Gallbladder and Bile Duct Inflammation in Dogs

Cholecystitis and Choledochitis in Dogs

The gallbladder rests in the abdomen, firmly affixed to the liver and serving as a storage receptacle for bile, a fluid that is essential for digesting food in the stomach and intestines. The bile duct transports bile from the liver into the gallbladder and into the small intestine, and the liver functions in the secretion of the bile. All of the components of this digestive system work in tandem, and if one fails to function properly, the result is that most of the body will suffer ill effects.

Inflammation of the gallbladder is sometimes associated with gallstones, and is often associated with obstruction and/or inflammation of the common bile duct and/or the liver/bile system. Severe cases can result in rupture of the gallbladder and subsequent severe inflammation of the bile duct (bile peritonitis), necessitating combined surgical and medical treatments.

There is no direct association with breed, gender, or age, but malignant gallbladder disease in dogs usually occurs at middle-aged or older. Dogs with enlarged livers are more likely to get cancer of the gallbladder, which will interfere with the flow of bile, and which, in turn, may account for the inflammation in the gallbladder.

The condition or disease described in this medical article can affect both dogs and cats. If you would like to learn more about how this disease affects cats, please visit this page in the PetMD health library.

Symptoms and Types

Some of the symptoms that can be indicative of an inflamed gallbladder or bile duct are a sudden loss of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Mild to moderate jaundice with fever is common with conditions of the bile duct. Look for yellow eyes, and yellowing of the gums. Shock due to infection and reduction in blood volume can occur. Signs of shock include shallow breathing, abnormally low body temperature (hypothermia), pale or gray gums, and a weak but rapid pulse. Inflammation and adhesions involving the gallbladder and adjacent tissues can lead to swelled tissue; a palpable mass of tissue will be felt in the upper right abdomen, especially in small dogs.


The causes for an inflamed gallbladder or bile duct can be from one or more conditions that will lead up to it. Muscles in the gall bladder may be malfunctioning, which can lead to impaired bile flow in the cystic duct or gall bladder, irritating the walls of the gallbladder. Or the blood supply to the gallbladder wall is being restricted, in which case the cause for the restriction must be isolated and treated to improve the blood flow. Irritants in the bile can cause the bile duct to be overly sensitive and reactive. Previous abdominal surgery, or trauma to the abdomen, can directly lead to internal sensitivity, affecting one or many of the internal organs, including the liver and gallbladder.

Some of the more common intestinal disorders that your veterinarian will look for to confirm or disregard are bacterial infections originating in the intestine or bloodstream and invading the gallbladder. Escherichia coli (E. coli), is a normal part of the bacterial flora in the gut, which protects the intestines from harmful bacteria, but that can occasionally become a problem, depending on the strain of E.coli. Emphysematous cholecystitis is a complicated, acute gall bladder inflammation characterized by the presence of gas in the gallbladder wall, and is associated with diabetes mellitus. This condition is associated with a traumatic restriction of blood flow to the gall bladder and acute gall bladder inflammation with or without stones. Gas-forming organisms and E. coli are often cultured; emphysematous cholecystitis is rare.

Other rare causes that your veterinarian will want to rule out are abnormal gall bladder development, and parasites of the bile duct (biliary coccidiosis).


Your veterinarian will rule out the following possible causes for the symptoms:

  • Pancreatitis
  • Focal or diffuse peritonitis
  • Bile peritonitis (inflammation of the lining of the bile duct, or the vicinity)
  • Gastroenteritis with secondary biliary tract involvement (inflammation of the stomach and intestines, spreading into the bile duct)
  • Stones in the gallbladder
  • Cholangiohepatitis (inflammation of the system that carries bile and the surrounding liver tissue)
  • Cell destruction in the liver
  • Abscess in the liver
  • Blood poisoning
  • Metastatic cancer (growing, or spreading, cancer)
  • Accumulation of thickened bile in the gall bladder

Your veterinarian will order blood and urinalysis tests. X-rays and/or ultrasound images of the abdomen, to get a clearer image of the internal system, is also likely to be one of the diagnostic tools used pretreatment.

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