Liver Cancer in Dogs

A Pet Owners Guide to Liver Cancer in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Katelyn Son
By Katelyn Son
Medically reviewed by Jamie Freyer
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What is Liver Cancer in Dogs?

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Liver cancer in dogs is, in fact, a benign or malignant tumor type that stems from abnormally growing cells in the liver. Liver tumors can be classified as benign and malignant (cancerous tumors). 

The group of benign liver tumors includes hepatomas, hepatocellular adenomas, hemangiomas, bile duct adenomas, and leiomyomas. Malignant liver tumors can occur in various forms, with hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) being the most common. 

Liver cancers can also be categorized as primary (if they originate from the liver itself) and secondary (if they are metastatic cancers that spread to the liver from other body parts). 

The primary types of liver cancer in dogs can be classified into four groups: 

  • Hepatocellular tumors
  • Bile duct tumors (biliary cystadenoma and bile duct carcinoma)
  • Neuroendocrine tumors (carcinoids)
  • Hepatic sarcomas

In general, liver cancer in dogs is not a particularly common type of tumor. If a tumor is found on the dog’s liver, chances are it is secondary (metastatic cancer). 

What is Hepatocellular Carcinoma (HCC) in Dogs?

Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is a malignant form of liver cancer in dogs. HCC stems from the cells that line the liver’s surface and cavities. It is also the most common type of liver cancer in dogs.   

Hepatocellular carcinoma manifests in three ways: 

  • Massive tumors – when there is one large tumor on one of the dog’s liver lobes
  • Nodular tumors – when there are multiple smaller masses on different liver lobes
  • Diffuse tumors – when there is no clear margin and cancer affects the entire liver.

Massive hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of HCC. This is good news since removing the affected liver tissue is relatively easy, especially if the rate of metastasis is low and there is no tumor spreading to other organs. 

What Happens When a Dog Gets Liver Cancer?

Dog tumors of the liver are often present without many clinical signs. In fact, liver cancer in dogs is often described as a “silent killer.”

Liver cancer in dogs grows slowly and does not trigger any visible signs and symptoms until the condition is quite advanced. Even when the signs and symptoms become apparent, they are non-specific and can easily be mistaken for other liver diseases. 

What Causes Liver Cancer in Dogs?

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Most of the time, the cause of liver cancer in dogs remains unknown. Cancer in small animals is considered to arise from a mix of factors, such as:

  • Environment. Exposure to carcinogens and chemicals (tobacco smoke, pesticides, additives) increases the risk of liver cancer in dogs. 
  • Genetics. Liver cancer in dogs, especially hepatocellular carcinoma, is likely to occur in breeds like German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers. 
  • Liver Health. Liver cancer has higher chances of developing in dogs with pre-existing liver diseases (liver damage or liver inflammation). 

Finally, we should note that liver cancer in dogs, is more common in seniors. However, this does not mean that puppies and young dogs cannot develop liver tumors. 

What are the Symptoms of Liver Cancer in Dogs?

In the early stages, liver cancer in dogs is asymptomatic. If there are visible symptoms of liver cancer in dogs, it can mean that the condition is advanced. 

Here are some of the symptoms of liver cancer in dogs: 

  • Fever (increased body temperature)
  • Lethargy and weakness 
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Excess thirst and drinking 
  • Increased urination
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss or gain.

Disorientation, stumbling, seizures, and other neurological signs are less common symptoms of liver cancer in dogs but are possible. 

If your dog is showing some of the above-mentioned signs, you need to call your trusted vet and schedule an appointment. 

What are the Early Signs of Liver Cancer in Dogs?

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The bad news is there are often no early signs of liver cancer in dogs. As already explained, liver cancer in dogs triggers non-specific signs and only in the late stages of the condition. In such cases, pet owners can expect:

  • Fever
  • Appetite loss
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Lethargy

Therefore, it is important to stay on top of your dog’s health and take them in for regular, routine vet visits. Also, if there is a troublesome sign or symptom, schedule an extra visit and have your dog examined. 

Diagnosing Liver Cancer in Dogs

The diagnosis of liver cancer in dogs starts with a physical examination. In a dog with liver cancer, the vet may be able to notice liver enlargement during abdominal palpation. The dog is likely to show signs of abdominal pain while the vet is palpating. 

Once the vet suspects liver cancer, they will order bloodwork and urinalysis to evaluate the extent of the liver dysfunction. Increased liver enzymes are one of the telltale signs of liver abnormalities. 

Based on these initial findings, the vet will order additional tests such as abdominal x-rays (radiographs) and abdominal ultrasounds. For a more definitive diagnosis, the veterinarian will perform needle aspirations or biopsy – this will also help determine the type of liver cancer.  

How do You Treat Liver Cancer in Dogs?

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There are different treatment options for liver cancer in dogs – some can be used alone and others combined. Which liver cancer in dogs treatment is best depends on several factors. 

Here is a short overview of the different treatments for liver cancer in dogs. 

Surgical Removal. Surgery is the treatment of choice for primary liver cancer in dogs. Based on the situation, the veterinary surgeon may decide to remove the liver cancer alone or the liver tumor together with the affected liver lobe (lobectomy). A good prognosis is given to dogs undergoing successful surgical removal of liver tumors. 

Systemic Chemotherapy. Different types of liver cancer in dogs are differently sensitive to chemotherapy. Namely, in cases of hepatocellular carcinomas and sarcomas, chemotherapy may delay the progression of the tumor, while neuroendocrine tumors are resistant. 

Chemoembolization. Chemoembolization is a modified version of localized chemotherapy used for inoperable liver cancer in dogs. The vet uses a catheter to inject meds directly into the cancerous liver lobe. As a result, the blood supply to the tumor is blocked, and it shrinks. Chemoembolization is not a definitive cure, but it increases survival time. 

Cannabidiol (CBD). Cannabidiol (CBD) is the latest hit in the pet industry. Pet CBD products are made of hemp and feature health-boosting properties that can help in the management of liver cancer in dogs. We suggest using CBD products from the Honest Paws Well Collection. They check all boxes for quality, safety, and efficacy.  

What can I do to Prevent Liver Cancer in Dogs?

Talking about how to prevent cancer in dogs is a challenging task. This is because the causes of liver cancer in dogs are unknown. 

All you can do to decrease the risk of liver cancer in dogs is to be mindful about your pet’s healthy lifestyle – ensure adequate exercise and provide nutritious food. Since hepatic cancer is asymptomatic, it is also imperative to practice regular veterinary checkups. 

With that being said, it would be a good idea to invest in a good pet insurance plan for your dog. OneVet is the perfect choice for pet owners – it gives 24/7 access to licensed vets, up to $3.000 in emergency funds, and does not exclude dogs with pre-existing conditions. 

In simpler words, with the OneVet plan, you can have your dog’s liver cancer diagnosed in a timely manner and afterward use the emergency coverage to ensure adequate treatment. 

How Long do Dogs Live with Liver Cancer?

Without surgery or other treatment, the average survival time for dogs with liver cancer is around 6 months. Obviously, the timeframe varies based on the tumor stage at the time of diagnosis. With surgery, the survival time increases to one year or more. 

Sadly, there is a poor prognosis for dogs with inoperable liver tumors. The prognosis is also poor for dogs with bile duct carcinoma, in which the median survival time is between 3 and 6 months. 

What are the Final Stages of Liver Failure in Dogs?

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The final stage of any liver disease (liver cancer in dogs included) is liver failure. The clinical signs indicating the final phase of liver cancer or failure include: 

  • Diarrhea and/or vomiting 
  • Lethargy and apathy 
  • Anorexia and weight loss
  • Increased and unusual bleeding
  • Yellow tinge to skin and eyes (jaundice)
  • Behavioral changes 
  • Tremors, seizures, and ataxia

Dogs that have reached the final stage of liver cancer or liver failure are suffering. In such cases, euthanasia is the most humane decision. Discuss the option with your trusted vet to make an educated choice.