Primer on Liver Cancer

Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD
and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS 

Liver cancer is most common in older dogs. 

Tumors can originate in the liver, which is called primary liver cancer, or can reach the liver from other areas through metastasis, the process by which cancer cells from the primary tumor site move to other parts of the body -- such as the liver -- via the blood or lymph fluid.

Liver cancer may involve one or multiple lobes of the liver.

Signs of liver cancer can be very general and often include loss of appetite, weight loss, lethargy, and/or vomiting.  More specific signs include jaundice, or swelling and fluid buildup in the abdomen.

Dogs may also experience seizures (or other signs of brain inflammation) as toxins accumulate in the blood and affect the brain, a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy.

Diagnosis of liver cancer usually involves a combination of physical findings, x-rays or ultrasound, and blood tests.  

Blood tests often reveal high levels of liver enzymes and/or bile acids.  To confirm the diagnosis, your veterinarian may want to take a biopsy, which involves inserting a needle through the abdomen into the liver, in order to remove cells or sections of tissue for microscopic evaluation.

An isolated tumor involving only a single liver lobe can be removed surgically, with follow-up chemotherapy recommended for certain types of cancers (eg, lymphoma).

However, tumors involving multiple liver lobes, or those that have already metastasized to/from other organs, are difficult to treat and carry a poor prognosis.

Your vet may prescribe palliative therapy, such as corticosteroids or a specialized diet, to temporarily help your pet feel better and reduce the amount of work the liver normally does in the body.


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