cocker spaniel with abdominal pain

Can A Dog Live Without A Gallbladder? What To Know

In most cases, pet parents find out ‘can a dog live without a gallbladder,” when the animal shows signs of distress, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, or loss of appetite. Canine gallbladder problems can become very dangerous very fast if not treated right away. Fortunately, there are things to help a dog before it’s too late.

Diseases of the gallbladder in dogs are becoming more and more prevalent. This silent but deadly epidemic affects thousands of dogs every year. A nasty accumulation of mucus in the gallbladder lining, called a mucocele (mew-ko-seal), can lead to gallbladder rupture and even death. Even scarier, the cause of mucocele formation in a dog’s gallbladder is not wholly known nor understood.

Members of my Cocker Spaniel Facebook group started sharing stories of their dogs being affected by gallbladder problems. It seems as though the signs of gallbladder problems in dogs are often missed, and some breeds are more affected than others.

Gallbladder attacks in humans are quite common, but canine gallbladder disease can occur from inflammation or infection of the bile ducts or the gallbladder itself. Experts I spoke with indicate by the time a gallbladder mucocele is diagnosed, at least half of dogs will experience rupture.

To spread awareness, keep dogs healthy, and prevent another canine tragedy from gallbladder disease, here’s everything you need to know.

What Does A Dog’s Gallbladder Do?

The canine gallbladder rests comfortably under the liver and next to the pancreas in a dog’s abdomen. Its purpose is to collect and transport bile secreted by the liver. It is a small organ but it can cause problems.

When bile reaches the small intestine, its job is to digest some vitamins and fats. Bile also helps eliminate waste matter in the dog’s body. When something goes wrong with the gallbladder, the bile is compromised and many things can go wrong.

gallbladder in dogs

What Does Bile Do In The Gallbladder?

The yellowish-brown liquid produced by the liver is called bile. When bile gets to your dog’s gallbladder, it is supposed to contract and secrete bile to the small intestine through the common bile duct.

From there, it is important to understand what bile does:

  1. Bile has bile acid in it. Your dog’s digestion relies on bile acid to absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins in their small intestine.
  2. Waste products like bilirubin are eliminated from your dog’s body, secreted into bile, and elimination in feces.

Why does this matter? Bile contains things like water, electrolytes, cholesterol, bilirubin, and more. When these components build up, problems in the gallbladder happen.

What Are The Signs Of Gallbladder Issues In Dogs?

I know many pet parents whose dogs have had gallbladder problems, and while some of the clinical signs were similar, others were not. Many symptoms of gallbladder issues in dogs are similar to those of other problems. No two dogs are the same, and the way gallbladder issues manifest can vary by dog as well.

Common symptoms of gallbladder issues in dogs include:

Abdominal pain
Loss of appetite or poor appetite
Vomiting
Diarrhea
Jaundice (yellow color to the eyes, skin, and mucus membranes like the gums)
Fever
Stomach ulceration with bright red blood in vomit and dark black blood in stool
Lab work shows irregular liver values

As you can see, these symptoms also occur in other canine disease processes. Time is of the essence, so if your dog is showing signs of distress of any of these symptoms, seek urgent veterinary care immediately.

Dogs Affected By Gallbladder Disease

When New York dog mom Christine Aiello rushed her 13-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Coco Chanel Bella, to the emergency veterinarian’s office, she had no idea her gallbladder had ruptured.

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

Cocker Spaniel with ruptured gallbladder
Coco during her hospital stay after gallbladder removal.

Sadly, that would be the last time Christine held Coco in her arms outside of the hospital. Blood tests revealed elevated liver enzymes, and an abdominal ultrasound/diagnostic imaging were consistent with a ruptured gallbladder mucocele. The fluid was leaking into Coco’s bloodstream from the rupture of the gallbladder, consistent with bacterial leakage and a septic abdomen.

Removal of the gallbladder (open or laparoscopic 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 had 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 help her pass peacefully.

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.

What Causes A Gallbladder Mucocele In Dogs?

From a super highly technical perspective, “A 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 may contribute to gall bladder 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, they find mucoceles.

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 hospital admittance.

Types of Gallbladder Issues In Dogs

Just like people, dogs are affected by a variety of gallbladder issues. Here are some of the common diseases and problems dogs may experience in the gallbladder or bile duct:

Gallbladder Mucocele In Dogs

If the gallbladder gets too much bile and mucus and gets swollen or distended, a gallbladder mucocele can happen. 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.

In addition to Shetland Sheepdogs, other breeds 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. Any dog can be affected by a gallbladder mucocele.

Gallstones in Dogs

Renowned veterinarian, Dr. Marty Becker, says dogs rarely suffer painful gallstones like people do, but they do happen. Stones can float around in the gallbladder or like people, can a blockage in a bile duct. Gallstones occur in mostly older or smaller dogs of any age.

Gallbladder Inflammation (Cholecystitis)

If a gallstone gets lodged in a duct, bile backs up, the gallbladder gets inflamed, and that inflammation is called cholecystitis.

Gallbladder Sludge

Though not a condition alone, gallbladder sludge can lead to issues. Gallbladder sludge is a collection of compounds like calcium, bilirubin, and cholesterol. It can accumulate and get trapped in the gallbladder and cause pain, bloating, and vomiting.

Gallbladder Rupture

Gallbladder rupture in dogs is generally caused by trauma, a mucocele, or some sort of inflammation. This is incredibly dangerous.

Gallbladder Cancer In Dogs

Cancer can occur anywhere in the body, and the gallbladder and bile ducts of a dog are no exception.

Gallbladder Cysts

Cysts in the gallbladder are generally mucus-filled and may obstruct the flow of bile to and from the gallbladder.

Sonny of Jen Angradi

How Are Gallbladder Problems In Dogs Diagnosed?

Lab tests including blood and urine will be checked and an abdominal ultrasound is the gold standard. Sometimes, an early-stage mucocele will show up on a dog’s gallbladder during an abdominal ultrasound for other reasons. Sometimes, the dogs have normal blood values when the mucocele appears on physical examination.

When my dog’s nephew, an 8-year-old Cocker Spaniel named Sonny, stopped eating, his mom knew something was wrong. He went out into the snow and plopped down. A local emergency veterinarian who treated Sonny for IMHA, an immune disease, performed bloodwork and an abdominal ultrasound.

Since the gallbladder was inflamed, the internal medicine vet recommended the dog stay in the hospital overnight for intravenous fluids and monitoring. Vets were not certain at this stage if Sonny’s gallbladder ruptured or not.

“They said we needed to make a decision if we wanted to continue with surgery, which has a 30 percent survival rate, or consider euthanasia,” Jen Angradi recalled. “I decided to get a second opinion from a surgeon in Allentown, Pennsylvania.”

Both the emergency room vet and the surgeon could not tell whether the dog’s gallbladder had ruptured. Due to Sonny’s history of IMHA coupled with his decreasing kidney function, chances were slim of surviving a gallbladder rupture.

Jen moved forward with the gallbladder surgery, called a cholecystectomy, or removal of the gallbladder. Sonny had surgery right before Christmas, and they discovered the gallbladder had indeed ruptured. The dog developed pancreatitis in the hospital and remained in critical condition for a few days. Once removing the drain from his abdomen, Sonny came home about a week after gallbladder removal.

“He went from 28 pounds to 21 but was so happy to be home,” Jen said. “He had issues vomiting his food up, but we realized he could eat small meals.”

They still feed him a low-fat diet of small meals, takes the medication ursinol daily, but Sonny is 100 percent back to himself.

Update: Sonny passed away several years later from kidney failure unrelated to his gallbladder issue.

Can A Dog Live Without A Gallbladder?

Yes, dogs can have healthy lives without their gallbladder. Dogs, like people, don’t need the gallbladder organ to live. The liver will make the bile. The bile that would normally be stored in the bladder would pass through the common bile duct into the intestines instead.

How To Prevent Gallbladder Disease in Dogs

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. Despite gallbladder removal, a tear in Coco’s 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.
  • 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.

Studies show that dogs that consume sugar, refined grains, processed meats, and low-fat food products may have an increased risk of gallstone disease.

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.

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.

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.

Are There Any Canine Gallbladder Advances?

Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine is testing a new dye to help with gallbladder removal.

“There are no studies investigating the use of an intraoperative injection of ICG into the gallbladder in pets,” according to Cornell’s latest call for case studies. “The use of indocyanine green (ICG), a dye that glows green under near-infrared (NIR) light, has been described before for biliary surgery in human medicine. ICG is extremely safe at clinical doses, with rare anaphylactic reactions reported in humans but not in animals.”

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.

how to prevent gallbladder problems in dog

20 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.

    1. We euthanized our 5 year old cocker this week for this very issue. Same diagnosis, same prognosis. After spending $3,000 to diagnose at a specialty emergency hospital we opted to not put our pet through anymore trauma. I learned through this article that cockers have this weakness. I am adopting another cocker but might not have chosen that breed if I knew this information before committing.

      1. I am so sorry for your loss. That is terrible. One of the things to do for your future dogs is to have regular blood work more than say once a year. I am finding dog moms and dads can monitor the blood levels and if anything is off, an ultrasound and/or x-ray of the abdomen can be performed.

  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!

    1. 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.

  6. We just lost our 12 yr old poodle to a burst gallbladder on 1/31/2020. We are devastated. It was helpful to read this article and know that the sudden onset of symptoms is not uncommon. Molly seemed perfectly normal on Wednesday and we said goodbye on Friday. She was not overweight. She ate Honest Kitchen Dog food and her treats were only sweet potatoes, cooked carrots and blueberries. Our next poodle will get regular blood tests and ultrasounds. Vets don’t explain why you would want these regular tests, but should so that pet parents understand what can be prevented. The cost of the preventative care is out of control and without knowing why you should do a test, many, like us likely, avoid them when the pet seems normal.

  7. Hi, I am currently in the situation with my 14 year old Westie. His gallbladder is inflamed and has sludge in it. The vet has put him on 2 medications. One for the liver, Denamarin, and one for the gallbladder, Ursodiol. The vet also suggested I change his diet to Hills prescription I/D. This is where I have questions and concerns. Both of my Westies are raw fed and love their food. I have tried so many different foods and have been so pleased with their current food. My understanding was he needed to be on a low fat, lower protein diet. I am looking for options without using Hills or Royal Canine. I just feel like they are not good products. I will do whatever I need to do to keep my boys healthy, my other Westie has allergies, but I want a good food product for them. Any advice is appreciated.

    1. Call Dr Harvey’s – thats what I feed my dog. It made a tremendous difference:

      You can contact us by email at:

      info@drharveys.com
      Or by phone at our Toll Free number which is:

      866 DOC H 123 (866.362.4123)

    2. Hi Susan,
      My name is Kathy and I am agonizing over learning my little Yorkie, Marci’s gallbladder is moderately distended with hyperechoic debris forming an early mucocele. Marci I am so afraid of either to remove the gallbladder or not. As I have researched I decided last night to have the surgery. Yet I’m so concerned for the survival rate is even more emotionally fear based.
      The reason I even decided to respond on here is because I have had Marci since she was 5 months old and is now 7.5 years old. I realized Marci has been having issues from her early years with throwing up and diarrhea as the vet prescribed the Hills Prescrition Low-fat Diet.
      Your concern about Hills Prescription Diet in my opinion I’d began to ponder in my own mind as a result of having 3 dogs on this food. I began low level research into Hills food recalls which have been many! I lost a 5 year old Yorkie to kidney failure! That knocked the wind out of me because she was in fact being treated by a vet for issues that should have been discovered in the bloodwork prior to her very quick unexpected passing.
      I am not blaming anyone but the fact that the food I had decided to take Marci off of prior to getting these results. I thank you and Bella’s Mommy for all the knowledge based on really I think now What we are feeding our babies. I pray Marci survives this. I’m sure I won’t emotionally without my faith that carries me through so much pain with loss.

  8. I have a 9 year old Sheltie, Mollie, treated last year for bacterial hepatitis. because of a raised ALT. She was successfully treated and discharged until just had blood work again last week and another raised ALT 210. Currently on denamarin and antibiotics and will have her ALT rechecked again next wk. Her ultrasound last year showed echogenic biliary sediment (aka “sludge”) present. The vet concluded 60% of normal dogs have this and is not consistent with mucocoles. I’m still concerned that it might be coming from this sludge as I had a previous sheltie who had to have gall bladder surgery to remove this sludge after going into liver failure at age 11. He did live 2 more years after the surgery and was put on medication for the rest of his life. Do you have any suggestions for Mollie. She is a beautiful and well behaved therapy dog and I want to do the best I can for her.

    1. Gosh if I were in that position I would seek a specialist – perhaps an Internal Medicine vet who deals with gallbladder things a lot. I would be afraid of that sludge and the potential for a mucocele.

  9. We just lost our corgi that was just 1 yr and 8 month due to ruptured gallbladder. It happened so fast she didnt eat her dinner one day which wasnt abnormal for her. She was still playing with her sister at 2pm seemed ok when we came home at 7 pm, vomited at 8 pm and went down hill from there. When we got to emergency vet at 2am she was critical. Thought it was a bowel perforation due to free fluid in her abdomen. She lived to make it to our vet at 7am, he took her to surgery but was too bad to save her. We are devastated and heartbroken. It just happened so fast without warning. With future fur babies we will be looking for symptoms of this.

  10. I have a 10.5 year old mini schnauzer, just diagnosed with gallbladder sludge. She went from being perfectly fine one day, to vomiting and diarrhea the next. She had just had bloodwork done, 2 mo prior and it was perfect.
    Took her to vet, no parasites or worms. Treated her with flagyl (antibiotic) and cerenia for nausea. She seemed to rally for a week afterwards. Yesterday at 5am she did not wake me up like usual. I went to check in her and she could barely stand up without my help. Rushed her to emergency vet, she had US and labs. Was diagnosed with sludge in gallbladder and put on 2 meds. Ursadiol and demarin for liver support, plus gabapentin for pain and cerenia for nausea.
    Ive pondered the surgical intervention, but at her age, its unlikely she would survive the removal of her gallbladder, and if by some miracle she does, what would her quality of life look like? I will monitor her every 3 months per vet recommendation, and I will be so grateful for the years God gave this dog to me to love. She will let me know in her actions, if she is ready to go. I wont make her go through a painful, difficult procedure for my own gratification. Im not judging anyone! We all have to do what our heart and pet leads us to. I have seen my little Maddie at her happiest, and now at her worst! I will love her and cherish her every day she is with me, and I will let her go, when we both know its time!

  11. My 13 yr. old Yorkie Joshua was just diagnosed with gallstones. I am devastated. My Vet told me he did not want to operate. That most likely Joshua wouldn’t make it through surgery. He did not want to prescribe the medicine because Joshua’s gallstones were big and the medicine usually only worked on small stones.

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