Understanding jaundice (yellow skin) in dogs

Understanding jaundice (yellow skin) in dogs

Health & Safety

Dogs come in a variety of different colours and patterns, with some dogs having pink skin, some black, and some a combination of patches of both, depending on the shade of their coat and the distribution of different colours of fur.

However, one colour that your dog’s skin should never be is yellow – and yellow skin is called jaundice, and indicates that something is acutely wrong with your dog, which should be investigated promptly.

In this article, we will explain how to recognise jaundice in the dog, and look at some of the health conditions that can cause jaundice, and what they mean. Read on to learn more.

What is jaundice?

Jaundice is the term used to refer to yellowing of the body’s mucous membranes, which generally affects areas such as the gums, whites of the eyes, and nostrils, but can cause the whole of the dog’s skin to appear yellow if very pronounced. Jaundice occurs when high levels of bilirubin – or a type of bile – build up in the body due to the destruction of red blood cells, and is caused by the yellow pigmentation present in the bile.

Overly high levels of bilirubin can’t be eliminated from the body at the normal rate, and so, begin to build up in the body’s tissues, including the organs and the skin.

As well as causing yellowing of the mucous membranes and skin, the high levels of bilirubin that cause jaundice are also toxic, and can cause damage to the major organs such as the brain, liver and kidneys, which cannot always be reversed.

Recognising jaundice in dogs

A dog whose skin has turned yellow due to jaundice will usually be quite obvious – but by this stage, the problem is apt to be very pronounced, and may have already begun to compromise the major organs.

To spot yellowing of the skin, you will first need to be familiar with your dog’s normal skin tone, and part the coat right down to the skin to look for changes. However, spotting jaundice affecting the mucous membranes and so, in the earlier stages of progression, is rather different.

Your dog’s gums and the inside of their eyelids are mucous membranes, and you can check them for colour by simply raising your dog’s lip to view their gums, or checking the mucous membranes within their eyes.

What causes jaundice in dogs?

There are a wide range of different underlying health conditions and problems that can cause jaundice in dogs, and it is important to remember that jaundice is a symptom rather than a condition in and of itself.

Problems with the liver are those most likely to lead to jaundice, as the liver is one of the areas of the body that produces bilirubin, along with the bone marrow itself.

Some of the most common causes of jaundice in dogs include:

  • Poisoning or toxin ingestion that affects the liver.
  • Injuries or trauma to the liver, such as may happen if your dog is hit by a car. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to get your dog checked out by the vet if they suffer a potentially serious injury, even if they look and appear to be fine afterwards.
  • Hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver.
  • Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, which can occur as a secondary complication of liver damage or another underlying disease.
  • Infections that affect the liver.
  • Receiving a blood transfusion that is incompatible or rejected by the dog’s body – however, this is very uncommon, partially because blood transfusions in dogs are not that common but largely because dogs are blood typed before transfusions in order to prevent specific problems of this type.
  • The usage of certain veterinary medicines that can lead to high rates of destruction of red blood cells, causing bilirubin production to increase.
  • Internal bleeding or blood pooling or collecting within body cavities, such as can be caused by internal injuries, certain clotting disorders, and other diseases.
  • Cancerous tumours and other types of abnormal growths that can affect the liver.
  • Pancreatic infection, inflammation or damage that leads to an obstruction of the normal production and elimination of bilirubin.
  • Any other illness or canine health condition that alters or interferes with the red blood cells or bilirubin production and elimination.

What to do if your dog is displaying jaundice

The causes of jaundice in dogs can be highly variable, but they are all serious and often acute, and are not likely to go away on their own. If you spot jaundice or yellowing of your dog’s skin – even if it is very subtle – contact your vet immediately.

Prompt intervention to try to treat the underlying issue or reverse or slow down the progression of any disease causing the problem is the key to giving your dog the best possible chances of successful treatment and survival, and jaundice is not a condition that will hold up well with a “wait and see” approach.



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