Supporting liver function and detoxification in canine patients

An exploration on how to protect the canine liver and support its function with detoxification, proper diet, antioxidants and supplements.

Liver disease can be a slow and insidious process. Dogs that are overweight, suffer from diabetes, or have reoccurring episodes of pancreatitis are most susceptible. Inappropriate diets (high fat, high carbohydrate, rancid or moldy ingredients) and inadequate antioxidant function by the liver are the usual causes behind the onset of fatty liver disease and cirrhosis.

Causes ofLiver Dysfunction

Liver-damaging factors are everywhere

The liver is an important organ for survival. It processes and detoxifies digested food molecules into the energy and nutrients needed to feed and sustain the body. It protects the body against the onslaught of harmful pollutants in drinking water, food and air. These compounds and chemicals cause oxidative stress and DNA damage to liver cells, resulting in poor function, fibrosis, cirrhosis and possibly cancer. Unfortunately, our current world abounds in toxins and other factors that can damage the liver.

  • Many liver-damaging environmental toxins commonly appear in our food, air and water. And with many pet food companies using contaminated ingredients from China and other countries, a great deal of dog food is contaminated by aflatoxins, heavy metals, fluoride, pesticides, and other environmental toxins. Many of these ingredients have been “condemned for human use”, including meat from rendering plants that is not fit for consumption.1
  • Veterinarians are also prescribing more monthly flea and tick preventive chemicals than ever before (in part due to the rising incidence of Lyme and other tick-borne diseases), as well as concurrently prescribing heartworm medications, NSAIDS, phenobarbital, steroids and antibiotics. All these need to be detoxified by the liver.

about the liver

  • With the increased popularity of certain breeds comes the increased incidence of associated genetic problems, a few of which affect the liver. Bedlington Terriers, Doberman Pinschers and Labrador Retrievers are susceptible to copper storage disease, while toy breeds such as Maltese, Yorkshire Terriers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are often born with liver shunt anomalies; Scottish Terriers can be susceptible to both diseases.2
  • As human habitation continues to encroach on wildlife, whether in the city or countryside, unimmunized and at-risk dogs may become infected with hepatitis due to leptospirosis, or CAV-1 virus from exposure to coyotes, raccoons and other wildlife (bears, mink, ferrets, skunks, foxes). Adenovirus (CAV-1) consists of medium-sized double-stranded DNA molecules, which cause hepato-cellular degeneration and necrosis, resulting in chronic liver disease in adult animals and a high fatality rate in puppies.3

Symptoms of Liver Dysfunction

The liver has many functions

The liver is one of the largest internal organs in the body and has over 500 functions. One of the most important is to process ingredients from the diet into nutritive factors that support regeneration in the body. The liver creates vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes, glucosamine, carnitine and hormones, and generates and stores energy in the form of glycogen, while assisting in the distribution of nutrients to the appropriate organs and tissues.

The liver is also important in the detoxification and subsequent removal of toxic substances from the body. In the process, liver cells may die and tissues may become fibrotic or necrotic. A well-functioning liver will help patients with renal problems maintain lower blood ammonia levels.

Additionally, the liver functions in transporting immune complexes from serum into bile which, when secreted into the GI system, protects against pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

In Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) terms, the Liver stores the Blood and manages and regulates the Qi (Energy) flow in the body. The Liver assists digestion and improves the Quality of the Blood.4

Supplements: the liver needs protection and support for regeneration

A good liver supplement should do the following:

  1. Provide hepato-protection from toxins, which cause DNA damage. These toxins include metabolic waste, oxidation, and environmental toxins, as well as veterinary drugs, pesticides, and chemicals in the food and water.
  2. Improve function (transform and utilize food, dietary substances, and energy), including interactions with the pancreas, gall bladder, and intestines. The liver should break down carbohydrates and fat into energy, and create and recycle antioxidants.
  3. Regenerate new hepatocytes, reverse fibrosis, and improve intra-hepatic blood flow.
  4. Assist in detoxification of toxic metabolic by-products, toxins and heavy metals.
  5. Support related organs by decreasing toxins and oxidative stress on the heart, kidney, pancreas, and intestines.
  6. Protect against pathogens, viruses and bacteria, and parasites.
  7. Support Deficiencies (TCM) such as Liver Yin, Liver Blood, and Spleen Qi.
  8. Mollify Stagnant Liver Qi (TCM) if present.

Before detoxification

Before fasting and a “heavy” detoxification program (dredging the Liver), one needs to observe and determine which Deficiencies must be mollified with Tonification (food, herbs, acupuncture). A very deficient patient might not react well to detoxification alone. There are specific TCM formulas from which to choose, based on the patient’s specific needs and situation.

It’s also important to know what we are trying to accomplish. Are we detoxifying an environmental toxin in an acute situation? Or mollifying a chronic buildup of fat, toxic metabolic waste by-products, heavy metals or pesticides?

Because of the liver’s complexity, in this author’s opinion, supporting its many functions with herbs, food and supplements is necessary during a detoxification process.

The detoxification process in the liver occurs in two phases

It is important to understand the two phases of detoxification and the specific kinds of toxins we intend to remove from the body.

The liver transforms fat-soluble toxins into water-soluble form so they can be released through the kidneys (for elimination in the urine), skin (in dogs and horses), sweat glands, and into the bile (for elimination through the colon). How does the liver do this?

Phase 1 of detoxification is very complex and includes oxidation-reduction and hydrolysis reactions.  The process is catalyzed by enzymes classified as P-450, which reside in the liver cells. Generally, these enzymes are triggered by exogenous toxins, releasing a mechanism that safeguards and protects.

After the fat toxins are converted to water-soluble compounds and processed in Phase 2, they are eliminated from the body in the form of feces, urine or sweat.

Certain herbs, vitamins and antioxidants have proven to play an important role in supporting both liver function and detoxification. Understanding which supplements support Phase1 and Phase 2 will enhance your therapeutic results.

Summary of Therapeutic Properties

What about fasting?

Generally, dogs that are not feeling well will fast themselves, although this can be upsetting for the client. Not eating for a day or more may be a good thing as long as the dog is hydrated with fluids and minerals such as coconut water.

In patients that are geriatric, obese (with fatty liver disease), have Stagnant Liver Qi, or are suffering from GI distress, a one-day fast should be beneficial perhaps every ten days.  Administering coconut water with a probiotic to the patient four to six times on that day might quell the GI upsets, and improve the dog’s appetite.

For a longer fast up to three days, a “green drink” might be more useful for providing hydration and antioxidants, as well as minerals.

Perhaps for more fragile patient, a bone and shiitake mushroom broth can be administered during the fast for one to three days, providing both nutrition and detoxification.

Once the animal’s appetite returns to some degree, herbs and supplements to support more detoxification and liver function can be slowly added into the program. I personally like to start with medicinal mushrooms, making a “tonic” with reishi, shiitake and Cordyceps mixed in a B-complex liver syrup. After seven to ten days, I add a product with NAC (N-acetyl cysteine), vitamins C  and E, dandelion, milk thistle, turmeric and SOD (superoxide dismutase), along with a probiotic blend that works in the colon (Bifidobacterium strains, Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus coagulans) for gradual support and detoxification.

Note: It is vital for clients to understand that fasting should be undertaken only under the careful guidance of a knowledgeable veterinarian.

liver detox process

Dietary considerations

Preventing liver disease is the best intervention. Learning how to prepare the appropriate food at home with human grade meats, fish, eggs and vegetables is the foundation of health, as well as avoiding toxins in the environment.

Diets for liver-compromised patients should be low in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates to prevent further oxidative stress to the liver, pancreas and gallbladder.5 Dogs with liver disease should eat diets high in methionine, cysteine, taurine, selenium, Omega-3 and zinc.

A good liver diet should consist of:

  • Chicken and turkey meat (vitamin B6, selenium and phosphorus)
  • Eggs (methionine, B vitamins, vitamin D, selenium and iron, as well as high biological value protein)
  • Oats (cysteine, selenium, vitamin B1 and manganese.)
  • Yogurt (methionine, calcium, phosphorus, iodine, zinc, potassium and vitamins B2 and B12)
  • Broccoli (methionine, vitamin C, biotin, B2, B6, folic acid, manganese, potassium and antioxidants)
  • Beef, lamb and pork liver (taurine, high biological value protein)
  • Ocean fish, salmon (taurine, Omega 3)

This does not mean the dog should eat all the foods listed above every day. One must rotate the proteins and vegetables to create a diverse and balanced diet.

Though a wide range of factors can cause poor liver function and lead to potentially life-threatening damage and disease, an integrative approach that includes detoxification, supplementation, dietary changes and preventive measures can help protect your canine patients.

recipes for liver detoxification

**This article has been peer reviewed


1Fox, Michael, WB, Vet Med, PhD, DSc, MRCVS. Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food, Quill Driver Books Fresno, CA 2009.

2Morgan Rhea, V., Bright Ronald M., Swartout Margaret S. Handbook of Small Animal Practice, 4th Ed, Elsevier Science, USA, 2003.

3Stone D, Lieber, A. Current Opinion in Molecular Therapeutics, 2006, 8:423-431.

4Beinfield Harriet, LAc, Korngold, Efrem, LAc, OMD. Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine, Ballantine Books, 1991.

5Basko, Ihor, DVM. Fresh Food and Ancient Wisdom: Preparing Healthy and Balanced Meals for Your Dogs, Mill City Press. Minneapolis 2010 Chapter 12 pg 205-23.


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