Yellow Eyes or Skin (Jaundice) in Dogs

Key Takeaways

Yellow pigmentation of the eyes, gums, nostrils, and ears is called jaundice or icterus.

• Jaundice occurs when there is a buildup of bilirubin, a yellowish pigment released during red blood cell breakdown and normally excreted in bile

• When the production, processing, or excretion of bilirubin is abnormal, blood levels rise, becoming visible through thin external membranes

• Dogs showing signs of jaundice require prompt medical attention

• The most common causes of jaundice include liver disease, hemolytic blood disorders, bile duct obstruction, and poisoning

• Diagnosing the cause of jaundice includes a physical examination, blood work and diagnostic imaging

• Biopsy may be required in some cases

• Treatment and prognosis depend on what the underlying condition is

A Closer Look: What is Jaundice in Dogs?

The concentration of bilirubin in the bloodstream needs to be approximately six times higher than normal before outward signs of jaundice are noticeable. This concentration of bilirubin is indicative of serious liver damage and malfunction. Bilirubin is toxic at high levels, and can cause injury to the liver, kidney, and brain. Jaundice is a clear indication of a serious issue; it is not something that resolves on its own. Dogs showing signs of jaundice require prompt veterinary care. Dogs that have pale gums, weakness, extreme lethargy, or collapse require emergency medical care. 

There are a wide variety of conditions that cause jaundice. The liver is essential in filtering various substances and wastes from the bloodstream, including bilirubin. In dogs with liver disease, the liver does not function properly, making it difficult to remove bilirubin. 

A common cause of jaundice in dogs is immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. In this condition, the body falsely recognizes red blood cells as foreign entities, and begins attacking them. With higher numbers of blood cells being destroyed, higher levels of bilirubin are produced and the liver cannot keep up with excretion. The presence of toxins in the body can also cause the destruction of red blood cells and  lead to jaundice as can bile duct obstructions which prevent normal filtration of bilirubin.

Possible Causes

Liver-related causes of jaundice include:

• Immune-mediated hemolytic anemia • Inflammatory diseases • Infectious diseases • Portosystemic shunts

• Liver tumors or cancer • Toxicosis (poisoning) • Gallstones or other bile duct obstructions

Risk Factors

Elevated levels of bilirubin cause a variation in the intensity of yellow pigment visible through the membranes, and is not indicative of the severity of disease. Any condition that causes jaundice can produce mild, moderate, or severe jaundice, depending on the amount of bilirubin that accumulates. Generally, conditions that impact bilirubin excretion, such as bile duct obstructions, cause more severe yellowing of the tissue.

Testing and Diagnosis

Jaundice itself is simple to diagnose as it is a clearly visible symptom. Further tests are needed to determine the underlying cause and may include:

• Physical examination • Blood tests • Urinalysis • Diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or ultrasound • Liver biopsy

• Surgery

Treatment is different depending on the cause and each individual patient. Possible approaches include:

• Liver protectants • Surgery • Medications specific to the underlying condition • Fluid therapy • Blood transfusions

Similar symptoms

Considering the very characteristic yellowing of the skin and membranes, it is difficult to mistake other symptoms for jaundice.

Associated Symptoms

Symptoms that occur with jaundice vary, and include:

LethargyVomiting • Weakness • Loss of appetite • Abdominal pain • Dark red or brown spots on the gums or skin

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