The Common Symptoms That Can Signal Gallbladder Distress

Listen as Dr. Karen Becker explains the function and importance of your pet’s gallbladder and how to recognize a problem with this vital organ before it compromises your dog’s or cat’s health.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

Your dog's or cat's gallbladder is a balloon-shaped organ that sits between the lobes of the liver.

Bile made in the liver is stored and concentrated in the gallbladder. It is then released and travels down the common bile duct through the pancreas into the small intestine.

The Four Functions of Bile

Bile serves four main functions in your pet's body.

  1. Number one, it alkalizes the contents of the small intestine. The pH of bile is 9.5, which is very alkaline. This alkalinity is necessary in order to neutralize the very strong acid released from your pet's stomach as food travels from it to the small intestine.
  2. Dogs are scavenging carnivores; cats are obligate carnivores. Their bodies are designed to consume raw, living, but potentially disease-ridden meat. For example, outdoor and feral cats catch barn mice, which can be full of different viruses, bacteria and even fungi.

    The really potent stomach acid your dog or cat produces is designed to kill off many of the pathogenic bacteria and viruses that enter your pet's body. This acid is natural and necessary in your pet's stomach, however, when it moves on to the small intestine, it's highly irritating.

    One of the jobs of bile, with its high alkalinity, is to neutralize potentially toxic stomach acid in the small intestine.

  3. Another thing bile does is serve as an emulsifier of fats and oils. Emulsification is the process of turning fats and oils into absorbable water-soluble compounds. Bile is critical to your pet's ability to absorb the fat from his diet.
  4. The third function of bile is in stimulating peristalsis - the rhythmic action that moves food down the small intestine so it can be processed and absorbed.
  5. The final job of bile is to perform its immune function.
  6. Over 50 percent of your pet's immune system is located in the gastrointestinal tract. Your dog or cat has hundreds of lymph nodes along the small and large intestines - they're called Peyer's Patches.

    Bile performs a powerful immuno-regulatory function in your pet's GI tract, which means it balances the digestive process. It prevents overreactions.

    It you think about dogs and cats and everything they eat -- like foreign, antigenic, allergy-stimulating material - you can see bile does a very good job of calming and balancing the immune system so it does not overreact to these noxious antigens.

    Bile also has antibiotic and antifungal properties. Bile is a natural germicidal. It kills fungus, bacteria, yeast, and even viruses.

Bile Sludging

Many factors can affect the efficient flow of bile in your pet's body.

When bile flow is slowed down, it's called bile sludging. This is the result of bile turning too thick.

If bile sludging occurs for a too-long period of time, your pet can wind up with gall stones. Unfortunately, gall stones are a very common problem in veterinary medicine. The condition of bile sludging is usually not addressed until a gallstone has formed.

So what causes a thickening of bile? The primary reason is nutritional deficiency.

If your dog or cat is deficient in the nutrients phosphatidylcholine, glycine, or taurine, she may end up with bile sludging.

Environmental toxins can also be a cause. And not just flea/tick preventives, but also dewormers, vaccines, polluted air, water chemicals, toxins in your pet's food including aflatoxins and microtoxins found in commercially processed pet formulas - all can affect normal fluid bile flow from the gallbladder.

Problems That Arise from Bile Flow Deficiency

When your pet's bile flow is compromised, three major systemic problems can arise.

  • Bile deficiency in the intestine is the most common problem, with a primary symptom of indigestion. Your pet may develop acid reflux and ulcers because strong stomach (hydrochloric) acid is getting into the small intestine more or less at full strength.

Without a good supply of alkaline bile to neutralize the acid, your pet can wind up with small intestinal ulcers which cause bleeding, GI upset, anemia and other conditions.

If your pet has bile sludging, peristalsis won't be efficient, and constipation can result. If your pet is constipated, toxins aren't leaving her body through regular bowel movements. You may have a situation where your dog or cat doesn't pass feces for several days, then has an explosive bout of diarrhea, then several more days of constipation.

Autoimmune reactions in the GI tract, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) are all linked to bile insufficiency in dogs and cats.

  • Another situation that can arise is bile backwash, which occurs when the gallbladder becomes backed up with sludging bile. This in turn backs up the liver and creates a condition known as cholangiohepatitis, which is stagnation of the gallbladder and liver secondary to a problem of bile not flowing out of the gallbladder normally.
  • A third result is bile backwash into the pancreas. As I mentioned earlier, the common bile duct passes through the pancreas before it enters the small intestine.

If there is backwash of bile into the pancreas, pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can occur. This can lead to scarring in the pancreas as well.

When pancreatic function isn't up to par, your pet can develop type 2 diabetes as a result of having too little remaining pancreatic tissue to produce adequate amounts of insulin.

If your dog or cat has had her gallbladder removed, is suffering from gallbladder problems, has recurrent GI-related disorders like vomiting or diarrhea, or intermittent soft stools followed by intermittent bouts of constipation, she could be dealing with bile insufficiency.

I would encourage you to contact your integrative veterinarian to not only make a definitive diagnosis, but also to put together an integrative treatment protocol to address gallbladder stagnation before the situation worsens to the point where surgery is required.

+ Sources and References