Well, for starters, it’s a real mouthful of syllables. Hailed as a general cure of all ills, UDCA can be easily and safely synthesized in a lab, thus making it tough to believe the strong desire for ‘authenticity’ would override the possibility of puss-riddled, tumor-infested gall bladders producing bile that can actually make people sick. While I’ve always been a fan of showing people exactly what they pay for, it isn’t for the faint hearted.

Bear bile has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for over 3000 years. It contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is believed to reduce fever, protect the liver, improve eyesight, break down gallstones, and act as an anti-inflammatory. It is also believed to be an effective treatment for chronic stomach disease and heart disease and is touted as a general ‘cure for all ills’. Products include rheumatic oil, hemorrhoid cream, revival pills, plasters for sprains and as well as raw bear bile in both liquid and powder form. Their distribution is now illegal in North America but contraband can still be found in Oriental shops. Practitioners acknowledge that bear bile is unnecessary from a medicinal point of view. According the Animal Concerns and Research Society (ACRES), there are at least 54 herbal alternatives to discourage the farming of bile.

How is bile extracted?

According to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), there are numerous methods used to extract bile from bears and they vary by country and region. In South Korea, live bear bile farming is illegal but speculated to be practised regularly as bile maintains a high market value. Typically, bears are confined in cages which vary in size from tiny “crush” cages to slightly larger steel crates. Pictures can be easily found on the web on websites lobbying for the cessation of the practice, and videos of the milking process are accessible through Youtube. One such video was published by Education For Nature Vietnam(ENV), and it depicts a number of ‘Korean tourists’ witnessing a bile extraction at one of Vietnam’s many underground bear farms.  To view, click here. 

 The methods of ‘milking’, or gallbladder bile extraction, are truly gruesome. One method (as depicted in the video) involves the insertion of a stainless steel or latex catheter into the bear’s body. Originally developed in the mid-1980s, this technique is still widely used despite it now being illegal. The catheter is inserted through a hole in the bear’s abdomen and attached to the gall bladder. The outer end is left to protrude from the bear’s abdomen for bile collection. A variation of this technique involves the end of the catheter being fitted to a detachable plastic bag. The bag is held in place in front of the bear’s abdomen by a permanent metal harness. The harvesting of bile is an extremely painful procedure, often carried out by untrained technicians. Some bears are reported to curl up after the extraction, shivering and moaning, clearly in agony. There are numerous reports of bears twitching, gnashing their teeth and biting themselves during the extraction process during which there is no anaesthesia administered. When bile extraction is finished, the bear is slaughtered. “Fistulae”, or free dripping technique is a new, reportedly more humane technique. It began in China in 1993 when Chinese authorities desired catheter-free techniques for bile extraction because of high mortality rates associated with old methods. The ‘free dripping technique’ involves the creation of a tissue duct between the gall bladder and the abdominal wall, using parts of the bear’s inner body lining, known as the mesentery. The bile is collected by inserting a rod through the fistula towards the gall bladder, which then drains its content. To prevent the fistula from closing up the wound must be constantly re-opened – usually once or twice daily. It is suggested by bear farmers and some government officials in China that this new technique is more humane than older methods. *However, ongoing research by the Animals Asia Foundation concludes that this method is no better than the other methods of extraction and continues to cause suffering and high mortality rate for the bears undergoing the procedures.  Today it is the only legal method of bile extraction in China.

To view a comprehensive Vet’s Report on internationally employed bile extraction methods, visit Animals Asia Foundation Vet Report Page.


Safely sythesized in labs, the manufactured UDCA, or ‘URSODIOL‘,  is supported by numerous communities and studies advocating use of the drug for various ailments for both humans and animals, including those cited below:

At Your Local Pharmacy in North America and Europe…
 Brand names for synthetic UDCA include; in the US, Actigall, Urso; in the UK; Destolit, Urdox, Ursofalk, Ursogal; in South Africa, Ursotan.