Hepatitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Prognosis & Treatment

Infectious canine hepatitis is a contagious disease that targets a number of organs. In this post, our Flat Rock vets explain symptoms of hepatitis in dogs, prognosis and other aspects. 


What is hepatitis in dogs?

Hepatitis in dogs is classified into two categories:

Infectious Canine Hepatitis

Infectious canine hepatitis is an acute contagious disease caused by the canine adenovirus 1. This virus targets the spleen, kidneys, lungs, liver, lining of blood vessels and sometimes other organs. Symptoms can vary widely - from slight fever, thirst or apathy to death.

Canine Chronic Hepatitis

Canine chronic hepatitis is associated with infectious canine hepatitis. It means that at some point, the liver has become inflamed and necrosis (cell death) has occurred.

Breeds that seem to be predisposed to this disease include Chihuahuas, Springer Spaniels, Beagles, Maltese, West Highland White Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Bedlington Terriers, Skye Terriers, Doberman Pinschers, and Standard Poodles.

For some breeds, an accumulation of copper in the liver’s cells can result in chronic hepatitis. An excessive amount of copper can damage the liver’s cells and often leads to severe chronic hepatitis if left untreated.

Chronic means the infection has been damaging cells for some time (at least a few weeks). While acute hepatitis can manifest over just a few days.

What are symptoms of hepatitis in dogs?

Symptoms of infectious canine hepatitis can include:

  • Slight fever
  • Deficiency of blood clotting
  • Low white blood cell count
  • Congestion of mucous membranes
  • Severe reduction in white blood cells
  • Apathy
  • Thirst
  • Loss of appetite
  • Blindness
  • Enlarged tonsils
  • Eye inflammation
  • Vomiting (occasional)
  • Abdominal pain (occasional)
  • Severe depression
  • Watery discharge from eyes and nose
  • Yellow, jaundiced look to skin, gums and ears
  • Swollen belly filled with fluid (chronic cases)

Severe cases:

  • Bruised or reddened nose and mouth
  • Swelling (lymph nodes, neck, head)
  • Red dots on skin
  • Seizures
  • Death

Very young dogs have the highest mortality rate for canine hepatitis. Fever higher than 104°F (40°C) is the first sign to appear and lasts between 1 and 6 days, usually occurring in two stages. Your vet may notice a low white blood cell count along with short fever - one clue that your pup has become infected with the condition.

If the fever progresses past 1 day, your vet may take note of other symptoms as well, such as enlarged tonsils or inflamed eyes. There may also be serious, spontaneous bleeding due to insufficient clotting and faster heart rate.

Though symptoms involving the central nervous system and respiratory system are not typical, brain damage can lead to seizures for severely infected dogs. Bleeding in the brain may also cause slight paralysis.

Though the disease has become uncommon in areas where routine vaccinations are administered, owners must remain vigilant as the disease can develop and progress quickly in both puppies and dogs.

What causes infectious canine hepatitis in dogs?

The most common way dogs become infected with canine hepatitis is by consuming nasal discharge, saliva, feces or urine from infected dogs. Dogs that have recovered from the disease shed the virus in their urine for at least 6 months.

What is the prognosis?

After they recover from the disease, dogs may experience immune-complex reactions that can cause clouding in the eye’s cornea and lead to kidney damage long-term. Though some cases of acute hepatitis can be cured, chronic hepatitis cannot be cured.

Dogs with chronic hepatitis will need monitoring and treatment so they can enjoy good quality of life and longevity, with minimal clinical signs.

How can I prevent canine hepatitis?

The most widely used and important preventive measure for infectious canine hepatitis is a mandatory vaccine. Your dog will usually receive this in addition to his canine distemper vaccinations (most puppies should start their vaccinations between the ages of 6 and 8 weeks).

Ask your veterinarian how frequently your dog should receive hepatitis vaccinations - it’s imperative that they get the right vaccines at the right age. They will likely need this specific vaccine at about 7 to 9 weeks of age, with the first booster between 11 and 13 weeks, after which they’ll be protected.

To remain protected, they’ll need to keep up with booster injections throughout their life - with another at 15 months, then each year to prevent infection.

How is hepatitis diagnosed and treated?

If you notice any symptoms listed above, contact your vet right away. Typically, sudden onset of the condition and bleeding point to canine hepatitis as the culprit.

However, laboratory tests (including antibody tests, blood tests and immunofluorescence scanning) are needed to diagnose the disease. If severely ill, your dog may also need blood transfusions.

Occasionally, chronic hepatitis in dogs is discovered via a routine blood health panel and the disease can be diagnosed before symptoms develop. Once your dog begins to display signs of liver disease, the condition has often progressed to a very late stage.

Your vet can make a definitive diagnosis by taking a liver biopsy, which will determine the severity and type of liver disease.

Depending on which results the biopsy reveals, your vet may recommend treating the disease with a broad-spectrum antibiotic, anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive medication.

Sometimes, cornea clouding in the eye can be associated with painful spasms, and your vet may prescribe an eye ointment to alleviate pain. If your dog is experiencing clouding in the cornea, his eye should be protected from bright light.

Treatment options can range from intravenous fluid therapy to hospitalization. Blood work will need to be taken on a regular basis and your pooch will need to be monitored.

Have you noticed symptoms of infectious or acute canine hepatitis in your dog? Our Flat Rock vets are experienced in diagnosing a variety of conditions and illnesses. Contact us today.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Have your noticed symptoms of infectious or acute canine hepatitis in your dog? Our Flat Rock vets are experienced in diagnosing a number of conditions and illnesses. Contact our office today to book an appointment.

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