cocker spaniel with abdominal pain

Problems With The Gallbladder In Dogs: What To Know

In most cases, pet parents learn about problems with the gallbladder in dogs 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 they aren’t 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 on 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.

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.

When bile reaches the small intestine, its job is to digest some vitamins and fats. Bile also helps to get rid of 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 Are The Signs Of Gallbladder Problems In Dogs?

I know many pet parents whose dogs have had gallbladder problems, and while some of the symptoms 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 problems manifest can vary by dog as well.

Common symptoms of gallbladder problems in dogs include:

Abdominal pain
Loss of 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 resident 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. 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.

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 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 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.

Types of Gallbladder Problems 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 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. Any dog can be affected by a gallbladder mucocele.

Gallstones

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.

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 Rupture

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

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.

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 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 the drain was removed 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 prescription diet of small meals, takes the medication ursinol daily, but Sonny is 100 percent back to himself.

Can Dogs Live Without A Gallbladder?

Yes, dogs can live 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. 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.

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.

how to prevent gallbladder problems in dog

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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.

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15 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)

  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.

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