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Dog Gallbladder Disease: Recognizing Symptoms & Treatment

The gallbladder is a small sac-like organ near the liver in dogs. It stores bile produced by the liver, which is then released into the small intestines to help digest and absorb fats. A dog can live without a gallbladder but can have intestinal problems from being unable to digest fats well. If the gallbladder is not functioning correctly, it can cause your dog to be in pain and lead to severe health complications. This dog health guide on gallbladder problems will tell you about the types of conditions that can develop, as well as diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

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Types of gallbladder problems

Several things can go wrong with the gallbladder. The most common include gallstones, inflammation (cholecystitis), gallbladder mucocele formation, and cancer. A mucocele is a condition where the gallbladder becomes distended and enlarged due to an accumulation of thick, mucousy bile, which may then lead to obstruction of the bile duct.

Various other conditions such as gallstones, inflammation, pancreatitis, liver disease, endocrine disease, and genetics can all predispose dogs to develop biliary diseases such as gallbladder mucoceles. In severe cases, the gallbladder can become so full that your dog could experience gallbladder rupture, which is a life-threatening condition.

There are also conditions a puppy can be born with, such as a lack of a gallbladder (gallbladder agenesis) and a lack of bile duct development in the liver (biliary atresia).

Causes of gallbladder disease in dogs

There are several different reasons a dog may develop gallbladder disease.

  • Diet. Consuming excessive amounts of fat can lead to gallstones.
  • Liver disease. Liver disease can affect the gallbladder as the two organs work closely together.
  • Infections. Bacterial infections from the liver or intestines can cause gallbladder inflammation in dogs. The bacteria are usually E. coli or Salmonella.
  • Genetics. Certain dog breeds are more predisposed to canine gallbladder issues. These breeds include Shetland Sheepdogs, Miniature Schnauzers, Cocker Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Poodles, and Dachshunds. However, any breed can develop gallbladder disease.
  • Obesity. Dogs that are overweight or obese are more likely to develop gallbladder disease.
  • Other medical conditions. Other illnesses can lead to gallbladder disease. Examples include diabetes, pancreatitis, Cushing's disease, hypothyroidism, hyperlipidemia, cancer, blood clots, and trauma.

Dog gallbladder symptoms

What are the first signs of a bad gallbladder? The symptoms can be different depending on the particular condition your dog has. However, common signs of gallbladder disease include:

  • Pain. You may find that your dog has signs of pain or discomfort in the abdomen, shown by a hunched posture, lack of movement, or restlessness. What side is the gallbladder on? It's on the right side, but the entire abdomen could be painful.
  • Vomiting and diarrhea. If your dog frequently vomits, especially after meals, it can be from gallbladder issues.
  • Decreased appetite. Your pet may show a decreased interest in food or not want to eat at all.
  • Jaundice. Jaundice is the most recognizable sign of liver or gallbladder disease and is a yellowing of the skin and mucous membranes (such as the inside of the mouth and the whites of the eyes) and can be seen in severe cases of gallbladder disease.
  • Lethargy. A dog with gallbladder disease may act lethargic, weak, or unresponsive.
  • Abdominal distention. If your dog has severe gallbladder disease, a distended or rounded abdomen may develop due to the build-up of fluid in the abdominal cavity or enlargement of the liver.

These symptoms can indicate diseases other than gallbladder disease. That is why it's so important to see your vet right away.

Diagnosis of canine gallbladder disease

Diagnosing gallbladder disease in dogs usually requires a combination of tests, including a physical examination, imaging studies, and lab work.

  • Physical examination. Your vet will examine your dog thoroughly to check for anything abnormal, including pain or discomfort in the abdomen.
  • Blood tests. Blood work can help diagnose gallbladder disease by showing liver function, revealing results in blood work consistent with gallbladder inflammation or infection, and detecting abnormalities in the blood that are known to be associated with gallbladder disease. There is no specific gallbladder blood test.
  • Imaging studies. X-rays, ultrasound, or advanced imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be performed to see the gallbladder and find any abnormalities such as gallstones or mucoceles.
  • Sample collection. Samples of masses or fluid within the gallbladder may be collected and evaluated to provide additional information.

Dog gallbladder disease treatment options

Treatment depends on the diagnosis and severity of the symptoms, as well as your dog's overall health. Your vet will give you the best dog medical advice about your dog's gallbladder disease and the underlying cause. Common treatments include:

  • Diet. Managing gallbladder disease in pets may be as simple as changing their diet, depending on the severity and condition. A low-fat diet will probably be recommended regardless of your dog's gallbladder condition.
  • Medications. Anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics, pain medications, anti-nausea medications, and medications that promote bile flow (such as ursodiol) may be prescribed. Certain supplements can help promote liver and gallbladder health.
  • Surgery. In some situations, surgery may need to be performed on the gallbladder to remove stones or relieve obstruction. The gallbladder may also need to be removed.
  • Supportive care. During an acute flare-up, your dog may need hospitalization for supportive measures such as IV fluids, pain meds, and nutritional support.

Canine gallbladder surgery

Gallbladder surgery often involves complete removal of the gallbladder, depending on the severity of the condition and the extent of the damage. Surgery is not without complications, and you may be referred to a boarded veterinary surgeon for the procedure. There are various procedures for gallbladder surgery. Common ones include:

  • Open cholecystectomy. This refers to a surgical procedure to remove the gallbladder through a traditional abdominal incision. This may be preferred because biopsies of the liver can be performed using this method.
  • Laparoscopic cholecystectomy. This is a less invasive procedure in which small incisions are made in the abdominal wall where a laparoscope and other special surgical instruments are inserted. The surgeon sees the gallbladder on a monitor. This method results in smaller incisions, less pain, and faster recovery.

Does pet insurance cover gallbladder surgery?

Gallbladder surgery may be covered by your pet insurance policy, depending on which plan you have. If you have an accident-only or a wellness plan, then it won't be covered unless the surgery is needed due to a traumatic injury. However, if your plan includes illness, it probably will be covered unless it's a pre-existing condition. Consult your pet insurance company to find out for sure.

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Recovery and postoperative care

The recovery from gallbladder surgery varies depending on the type of surgery, any underlying conditions, and your dog's age and health. Here's what to expect for your dog after undergoing gallbladder surgery.

  • Pain management. Pain meds are usually prescribed following surgery. It's essential to administer these medications as prescribed.
  • Other medications. Other meds for co-existing illnesses may be needed.
  • Restricted activity. Following surgery, you must keep your dog in a quiet, comfortable area. Your veterinarian will tell you if your dog can have any activity and how long any restriction period should last.
  • Diet and nutrition. After surgery, your vet will probably recommend a bland, low-fat diet before gradually transitioning to a regular diet. Always provide fresh water and monitor your dog's appetite closely. Some dogs may need a prescription diet long-term.
  • Monitoring. After surgery, you should watch your pet for any signs of complications. You should contact your vet if your dog shows extreme pain, redness, swelling, discharge from the incision, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, or uncontrolled pain. You should also watch your dog's incision for redness, swelling, heat, and discharge. If your vet sent your dog home with an e-collar, please ensure it is always on your dog to prevent licking.
  • Follow-up examinations. Your dog must be regularly checked by your vet following surgery. These visits may include exams, blood tests, imaging studies, or other tests as needed.

Does pet insurance cover postoperative care and recovery?

Just as with surgery, your pet insurance policy will cover your pet's postoperative care and recovery, depending on the type of plan you have. If your pet's gallbladder condition was caused by a traumatic injury such as a car accident, then it should be covered if you have accident-only or accident-and-illness. It wouldn't be covered under wellness-only plans.

Gallbladder disease prevention in dogs

Gallbladder disease is not entirely preventable, but there are steps you can take to help reduce the chance of your dog acquiring the condition

  • Avoid obesity. Regular exercise and a balanced diet can keep your dog at a healthy weight and thereby reduce the risk of gallbladder disease.
  • Regulate diet. Dogs need to eat a high-quality, balanced diet with essential nutrients that are low in fat. Do not feed table scraps or fatty treats.
  • Visit the vet regularly. Vet check-ups will include a complete exam and possible lab work. If a condition is caught early, there is a better chance of success in treating it. This is true of gallbladder disease as well.
  • Adhere to medication. If your vet prescribes medication for gallbladder disease or any other condition, be sure to administer it consistently.

The expense of gallbladder disease

As you read about diagnosing and treating gallbladder disease, you may think it sounds expensive — it is, often reaching several thousands of dollars. If you have pet insurance, you may wonder if your plan covers it. You must check with your provider. If you are thinking of getting pet insurance, consider the following:

  • Some plans don't cover certain genetic conditions
  • Most will not cover pre-existing conditions
  • Your plan may cover the diagnostics and exams by your regular vet but only a portion of certain services, like specialist care
  • A wellness plan won't cover gallbladder problems
  • Coverage for prescription pet food differs between insurance companies, with some offering limited annual caps, requiring add-ons, or only covering it as the sole treatment for a condition

Gallbladder disease is a potentially serious condition, but in many cases, it is entirely treatable. The best action you can take is to follow prevention suggestions and consult your vet about any concerns. Consider pet insurance if finances decrease your dog's chance of surviving gallbladder disease.


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