Gallbladder Disease in Dogs

Chocolate lab on exam table with veterinarian

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Similar in appearance to the urinary bladder, the gallbladder is a small organ that holds fluid within the body of humans and some animals. This organ usually works quietly next to the liver but sometimes it develops problems and diseases that negatively affect a dog. If the gallbladder is not able to function properly, bile may back up, the gallbladder may rupture, or other serious issues may occur. A dog will become very sick and could potentially even die if gallbladder issues are not addressed in a timely manner. Because of this, it is very important for a pet owner to have a basic understanding of these potential concerns and to know what they can do to help.

What Is Gallbladder Disease?

Located in the abdomen underneath the liver and next to the pancreas, the gallbladder is a small, sac-like organ that collects, concentrates, and transports bile in a dog. Bile is secreted from the liver into the gallbladder through bile ducts and then sent to the small intestine to help digest fats and certain vitamins. The bile also helps to excrete waste matter from the body. In animals that do not have a gallbladder, such as horses, the bile goes straight from the liver into the small intestine. There are multiple problems that the gallbladder can develop, such as gallstones or gallbladder cysts.

Types of Gallbladder Diseases in Dogs

Dogs' gallbladders can develop a variety of problems that may cause different symptoms and require different treatments.

  • Gallbladder rupture - Gallbladders, being a sac-like organ that holds fluid, are able to rupture and spill bile out into the abdomen. This usually occurs due to severe inflammation or trauma.
  • Gallstones - These stones are formed from cholesterol, bilirubin, and other components in very saturated bile. If a large amount of these substances are passed into the gallbladder, they may contribute to stone formation. Sometimes the stones simply float around in the gallbladder and other times they cause a blockage in one of the ducts which causes bile to back-up.
  • Cholecystitis - If a gallstone gets stuck in a duct, not only will bile back-up, but the gallbladder will also become inflamed. This inflammation of the gallbladder is called cholecystitis.
  • Gallbladder mucoceles - In addition to inflammation, a stuck gallstone can cause mucous to build up in the gallbladder and create a mucocele. A mucocele is simply an accumulation of mucous in the gallbladder that causes the gallbladder to stretch and be larger than normal. Mucoceles can also cause secondary issues including sludge build-up.
  • Cancer - More often seen in older dogs, cancerous tumors can unfortunately invade the gallbladder and bile ducts. Tumors usually obstruct the flow of bile which causes it to back-up and therefore secondary problems result.
  • Cysts - Cysts are growths that can obstruct the flow of bile into and out of the gallbladder. These cysts are usually filled with mucus.

Signs of Gallbladder Disease in Dogs

Most of the symptoms of gallbladder disease are similar to those of other diseases. GI upset with vomiting, diarrhea, and a loss of appetite can be indicators of a variety of problems in your dog including gallbladder disease. Though, typically other symptoms will be present to help narrow down the problem.

Stomach ulceration due to gallbladder disease may produce blood in the vomit or stool. The blood is usually bright red in the vomit but a dark black in the stool.

Jaundice is the most recognizable and distinct sign of liver or gallbladder disease in a dog. Jaundice causes the skin, mucous membranes, and the whites of the eyes to turn yellow due to a build up of bilirubin in the body.

Symptoms

  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach ulceration

Causes of Gallbladder Disease

It isn't fully known what causes gallbladder disease in dogs, but there are some plausible factors that could lead to a disease developing. Like in people, diets high in fat or cholesterol may contribute to saturated bile and therefore gallstones and clogged bile ducts. Liver disease may also secondarily cause gallbladder disease as the two organs work so closely together in the body. An abdominal injury may also cause problems with the gallbladder.

Treatment

Depending on the specific type of gallbladder disease, your veterinarian may recommend a variety of treatment options. Treatment will address both the symptoms as well as the underlying problem, so a variety of medications, supplements, and sometimes even surgery may be recommended. Appetite stimulants, gallbladder support supplements, antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, pain medications, anti-nausea medications, and surgical removal of the gallbladder are all options for treating gallbladder disease.

How to Prevent Gallbladder Disease

Since no one knows exactly what causes every type of gallbladder disease there isn't one specific thing you can do to ensure your dog never has a problem. But, there are some things may help keep your pup healthy. Feeding your dog a properly formulated diet as well as offering milk thistle or a milk thistle extract — such as silymarin or silybin — may help support gallbladder health.

Diagnosis

There are a variety of tests that your veterinarian can perform to diagnose gallbladder disease in your dog. X-rays and ultrasounds may show gallstones, mucoceles, cysts, or tumors inside of the gallbladder. Blood tests may show elevated liver enzymes, bile acids, cholesterol, and bilirubin. And biopsies may be taken to sample masses or fluid within the gallbladder.