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How To Treat and Prevent Gallbladder Disease In Dogs

A silent but deadly epidemic is taking place that affects thousands of dogs every single year. A ruptured gallbladder caused by a mucocele is one of the new leading causes of canine deaths. That’s right: gallbladder disease in dogs can be deadly. Even scarier, the pathophysiology/cause of mucocele formation on the gallbladder is not completely known nor understood.

I discover these things through our veterinary health connections, travels, interviews, and because of the thousands of dog parents I encounter every year. I run a Facebook group, Club Cocker: Wigglebutts Worldwide, and discovered a startling fact.

In addition to Shetland Sheepdogs, other breeds that have been more commonly reported to develop gallbladder mucoceles include Cocker spaniels, Pomeranians, Miniature Schnauzers, and Chihuahuas. Some say certain areas of the country see this issue more than others.

Hoping to prevent gallbladder problems from affecting your dog, and my own, here’s what you need to know.

how to prevent gallbladder problems in dog

Coco’s Story

On October 11, 2018, Christine Aiello rushed her 13-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Coco Chanel Bella, to the emergency veterinarian’s office. 

“She threw up three times on this day, and when I got home, she wasn’t acting like herself.” Aiello recalls. “She was shaking a lot. She threw up two more times and we rushed to the vet.”

That would be the last time she held Coco in her arms outside of a hospital.

Bloodwork revealed elevated liver values, and an abdominal ultrasound was consistent with a ruptured gallbladder mucocele. The fluid was leaking into Coco’s bloodstream from the rupture, consistent with bacterial leakage and a septic abdomen.

dog cholecystectomy
Coco during her hospital stay after gallbladder removal.

Removal of the gallbladder (cholecystectomy) and a liver biopsy led to a lengthy stay in the hospital. Coco received aggressive treatment with antibiotics, supportive care, and had an uneventful surgical recovery. On the day she was due to be discharged, things took a turn for the worst.

Abdominal drain production increased and Coco spiked a fever. Fluid removed from the abdomen with a needle (abdominocentesis) was consistent with sepsis, so Coco underwent exploratory surgery to see what was happening.

A tear was found in the midportion of her common bile duct, but everything else was intact. Her blood pressure dropped and medical attempts to help it stabilize failed. Thirty-six hours after this second surgery, Coco became extremely distressed and agonal, and the decision was made to let her go on October 17, 2018.

Ultimately, the dog’s culture grew a multidrug-resistant E. coli, and all the antibiotics she received could not battle the sepsis throughout her bloodstream. The gallbladder mucocele led to a rupture, with secondary liver changes and mild inflammation of the small intestine.

The entire ordeal happened that fast. She was a happy, beloved Cocker Spaniel spreading kisses, tail wags, and joy to her family one day and she was gone a week later.

*Christine acquired Coco’s veterinarian emergency records and kindly shared the nightmare ordeal with us to help educate other dog parents.*

dog with gallbladder mucocele

What Function Does a Dog Gallbladder Serve

As you can see in the image below, the gallbladder is a round sac that manages bile. It is located between the liver’s lobes and keeps the bile flowing after meals. Bile helps digest nutrients and gets rid of certain types of waste from the body.

According to VetStreet’s Dr. Marty Becker, dogs rarely suffer gallstones as people do. It’s those pesky gallbladder mucoceles that cause issues.

If the gallbladder gets too much bile and mucus and gets swollen or distended, a gallbladder mucocele (said like myouk-o-seal) results. The bile gets backed up, it can’t flow properly and do its job. The dog gets weak and tired, might vomit, have a fever, and exhibit signs of pain. In Coco’s case, this is exactly what her mom witnessed.

Dogs, like people, don’t need the gallbladder organ to live. The liver will make the bile. VetStreet says the bile will pass through the common bile duct into the intestines instead of getting stored in the bladder.

Thinking back to Coco’s medical issue, the exploratory surgery after the gallbladder removal showed a tear in the common bile duct. All that bile leaked back into her bloodstream, and due to its toxicity and its multidrug-resistant nature, Coco died.

dog gallbladder

Canine Gallbladder Mucocele Causes

From a super highly technical perspective, “A recent study found that many of these dogs have a mutation in the gene that codes for ABCB4. ABCB4 is a protein within hepatocyte cell membranes that is necessary for the transfer of phospholipids from the hepatocyte into the bile ducts. Without the protective effect of phospholipids, bile salts cause chronic irritation of the gallbladder wall and lead to increased mucus production. Thus, potentially leading to a mucocele.”

Some dog health conditions are believed to contribute to gallbladder mucocele formation: hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, and hyperlipidemia.

In the report from MSPCA by Dr. Johnson, it is noted that about 75 percent of dogs with gallbladder mucoceles have an elevated ALT, ALP, and GGT on bloodwork.

In addition to mucoceles, the gallbladder of a dog can become obstructed by:

  • Cancer in a variety of areas, including but not limited to, the pancreas and liver
  • A high-fat diet that may result in supersaturated levels of cholesterol in the bile
  • Excessive amounts of fat in the blood caused by pancreatitis
  • A motility problem in the gallbladder whereas gallstones may occur
  • Hereditary, as some breeds noted above, are more prone to gallbladder mucoceles

I spoke to my dog’s Internal Medicine veterinarian off the record about the increasing incidence of the problem and why it seems to be cropping up more and more in the past decade. He notes the technology has improved, more dogs are getting ultrasounds, and mucoceles are discovered.

When I asked about a dog’s weight and fatty diet, he agreed that may contribute as well.

dog gallbladder mucocele
Copy of Coco’s blood work after she was admitted to the hospital.

Preventing Canine Gallbladder Problems

Antibiotics can help dogs with gallstones or mucoceles if the case is uncomplicated. Gallbladder removal can be successful, too.

A ruptured gallbladder, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, leads to a leakage of bile into the abdomen, which causes bile peritonitis. If the rupture is not repaired, death may occur. Although Coco’s gallbladder was removed, a tear in the common bile duct lead to her demise.

Treatment for a ruptured gallbladder or bile duct includes placing a stent into the bile duct via surgery, removing the gallbladder, or connecting the gallbladder with the small intestine. Time is crucial when it comes to life or death. Antibiotics are most often necessary for four to six weeks postoperatively.

Stay current with your dog’s bloodwork, and as your dog ages, have bloodwork screened at least twice a year. Keep your dog at a healthy weight, and do not allow him or her to become overweight. If you have a heavy dog, he is more prone to a multitude of problems.

If you have a dog that is amongst the ones most prone to gallbladder mucoceles, talk to your veterinarian about screening and testing. 

Don’t hesitate when it comes to your dog’s health, as minutes matter in cases of gallbladder rupture. Seek immediate veterinary care. Dogs are slick in their ways of hiding and masking pain.

How to help a dog with a gallbladder mucocele

Costs of Gallbladder Obstruction/Mucocele In Dogs

Depending on where you reside, the cost of gallbladder removal, cholecystectomy, ranges from $800 to $1,300, but that does not include longer hospital stays and any additional treatment.

Emergency room visits and specialized surgeons cost extra, so be certain to keep a savings or pet health insurance plan for your dog(s).

Christine’s bill surpassed $15,000 due to her area (Long Island, New York), a team of specialists, multiple surgeries, and intensive care.

Don’t Stop Now

Some related content to this piece on gallbladder issues in dogs can be found here:

Tribute to Coco Chanel Bella

How to Safely Help Your Dog Lose Weight

How to Help a Dog With Pancreatitis

Gallbladder Mucoceles in Dogs: DVM360

If you found this article helpful or would like more information, please subscribe below to our twice-monthly newsletter to help your dog stay healthy and well!

Your Turn

Has your dog ever experienced gallbladder issues? Are you monitoring your dog with regular blood screening? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Comments

  1. So sorry about Coco. I know how hard it is to lose a pet before their time. It’s heartbreaking, but thank you for educating people about this.

  2. I didn’t realize that dogs could have their gallbladder out. It can be tough to diagnose pets and it’s good that this is an option, albeit expensive.

  3. It’s heartbreaking to hear the details of Coco’s story and how quickly she passed. It’s important information for pet parents to know, and I appreciate all the detail. Icy and Phoebe get bloodwork every year during their annual checkups, but now that they’re both 9 I think twice a year might be better. I’m sharing this widely.
    Love & Biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  4. It is heartbreaking to hear about beautiful Coco. T My mother had serious gallbladder issues and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, but I have to admit, I never thought about it in our dogs. This is such important information., thank you for posting. Pinned to share!

    PS – Thanks so much for joining in our Blog Hop this week! Awesome to have you!

  5. Wow, I’m bringing this up to my vet.. I have a yorkie that has some of the similar stuff coco was showing. Her bloodwork also showed elevated liver enzymes. Antibiotics have been prescribed to help in an attempt to lower liver values among other ideas. Thank you for this info!

    • Thank you for sharing Coco’s story. My 6 y/o pug has gall bladder mucoceles that are currently being medically managed due to very early diagnosis. I noticed very early on that she just wasn’t “right”. She was off her food, lethargic and just didn’t seem her usual self. We attend the vet hospital every 3 months to note any progression so that intervention can be done if / when required.

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