Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Jenny Alonge, DVM
By Jenny Alonge, DVM on Jan. 26, 2024
A Maine Coon cat is held by their vet.

In This Article


What Is Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats?

The gallbladder and bile duct are two small organs that can cause major problems for cats. If your cat’s gallbladder or bile duct is affected by inflammation, infection, or blockage, they can become seriously ill.

The gallbladder is a small organ connected to the liver that stores bile—a yellow-green fluid that is necessary for food digestion in the stomach and intestines. Bile ducts are tiny canals that carry bile from the liver and gallbladder to the small intestine.

Conditions that affect the gallbladder and bile duct are more common in cats than in dogs and have no association with a cat’s gender or breed. If left untreated, gallbladder and bile duct diseases can be life-threatening for your feline friend.

Types of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Common gallbladder and bile duct disorders include:

  • Cholecystitis—Gallbladder inflammation

  • Choledochitis—Common bile duct inflammation

  • Cholangiohepatitis—Acute or chronic inflammation that affects the bile duct, gallbladder, and surrounding liver tissue

    • Acute—Acute cholangiohepatitis causes sudden, obvious illness in cats and is typically seen in young and middle-aged adult felines. Affected cats have an increased risk for gastrointestinal (GI) infections.

    • Chronic—Many cats with chronic cholangiohepatitis have mild or intermittent signs of illness for months or years before they are diagnosed. The condition usually affects middle-aged and senior cats.

  • Cholestasis—Bile duct obstruction that can be caused by tissue swelling, inflammation, or scar tissue compressing the bile duct. Gallstones are rare in cats, but if present, they can also block the bile duct.

Symptoms of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Acute cholangiohepatitis signs are usually severe and sudden, and include:

Chronic cholangiohepatitis signs are typically vague and intermittent, and include:

Cholestasis signs can vary depending on the underlying cause, and may include:

Causes of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Cholecystitis, choledochitis, and cholangiohepatitis can be caused by numerous issues. These disorders may develop because of any of the following problems:

  • Impaired bile flow caused by gallbladder muscle malfunction

  • Inadequate blood flow to the gallbladder

  • Irritants in the bile

  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

  • Trauma to the abdomen

  • Bacterial infection

  • Gas in the gallbladder wall, especially in cats who have diabetes

  • Parasites

  • Abnormal gallbladder development

  • An immune-mediated disorder

Cholestasis affects the bile duct, and its causes can include any of the following:

  • Pancreatitis

  • Intestinal inflammation

  • Cholecystitis, choledochitis, or cholangiohepatitis

  • Intestinal obstruction

  • Parasites

  • Gallstones

  • Tumors

How Veterinarians Diagnose Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Diagnosing gallbladder and bile duct disease in cats can be difficult. To do so, your vet may need to perform extensive diagnostics such as:

  • History—Your veterinarian will ask for a detailed medical history, including the signs your cat has shown, the length of time they have experienced problems, pre-existing medical conditions, prior surgeries, and potential trauma.

  • Physical exam—Your veterinarian will be able to detect abnormalities, such as jaundice and abdominal pain, during a thorough physical exam.

  • Complete blood count (CBC)—A CBC is a blood test that can detect abnormalities, such as anemia or an elevated white blood cell count, which may be present with gallbladder and bile duct disease.

  • Biochemistry profile—Cats affected by gallbladder and bile duct disease typically have elevated liver values, which can be assessed through a biochemistry profile.

  • Thyroid levelsHyperthyroidism, or high thyroid hormone levels, can lead to elevated liver enzymes. Your veterinarian may test your cat’s thyroid levels to rule out this condition.

  • Pancreatic function tests—Pancreatitis can cause or exacerbate gallbladder and bile duct disease, so evaluating your cat’s pancreatic function may be recommended.

  • X-rays—Abdominal X-rays may reveal abnormalities but are often normal in affected cats.

  • Ultrasound—Ultrasound is a good way to image your cat’s liver, gallbladder, and pancreas and to detect signs of inflammation through changes in organ appearance and blood flow.

  • Fine-needle aspirate—Your veterinarian may take a bile sample from your cat using an ultrasound to guide the needle during the collection process.

  • Exploratory surgery—In some cases, exploratory surgery is necessary to make a definitive diagnosis.

Treatment of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Treatment depends on your cat’s signs, disease severity, and the underlying cause. Initial treatment involves supportive care such as intravenous fluids and feeding tube placement. Cats who stop eating often develop hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver syndrome, a life-threatening condition. Providing nutritional support as soon as possible is important.

Other treatments may include antibiotics, corticosteroids, and medication to improve bile flow. Surgery may be necessary if a bile duct obstruction is present.

If your cat’s signs are mild, outpatient care may be appropriate, but cats experiencing significant issues will be hospitalized for treatment and monitoring.

Recovery and Management of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

When diagnosed and treated in the early stages, cats with acute cholangiohepatitis have a good prognosis for recovery. While those affected by chronic cholangiohepatitis can’t be cured, they can experience long-term remission.

The prognosis is not as good for cats in advanced disease stages. Some cats may require long-term treatment, including medications to protect their liver, vitamin supplementation, and a prescription diet.

Cats affected by cholestasis typically have a good prognosis if the obstruction’s underlying cause is treated and bile can flow normally through the duct. However, if cancer is present, the prognosis for recovery is poor.

Prevention of Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats

Preventing gallbladder and bile duct disease in cats is not possible. However, keeping your cat at a healthy weight and feeding them a nutritionally balanced diet for their life stage may reduce their risk.

Gallbladder and Bile Duct Disease in Cats FAQs

What is the life expectancy of a cat with cholangiohepatitis?

About 40% of cats survive for one to five years after treatment, and about 10% live beyond five years.

Featured Image: gorodenkoff/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Jenny Alonge, DVM


Jenny Alonge, DVM


Dr. Jenny Alonge graduated from Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She completed an equine medicine and...

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