A gallbladder infection can occur in cats of any age or breed. It can develop suddenly with severe symptoms in some cats, while others may have more mild symptoms. It’s often caused by a bacterial infection of the gallbladder and bile duct. Cats with gallbladder infections will show symptoms like loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. They may also exhibit a yellow tint to their skin and gums. Gallbladder infections aren’t contagious, but usually occur when bacteria in the blood or the gastrointestinal tract moves into the gallbladder. Gallbladder infections are serious and require medical treatment. Sometimes, surgery is needed to resolve the condition.
What Is Gallbladder Infection in Cats?
Gallbladder inflammation (also called cholecystitis) has many causes, with bacterial infection being one of the most common. Bacteria move from the bloodstream or intestines into the gallbladder, causing potentially life-threatening infections in cats. This condition is not contagious. Rather, it's suspected to occur in cats when the gallbladder becomes inflamed and bacteria have an opportunity to invade and cause infection, or when there’s a primary bacterial infection in the gastrointestinal tract that enters the gallbladder. In some cases, the definitive cause of gallbladder inflammation is not known. Bacteria that have been identified from gallbladder infections in cats include E. coli, Streptococcus, Clostridium, and Salmonella enterica.
Just like in humans, a cat’s gallbladder is located under the liver. The gallbladder stores bile made in the liver, and then releases it through a small duct into the upper intestines. Bile helps with the break down of fats in the intestine and includes wastes that are then excreted. Infections in the gallbladder disrupt these normal processes.
Gallbladder inflammation and/or infection may be related to disease in nearby organs like the liver, intestines, or pancreas, as well as to systemic diseases like cancer, immune-mediated disease, and/or abdominal trauma. More rarely, gallbladder infection may be caused by obstruction of the bile duct due to gallbladder stones or a tumor. If the bile duct becomes obstructed and bile cannot pass out of the gallbladder, this can lead to further inflammation and tissue destruction as the gallbladder fills up with bile. This creates an environment within the gallbladder that promotes bacterial colonization and growth.
Symptoms of a Gallbladder Infection in Cats
Cats with gallbladder infections may become suddenly ill, or they may exhibit milder signs that develop over time or come and go. If the infection is mild, they may not show any symptoms.
Symptoms are often gastrointestinal in nature, and cats may stop eating or have a decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. They may also develop a yellow tint to their skin, called jaundice, which can best be seen on the inside of the ear, whites of the eyes, and on the gums.
- Lack of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Vomiting and diarrhea
- Weight loss
Lack of appetite
Cats may stop eating or eat less of their food. If your cat is sick, you may observe food remaining in bowls when normally the bowls would be emptied, lack of interest in treats, or your cat may sniff the food and walk away.
Symptoms of fever include decreased activity, hiding, not eating, and/or not wanting to move or interact with family members. A temperature above 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit would indicate a fever.
Jaundice occurs when a bile pigment called bilirubin is not properly excreted by the body and builds up in the body tissues, creating a yellow tint. Bilirubin is a component of red blood cells and when old and damaged red blood cells are destroyed by the liver, the bilirubin is normally excreted into the bile and then exits the body as waste in the feces and/or urine. If there is problem with any part of that pathway, the bilirubin can build up in the body and lead to jaundice.
Gallbladder infection can cause pain in the abdomen. A cat experiencing pain may sit in an abnormal hunched position, hide, resist being handled or petted, or cry out or become defensive when touched. Cats may also appear more restless than normal due to the inability to rest in a comfortable position, and some cats will also lick their bellies excessively when they are in pain.
Vomiting and diarrhea
Cats may show symptoms of gastrointestinal upset, like vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and weight loss. Cats who are nauseous may also lick their lips frequently and/or drool.
Cats who are lethargic may sleep much more than usual and show a lack of interest in everyday activities. Cats may also stop grooming themselves and their fur may appear messy and unclean. Pain, fever, nausea, dehydration and weakness can contribute to lethargy.
Weight loss occurs because cats stop eating and don’t take in enough calories and nutrients. Cats may also lose nutrients and electrolytes through vomiting and diarrhea.
In cases where there is very severe inflammation and/or infection of the gallbladder, cats may go into shock. This is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate emergency treatment. Symptoms of shock include rapid, shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, pale gums, collapse, reluctance to move or stand, and low body temperature.
Causes of Gallbladder Infection
While it’s not fully understood why some cats develop gallbladder infections, there are several conditions that can predispose a cat to inflammation and bacterial infection.
- Bacterial infections in the bloodstream or gastrointestinal tract
- Obstruction of the bile duct and buildup of bile
- Tumors in or near the bile duct or gallbladder
- Abdominal trauma
- Gallbladder stones
- Inflammatory diseases of the liver, pancreas, and/or intestines
Diagnosing Gallbladder Infection in Cats
To diagnose a gallbladder infection, your veterinarian will conduct a physical examination and perform several tests. This includes bloodwork, abdominal radiographs, an ultrasound of the abdomen and in some cases, biopsies and/or bacterial cultures of the gallbladder. Because the signs of a gallbladder infection can overlap with other diseases and conditions, it’s necessary to perform these tests to determine the cause of your cat’s symptoms.
- Complete blood count, biochemistry, and urine: Your cat’s blood will be drawn and a urine sample will be collected and checked for abnormalities
- Abdominal radiographs (x-rays): These will help to determine if there are abnormalities within the abdomen and allows some visual assessment of the organs.
- Abdominal ultrasound: This will allow your veterinarian to visualize the gallbladder and other organs in greater detail and to look for other abnormalities that are not visible on radiographs.
- Additional blood tests, like bile acid assays, may be needed depending on the specific case
- Bacterial culture: Your cat may need to be sedated so fluid can be withdrawn from the gallbladder using an ultrasound-guided needle. This sample of fluid can be cultured to see if there is a bacterial infection present as well as to determine the specific bacteria involved and which antibiotic will be most effective in treating it. These samples can also be taken during surgery if that is needed to treat your cat. Your veterinarian should thoroughly explain the risks of this procedure because of possible serious complications.
Gallbladder infections can be managed medically, but surgery to remove the gallbladder may be necessary depending on the severity of the condition. Treatment includes correcting dehydration and electrolyte imbalances by providing intravenous fluids if necessary, and prescribing appropriate antibiotics to eradicate the infection. Your cat may need to be on antibiotics for a month or more to ensure the infection is gone. Cats may also need to be given drugs to prevent nausea, stimulate appetite, and support the liver.
If surgery is indicated, your cat will be hospitalized for a period of time before and after the procedure to be monitored. Your veterinarian may recommend repeating bloodwork and other tests to ensure your cat is recovering properly.
Prognosis for Cats with Gallbladder Infection
Prognosis depends on the severity of the infection and whether there are additional abnormalities that led to the infection. There is generally a good outlook for cats with mild disease and cats that respond well to antibiotics. The presence of severe inflammation can be a risk factor for poor outcomes. Some cases can be fatal, and complications, like bile duct obstruction and rupture, can increase the risk of severe complications and death. If gallbladder infection is suspected, early treatment is crucial. Once a cat has had a gallbladder infection, recurrence is a possibility, so it’s important that you carefully monitor your cat for symptoms and seek veterinary care if they occur.
How to Prevent Gallbladder Infection
Since the cause of gallbladder infection is not always entirely clear, it’s difficult to know how to prevent it. Seeking immediate veterinary care if your cat exhibits any symptoms, like not eating, vomiting, and/or lethargy, will help with controlling the condition early and improving outcomes.
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