Biliary Disease in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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?

Biliary disease is not just one illness, it refers to a few types of health issues related to your dog's gallbladder that if left untreated can be life-threatening. Here are the four different classifications of biliary disease that most cases fall under to reflect bile buildup and inflammation of the gallbladder area:

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 build up in your dog's gallbladder there could be a risk of the gallbladder itself rupturing and causing a life-threatening blood poisoning.


If your dog's gallbladder is inflamed to the point that the integrity of the walls becomes compromised, bile may leak outside the gallbladder and this can be life-threatening.


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.


Tumors or cancers that are either associated directly with the gallbladder or have metastasized to the gallbladder. This also causes inflammation in the area of the gallbladder, and can include the liver and pancreas.

Symptoms of Biliary Disease in Dogs

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. But be on the lookout for the following three symptoms.


  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Gastrointestinal issues


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. However, jaundice can also occur on other parts of the dog, such as on the mouth, gums, ear flaps, and other parts of the skin.

Loss of Appetite

Though many dogs suffer from poor appetites due to many different issues, it can also be a strong indicator of early gallbladder disease. A dog may not feel like eating if it's experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms.

Gastrointestinal Issues

Other gastrointestinal symptoms can include things like 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.

Causes of Biliary Disease

There are many possible causes of biliary disease in your dog. Your dog may have experienced trauma to the gallbladder or liver which may lead to biliary disease. Other types of biliary diseases may be caused by an overproduction of bile, which may happen when a dog doesn't eat for a long time and the bile continues to be produced but can't do its job. Inflammation of the gallbladder can be caused by bacterial infections, gallbladder obstruction, cancer, or blood clots.

Diagnosing Biliary Disease in Dogs

Because most of the symptoms of biliary disease are "non-specific," diagnosing biliary disease can be tricky. Biliary disease is not always the most common reason for a dog to stop eating, vomit, experience diarrhea, or to have abdominal pain so it won't be the first thing your vet thinks is wrong if your dog starts to show these symptoms.

Your vet will start looking for the reason for your dog's symptoms by running two phases of diagnostics, if necessary, which can include the following:

  • Basic diagnostics: Blood work, X-rays, as well as looking at a stool sample if there is any diarrhea, will help your vet determine if more tests are needed. 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.
  • Specialized tests: These tests may include an ultrasound to get a better look at your dog's abdominal organs. In addition, a bile acids test 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.


If your dog's biliary disease is not clinically severe or even all that clinically significant, your vet may opt to try medical management. The vet may put your dog on antibiotics and a cholesterol medication called Ursodiol. The doctor may also recommend you feed your dog a low-fat diet, whether it's a commercially available dog food or a prescription diet.

Prognosis for Dogs With Biliary Disease

Non-surgical treatments 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 gallbladder surgery. However, most dogs do well after surgical treatment to remove the gallbladder.

How to Prevent Biliary Disease

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 the physical exam and annual blood work can detect early changes in organ function. Some dog breeds are more prone to having gallbladder (and liver) problems than others. These breeds include: