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Why does my dog have jaundice?

Jaundice is a fairly common sign in dogs – but it’s important to remember that it is a symptom not a disease in its own right. So, if your dog has suddenly turned yellow, don’t expect us to take one look and prescribe treatment! The technical term for jaundice is icterus, so you may hear us talking about that, as well.

What makes dogs look yellow?

The pigment bilirubin in the blood is yellow in colour; however, the levels are usually very low. If the levels become too high, the blood may change colour; eventually, the gums, pink areas of skin, and the whites of the eyes will also turn yellow.

So what can cause that?

There are three types of jaundice, depending on what is causing the bilirubin levels to rise.

  • Prehepatic

Bilirubin is produced by the breakdown of haemoglobin.
Therefore, increased bilirubin may reflect increased breakdown of red blood cells.
For example, Babesia parasites, or immune mediated haemolytic anaemia.

  • Hepatic

The liver usually removes bilirubin from the blood and excretes it as bile.
Therefore, severe liver inflammation or disease may lead to jaundice.
Examples include hepatitis, some toxins (e.g, paracetamol) and liver tumours.

  • Posthepatic

The bile from the liver is excreted down the bile duct.
So, anything that blocks the bile duct will result in increased bilirubin in the blood.
This would include conditions such as pancreatitis or cholangitis.

So, how do you know what the exact cause is – there are so many possibilities?

Essentially, we have to diagnose the underlying disease condition. This usually starts with blood tests – if the results show that the dog is anaemic, for example, it suggests a Prehepatic disease, whereas increases in liver enzymes are more supportive of a Hepatic condition.

If we suspect a liver condition, an ultrasound scan will allow us to look for problems (like abscesses or tumours) in the liver; it can also tell us if the bile duct is over-full (indicating failure of bile to move and therefore Posthepatic disease).

What can be done about it?

Jaundice alone isn’t that dangerous (although it can make dogs feel pretty lousy), but the underlying conditions are often nasty and potentially fatal if untreated. However, the treatment will depend entirely upon the exact disease condition – for example, in immune mediated haemolytic anaemia we’ll use powerful immune suppressant medication to stop the immune system attacking the red blood cells; for a liver infection we’ll try to support the liver and perhaps use antibiotics to treat the bacteria; and if there’s a tumour blocking the bile duct we can try to remove it.

If you think your dog is jaundiced, get the, checked out by our vets as soon as possible!