Biliary Disease in Dogs

Dog at the vet's
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Biliary disease is any illness or disease process associated with your dog's gallbladder and surrounding structures such as the bile duct. Your dog's gallbladder is situated in your dog's abdomen next to the liver. It is where the bile created in your dog's liver is stored before it is released into the intestines via the bile duct. Issues can arise from an overproduction of bile, the formation of stones within the gallbladder, and even inflammation of the gallbladder and surrounding organs like the liver and pancreas.

What Is Biliary Disease in Dogs?

Most cases of biliary disease in dogs fall under four different classifications:

Gallbladder Mucoceles (GBMs)

These are accumulations of bile and mucous buildup in the gallbladder. They are typically seen in older dogs, especially those that also have an endocrine disease such as hypothyroidism or Cushing's disease. While a slight accumulation of GBMs may not be clinically significant for your dog, if enough bile and mucous builds up in your dog's gallbladder there could be a risk of the gallbladder itself rupturing and causing a life-threatening blood poisoning.

Cholecystitis

Inflammation of the gallbladder that can be caused by liver trauma, bacterial infections, gallbladder obstruction, cancer, or blood clots. If your gallbladder is inflamed to the point that the integrity of the walls are compromised, bile may leak outside the gallbladder and this can be life-threatening.

Cholelithiasis

Stones formed within the gallbladder and are seen most often in middle-aged to older female, small breed dogs. They can lead to obstructions and cholecystitis.

Cancers

Tumors or cancers that are either associated directly with the gallbladder or have metastasized to the gallbladder.

Symptoms of Biliary Disease in Dogs

Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin, gums, and sclera (the whites of your dog's eyes) is one of the most common symptoms of biliary disease in dogs. Other symptoms can include things like a loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fever. If your dog starts exhibiting any of these symptoms seek veterinary attention. Most of these symptoms are considered to be non-specific gastrointestinal signs, so if your dog is experiencing any combination of them the culprit may not be biliary disease but it may be something else instead. Some dogs with biliary disease may not show any signs of their illness at all. In fact, gallstones are usually found incidentally when performing an x-ray or ultrasound for a different reason.

Diagnosing Biliary Disease in Dogs

Because most of the symptoms of biliary disease are 'non-specific' diagnosing biliary disease can be tricky. It's not exactly the most common reason for a dog to stop eating, to having vomiting and diarrhea, or even to have abdominal pain so it won't be the first thing your vet thinks is wrong if they start to show these signs. Your vet will start looking for the reason for your dog's symptoms by running basic diagnostics such as blood work and x-rays as well as looking at a stool sample if there is any diarrhea. If these tests don't reveal anything significant and/or if your dog does not improve on an initial course of medications and fluid therapy, your vet will start to run more specialized tests. These may include an ultrasound to get a better look at the your dog's abdominal organs or a bile acids test, which checks to see if your dog's liver is producing the proper amount of bile and if the bile is able to move freely from the liver to the gallbladder.

Treatment of Biliary Disease in Dogs

If your dog's biliary disease is not clinically severe or even all that clinically significant, your vet may opt to try medical management. They may put your dog on antibiotics and a cholesterol medication called Ursodiol. They may also recommend you feed your dog a low fat diet, whether that be a commercially available dog food or a prescription diet. These may be enough to control the symptoms of your dog's biliary disease but, unfortunately, they may not be enough to cure it. If your dog's biliary disease is worsening or if the medications and diet don't seem to be helping, your dog may require surgery. The most common surgical treatment would be removal of the gallbladder entirely and most dogs do well with this surgical treatment.

How to Prevent Biliary Disease in Dogs

Unfortunately, there is no one specific thing you can do to prevent biliary disease in dogs. Yearly exams with your veterinarian for your younger or adult dog and twice yearly exams for your senior dog can help detect any abnormalities on their physical exam and annual blood work can detect early changes in their organ function. There are some dog breeds that are more prone to having gallbladder (and liver) problems than others. These include Labrador Retrievers, Doberman Pinschers, Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Maltese, and West Highland White Terriers.

Biliary disease can be confusing and frustrating. If you have concerns about your dog's risk for biliary disease or about their treatment options, speak to your veterinarian.