What Can Go Wrong with My Dog’s Gallbladder?

A question that often pops up here at My Pet Nutritionist so we thought we’d do a whistle stop tour on the gallbladder and some of the more common issues that can arise when it’s not functioning as it should.

Let’s get cracking.

The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that sits just under the liver.  Its function is to store and concentrate bile, a yellow-brown digestive juice produced by the liver.  It is part of the biliary tract.

When food enters the small intestine, a hormone known as cholecystokinin is released, this tells the gallbladder to contract and secrete bile into the small intestine, through the common bile duct.

There are two important functions of bile:

  • Bile contains bile acids, which are critical for digestion and absorption of fats and fat-soluble vitamins in the small intestine.
  • Many waste products, including bilirubin, are eliminated from the body by secretion into bile and elimination in faeces.

Bile contains water, electrolytes and a battery of organic molecules including bile acids, cholesterol, phospholipids and bilirubin.

Sadly, the build up of these very compounds can lead to a number of problems in the gallbladder, they are known as canine gallbladder diseases and include:

  • Biliary Sludge
  • Gallbladder mucoceles
  • Gallstones

Gut Guardian

Biliary Sludge

Gallbladder sludge is a collection of cholesterol, calcium, bilirubin, and other compounds that build up in the gallbladder. It is more technically known as biliary sludge.  It is not technically a condition on its own, but it’s presence can lead to further issues.

Gallbladder sludge has been associated with:

  • Obesity
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Cholecystitis – the swelling and inflammation of the gallbladder.  It can result in bile trapped in the gallbladder, causing pain, vomiting, and bloating
  • Blocked biliary ducts – these allow the gallbladder to drain – if sludge can’t escape, it accumulates

Of interest, biliary sludge has been associated with acute cases of pancreatitis.  In human cases, where no cause of pancreatitis could be found, upwards of 30% of patients showed evidence of biliary sludge.

Findings Here

If the initial cause of gallbladder sludge is rectified, then it often resolves on its own.  However, if the factors remain, gallbladder sludge can lead to gallstones.


Gallstones are not surprisingly, small stones that form in the gallbladder.  It’s when there is an imbalance in the usual liquid composition of bile inside.  Because inadequate emptying or infrequent gallbladder movement are usual factors that increase the likelihood of gallstones forming, it’s easy to see how biliary sludge can lead to gallstones.

Risk Factors for gallstones;

  • Obesity,
  • Older age,
  • Disorders of the digestive system,
  • Rapid weight loss,

Signs and Symptoms of gallstones:

  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever
  • Discomfort after eating

Gallstones are more commonly seen in older dogs, and often in smaller breeds like miniature schnauzers and miniature poodles.  They may be identified in the gallbladder, common bile ducts, hepatic, or interlobular ducts.  They are generally composed of cholesterol, bile pigments and calcium carbonate.

Gallbladder mucoceles (GBM)

A gallbladder mucocele is an abnormal accumulation of bile laden mucoid material within the gallbladder, resulting in bile duct obstruction.

Mucins, which play a major role in the development of gallbladder mucoceles, are a family of polysaccharides secreted by mucosal epithelial cells of the gallbladder, stomach, intestines and other organs. Mucins act as surfactants and play a mucoprotective role by preventing self-digestion of mucosal epithelium by digestive juices.  A gallbladder mucocele is characterized by the excessive secretion of mucin from gallbladder epithelium.

Dogs who have suffered with GBM have ranged in age from 3-14 years old, but middle to older aged dogs are thought to be at a higher risk.  A genetic mutation has also been found on the ABCB4 (MDR3) phospholipase flippase transported in Shetland Sheepdogs and others.  There is an increased incidence in these dogs along with Miniature Schnauzers and Cocker Spaniels.

Findings Here

Signs and Symptoms of GBM:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort

The underlying cause of GBM is essentially unknown, but there are considered associations.  For example, gallbladder mucoceles has been associated metabolic disruption.

Dogs with GBM:

  • are characterized by significantly diminished antioxidant capacity
  • demonstrate altered energy metabolism
  • have abnormal lipid metabolism
  • demonstrate presence of xenobiotics compared to controls

In addition, those dogs with GBM formation show increases in certain compounds that suggest they are in a state of excess metabolic energy.  This is why these dogs show lower levels of pantothenate, riboflavin and nicotinamide riboside because there is an increased demand for these compounds in energy transportation.

Findings Here

There is also consideration given to hydration state; studies have indicated an underlying defect in electrolyte, acid-base or fluid transport.

Findings Here

Finally, the formation of gallbladder mucoceles has been associated with certain medication use:

  • Dogs with GBM were 2.2 times as likely to have had reported use of thyroxine
  • 3.6 times as likely to have had reported treatment for Cushing’s disease
  • 2.3 times as likely to have had reported use of products containing imidacloprid (insecticide)

Findings Here

Supporting Healthy Gallbladder Function

  • Maintain an ideal body score

Obesity in Pets – Part One

Obesity in Pets – Part Two

  • Support digestive function

Low Fat Kangaroo

The Dog’s Digestive System

Optimal Gut Health

Pancreatitis: Natural Guide for Pets

  • Stay hydrated!  Offer filtered water and ditch the dry!
  • Offer antioxidant rich foods!  Berries and leafy greens are a great place to start!

Dietary Patterns

Studies have indicated that the consumption of sugar, refined grains, processed meats and low-fat food products are associated with increased risk of gallstone disease.

Likewise, the intake of nuts, fruits, vegetables and omega-3 PUFAs is associated with reduced gallstone disease.

Supportive nutrients in terms of gallbladder health include fibre, magnesium, and vitamin C.

Findings Here

Why Is Magnesium So Important to Your Pet

Why Fibre is Good For Your Dog

Why Chia Is So Good For Your Dog

Issues with the gallbladder are sadly not that simple, there are several factors to consider.  If you are concerned about your dog’s gallbladder or liver function, then please check out our services to see if we can help.

Thanks for reading,

Team MPN x  

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