yellow Skin (Jaundice) in Dogs.” PetMD, 28 Mar. 2010, www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/digestive/c_dg_jaundice.