A dog’s gallbladder plays an important role in the general process of digestion and metabolism.
The gallbladder is associated with the liver, which aids your dog’s metabolism and helps remove toxins from their body. The gallbladder assists the liver by storing its digestive juices, which are called bile. Bile makes its way from your dog’s liver to their gallbladder through an intricate duct system.
The gallbladder sits between lobes of the liver and expands slowly as it accumulates bile. Once needed, the bile will flow through a duct connected to the intestines, where it can be used to aid digestion and metabolism.
Is Surgery Needed for Gallbladder Disease in Dogs?
Several conditions can affect a dog’s gallbladder, but not all require surgery. If your dog has gallstones, for example, they could potentially be treated through medication and diet. Those gallstones could be noticed incidentally when running diagnostics like x-rays for another problem.
However, if the gallstones block the flow of bile out of your dog’s gallbladder, it can rupture, which is life-threatening. Bile is extremely inflammatory and causes an intense internal reaction when the gallbladder ruptures. In this case, emergency surgical removal of the gallbladder and cleanup of the bile from the abdomen is needed.
Another condition called cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder, can also be treated medically or surgically.
Gallbladder Removal for a Mucocele in Dogs
A gallbladder mucocele is one condition that can be life-threatening, and it almost always requires surgical removal of the gallbladder. This occurs when the bile stored in a dog’s gallbladder thickens to become mucus-like and cannot flow to the intestine. The mucus creates a blockage in the gallbladder, which can lead to rupture and death.
The signs of a gallbladder mucocele in dogs can be vague. Dogs with this condition most commonly have the following symptoms:
Lack of appetite or decreased food intake
Lethargy (moving slowly, sluggish)
If this condition has been going on long enough, your dog may have a yellowish appearance to their skin, eyes, and gums.
A gallbladder mucocele in dogs is diagnosed through a combination of a physical exam, lab work, and ultrasound. Surgery is needed to remove the gallbladder to prevent rupture.
If your dog’s gallbladder has already ruptured, then your vet will perform surgery to remove it. This surgery will also include a cleanup of any affected or damaged tissues inside the belly, since bile fluid can be very irritating outside of the gallbladder.
On occasion, a gallbladder mucocele can be found in a dog without signs of illness. In this situation, the decision to remove the gallbladder is based on many factors.
If your dog is in good health and otherwise has no preexisting conditions, a “watch and wait” approach may be taken. This approach would involve close monitoring at home for any signs of digestive upset, pain, or discomfort, and an ultrasound of the abdomen including the gallbladder every 3-6 months.
Alternatively, in this situation, a vet might recommend removing your dog’s gallbladder while they are in good health, since they would be a much better candidate for surgery and anesthesia at this point.
If your dog is older, has other illnesses, or is at higher risk for developing a condition that could make anesthesia riskier, your vet might elect to remove their gallbladder now before a full-blown mucocele has formed.
Procedure for Gallbladder Removal in Dogs
Gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy) is a serious surgical procedure with the potential for complications. Surgery involves going into the abdomen to remove your dog’s gallbladder.
Not all veterinarians perform this procedure. If your vet is not comfortable performing this type of procedure, they may refer you to a board-certified veterinary surgeon.
Aftercare for Dog Gallbladder Removal
Dogs can live without a gallbladder but may require special care to support the digestive process. You will need to watch for complications, give your pet all required medications, check the incision, and feed them food that’s easy to digest.
If you see any of these symptoms after your dog comes home from gallbladder surgery, check in with your vet, as these could be signs of a serious complication:
Unwillingness to eat
Depending on the reason for gallbladder removal, several medications may be prescribed after your dog’s surgery. Short-term medications like antacids to aid digestion; anti-nausea and pain medication to help control discomfort, and medication for preventing infection.
If your dog’s liver was also affected by the same disease process that caused the gallbladder removal, your vet may prescribe medications to support their liver function. These can include antioxidants such as SAM-E and/or milk thistle.
Once your dog’s gallbladder surgery is complete, they will have a large incision down the middle of their belly that needs to heal. Your dog will likely be sent home with an E-collar to prevent scratching and licking the wound and instructions to rest to avoid opening the wound.
Special feeding instructions may also be given, particularly for a bland diet. Food that’s easy to digest means that the liver and gastrointestinal tract won’t have to work as hard after this type of surgery.
Some dogs will eat this diet short-term and then transition back to a maintenance-type diet. Some dogs, depending on whether other diseases are affecting the liver or gastrointestinal tract, may need to eat a therapeutic diet for life to support their liver and digestive processes. The veterinarian will decide if a long-term special diet may be needed.