Nestled in between the lobes of the liver, the gallbladder is a small organ that holds fluid within the body of humans and some animals. While this organ usually works quietly next to the liver, gallbladder diseases and problems can develop that negatively affect dogs. If the gallbladder is not able to function properly, bile may back up, the gallbladder may rupture, or other serious issues may occur. Dogs can become very sick or potentially die if gallbladder issues are not addressed in a timely manner. Because of this, it is very important for dog owners to have a basic understanding of these potential concerns and to know what they can do to help. Owners can also be aware of potential causes like diet, liver disease, or abdominal injury to help prevent gallbladder disease in their dogs.
What Is Gallbladder Disease?
Gallbladder disease affects the normal, healthy function of this organ that deals with bile from the liver, often involving inflammation, infection, or obstruction. Located in the abdomen underneath the liver and near 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 Disease
Dogs' gallbladders can develop a variety of problems that may cause different symptoms and require different treatments.
- Gallbladder Rupture: Gallbladders, being sac-like organs that hold fluid, are able to rupture and spill bile out into the abdomen. This usually occurs due to severe inflammation or trauma. Veterinarians may perform bloodwork or ultrasounds to determine whether the gallbladder has ruptured, resulting in a cholecystectomy surgery to remove the organ.
- 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. In other cases, they create a blockage in one of the ducts and cause bile to back up. Ultrasounds are most commonly used for diagnosis, while medication or surgery may be required for treatment.
- 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. Ultrasounds and CT scans can rule out other diseases like pancreatitis, and treatment typically involves antimicrobial administration or surgery.
- Gallbladder Mucoceles: Various other disease and/or genetic predisposition cause mucus to build up in the gallbladder and create a mucocele. A mucocele is simply an accumulation of mucus in the gallbladder that causes the gallbladder to stretch and be larger than normal. Mucoceles can also cause secondary issues including sludge build-up, and ultrasounds can be performed for diagnosis. Like gallbladder rupture, a cholecystectomy surgery is usually performed to remove the gallbladder.
- Cancer: More often seen in older dogs, cancerous tumors can invade the gallbladder, liver, and bile ducts. Tumors usually obstruct the flow of bile, which causes it to back up and results in secondary problems. Veterinarians may perform bloodwork, ultrasounds, and further testing to diagnose these cancers. Surgery is not always an option, but systemic chemotherapy is sometimes recommended.
- Cysts: Cysts are growths that can obstruct the flow of bile into and out of the gallbladder. These cysts are usually filled with mucus and diagnosed by veterinarians via ultrasound. This condition may develop alongside gallbladder mucoceles.
Symptoms of Gallbladder Disease in Dogs
Many symptoms of gallbladder disease can be confused with those of other common diseases. Gastrointestinal (GI) upset with vomiting, diarrhea, and a loss of appetite can indicate a variety of problems in your dog, including gallbladder disease. However, other symptoms will typically be present to help narrow down the problem.
Signs and symptoms of gallbladder disease in dogs might include:
Jaundice is the most recognizable and distinct sign of liver or gallbladder disease in dogs. 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.
Dogs experiencing abdominal pain may be sensitive to having their belly touched or change their posture (like walking with a hunched back). They may also breathe abnormally, make sounds of distress when moving around, or have difficulty standing up. Seek insight from a veterinarian who can determine the location of your dog's pain.
Like humans, dogs can vomit due to a simple stomach ache, which is often accompanied by eating grass. However, vomiting can also be a sign of serious health problems which can include gallbladder disease, gastrointestinal issues, and more.
Gallbladder disease can cause your dog's stool to be abnormal and result in diarrhea. If you notice unusual signs, talk to your veterinarian to determine whether testing is necessary.
Loss of Appetite
Loss of appetite in dogs with gallbladder disease can occur alongside other symptoms like abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Dogs with severe gallbladder disease may develop a distended or rounded abdomen due to fluid build-up in the cavity or enlargement of the liver.
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 these diseases 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. Certain diseases like Cushing's disease and hypothyroidism can increase the risk for problems with the gallbladder. Shetland Sheepdogs (Shelties) likely have a genetic predisposition to developing gallbladder mucoceles.
Diagnosing Gallbladder Disease in Dogs
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. Aspirates may also be taken to sample masses or fluid within the gallbladder.
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.
Prognosis for Dogs With Gallbladder Disease
Since there are several different diseases that can affect your dog's gallbladder, the prognosis will be related to which specific condition the dog was diagnosed with. When these diseases are left untreated, rupture of the gallbladder can take place (though rupture may also be caused by trauma). This is a serious condition that requires emergency surgery to treat, but if caught in time, the dog can live comfortably afterward with medications supervised by a veterinarian. However, in cases specifically involving gallbladder cancer, treatment options ultimately may not be effective.
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 that 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, if advised by your veterinarian.
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