by Anne Jones RN, BSNE
The function of the gallbladder is very closely related to that of the liver. When one is "sick", it is likely to affect the other organ. Drugs that affect one can also affect the other. Therefore it is not uncommon for both diseases to exist in the same dog.
The canine gallbladder serves the same function in dogs as in humans; i.e. it is the storage organ for bile. Any "bladder" is a sac (balloon-like organ) that can expand to contain a liquid and can be quite small when emptied, making it possible to use a very thin instrument to pull the emptied human gallbladder out through a very small opening, eliminating the need for surgical incisions as was necessary in the past. But this small organ serves a purpose that is closely tied to digestion and to liver function. For all its small size, abnormal function can make for a large health problem.
Humans form "gallstones" but dogs have "sludge" when fluid bile begins to solidify. Anyone who has had gallstones will remember the discomfort. It is not known that dogs suffer in the same way but sludgy bile is an abnormality. Dysfunction will show in abnormal elevations of alkaline phosphatase. Bile acid tests and liver enzyme studies are appropriate diagnostics, as is radiographic or ultrasound study of the organ. When there is an overall elevation of liver enzymes, the primary disorder is likely to be in the liver itself. If early tests show elevated alkaline phosphatase and ALT, with no increase in other liver enzymes, this may be indication of gallbladder disease. An elevated ALT is a sign that liver cells are damaged and liver disease may be present. Bile acid studies are done to monitor liver function and will be repeated until normal or until further testing is warranted.
Treatment specific to gallbladder disease with the drug "actigall/ursodial" may be the first step and there is also a possibility that milk thistle can alleviate early symptoms in mild dysfunction. Milk thistle is an alternative medication that is readily available with a dose for small dogs being something in the area of 1/3 or 1/4 of a human dose. It is often used as an adjunct in treating liver disease.
Chronic gallbladder disease will lead to complications with the liver because of their relationship. Infection may be an instigating factor and E coli, often associated with intestinal and urinary bladder problems, may be a causative factor. It will be up to your veterinarian to decide on a treatment plan but monitoring disease changes will be appropriate to avoid ongoing and long term damage to the system. As with any systemic disease, improved immune health will lead to greater chance of recovery and may minimize complications.