Jaundice (Icterus) in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Turning Yellow?

Dog skin comes in a variety of colors; yellow is not one of them.

Jaundice (also known as icterus) is a term describing yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, caused by deposition of bile pigments. The easiest areas to spot jaundice are in the mucosa (such as the gums) and the sclera (whites of the eyes).

Jaundice (Icterus) in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Turning Yellow?

The orange/yellow pigments (bilirubin) is a byproduct of a normal process of breakdown of dead red blood cells in the liver. It has, however, no business ending up anywhere but in bile–make its way through the digestive system and ultimately be eliminated with other waste.

Jaundice is broadly considered a symptom of a liver issue. Is it?

Since the liver is where dead red blood cells are metabolized, it is a reasonable conclusion. Let’s not forget the whole picture, though.

dead red blood cells → liver → galbladder → GI tract

This means that jaundice has three main causes: prehepatic (ie RBC destruction), hepatic (liver disease) and post-hepatic (usually biliary duct obstruction).

Liver disease

Any disease or condition that damages or destroys liver cells can hinder the liver’s ability to process the waste red blood cells. Underlying causes can be infections, toxins, adverse reaction to medications.

Other symptoms of liver disease include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • increased thirst and urination
  • weakness
  • unstable walk
  • confusion
  • unexplained bruising
  • blood in urine
  • blood in stool
  • seizures

Bile duct obstruction

Even if the liver has done its job perfectly but the bile ducts became blocked, everything backs up. Bile flow becomes obstructed and the whole process of bilirubin elimination breaks down.

Other symptoms of bile duct obstruction include:

  • lethargy
  • excessive hunger
  • weight loss
  • unexplained bleeding
  • pale stools
  • orange urine

Red blood cell destruction

When abnormally large numbers of red blood cells are destroyed, the liver is simply unable to keep up. In such a case, jaundice will be accompanied by anemia as well.

Therefore other symptoms that can come with jaundice might include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • lethargy
  • fever
  • paleness
  • increased drinking
  • increased urination
  • bleeding

No matter the cause, jaundice is a serious red flag

If your dog becomes jaundiced, they are VERY unwell. You need to see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Related articles:
Dog Skin Pigmentation Changes: Why Has My Dog’s Skin Changed Color?

Further reading:
Icterus or Jaundice in Dogs

Categories: IcterusJaundiceSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

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