Symptoms of Jaundice in Dogs

Jaundice or icterus describes the yellow color of the certain body tissues throughout the body due to elevated levels of bilirubin, resulting from the breakdown of red blood cells. This abnormal condition appears as a yellowing of the skin, the whites of the eyes and the mucous membranes of the gums and mouth. Jaundice is not a disease but a symptom of several canine illnesses.

Causes of Jaundice

There are three classifications of this condition: pre-hepatic, hepatic and post-hepatic. Hepatic refers to the liver.

Pre-hepatic or hemolytic causes occur before the blood passes through the liver and results from the breakdown of red blood cells.

Causes include:

  • Drugs
  • Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia
  • Tumors of the blood vessels, such as hemangiosarcoma
  • Blood parasites, such as hemobartonellosis or babesiosis
  • Certain toxins, such as the ingestion of zinc pennies or onions
  • Blood transfusion reactions
  • Heartworm disease, such as vena cava syndrome 

Hepatic causes are disorders associated with the liver and its functions.

Causes include:

  • Certain drugs, such as thiacetarsamide, phenobarbital, corticosteroids, halothane, carprofen or chemotherapeutic drugs
  • Infections that are viral, protozoal or bacterial in nature
  • Cancer
  • Toxins, such as copper, heavy metals and certain other chemicals
  • Inflammatory diseases of the liver (hepatitis), bile duct system (cholangitis) or of both combined (cholangiohepatitis)
  • Cirrhosis or severe, end-stage liver disease 

Post-hepatic causes are disorders occurring after blood passes through the liver and can include disorders resulting in the blockage of the bile flow from the liver.

Causes include:

  • Intestinal diseases that block bile ducts
  • Pancreatic diseases, such as pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer
  • Gall bladder diseases, such as cancer, gall stones, or the inflammation of the bile duct or gall bladder

Symptoms of Jaundice

Since jaundice is an indication of a number of different diseases, it is important to observe or determine any other reactions or changes in behavior or habits in order to correctly diagnosis the underlying cause.

The following is a list of symptoms for jaundice:

  • Yellow coloring of the mucous membranes of the gums, mouth and whites of the eyes
  • Yellow coloring of the skin, especially the under belly or abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Paleness
  • Fever
  • Orange colored feces
  • Abnormal bleeding
  • Mental confusion in advanced cases
  • Excessive drinking
  • Excessive urination
  • Lethargy
  • Inflammation of the liver (hepatitis)
  • Tumors
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Loss of body condition
  • Abdominal distension
  • Yellow coloring of the interior part of the ears
  • Dark yellow, almost brown, urine

Diagnosis and Treatment

A veterinarian will perform the following tests to diagnosis jaundice:

  • Blood count
  • Blood serum chemistry panel to check for anemia, bilirubin levels and liver function
  • X-rays
  • Serologic tests for infectious diseases
  • Liver biopsy
  • Coagulation profiles to assess blood clotting
  • Urinalysis
  • Ultrasound to check for stones or tumors

Treatment will be determined by the underlying cause and can include antibiotics, blood transfusions, intravenous fluid and/or electrolyte therapy, rest, avoidance of stress, discontinuance of any therapy started before the onset of jaundice, avoidance of any drugs or environmental substances that could be triggers for jaundice, therapy for liver disease and even surgery to remove stones.