My Dog Has a Swollen Belly

Most dogs are known to be fairly enthusiastic when it comes to their food. It probably won't surprise you, then, if you happen to notice your dog with a full belly, especially following a recent successful scavenging expedition or after a family barbeque. Overeating is, in fact, the most common reason for dogs' bellies to become distended. Unfortunately, a distended abdomen can also be a sign of much more serious - and even deadly - problem, so it is crucial that dog owners know how to tell the difference.

What to Look For

If your dog exhibits that characteristic “look at me, I just swallowed a watermelon” look, try to assess her overall attitude. Obviously, a lethargic, sedentary dog is of much more concern than a happy, mobile one with her tail wagging.

The next step should be a quick look in her mouth. Carefully examine the areas of her gums that are typically a healthy pink color, checking for any changes to that normal color. Once you've seen the color, pick a spot that is uniform in hue and press it firmly with your thumb, then release it. The original pink color should blanch with the pressure, then return to its original color within two seconds. If your dog is darkly pigmented in these areas, you may need to base your assessment on tongue color instead.

Next, gently run your hands over your dog's abdomen, applying light pressure to check for any points of tenderness. If your dog is standing, straddle her and then, starting just behind and under her rib cage, use both hands to slowly and carefully lift upward to the point of almost lifting her off the ground. Repeat this maneuver, working your way down toward her tail, one hand width at a time, as many times as your dog's size requires. If your dog is on her side, perform this maneuver using one hand, pressing downward, toward the surface on which she is resting. This procedure is designed to again assess discomfort, but also to get a better sense of the nature and specific location of the distension. Finally, from the same position, keep one hand flat against one side of your dog's abdomen while you use the other to perform a quick press-and-release form of pressure on the other side, maintaining contact with both hands all the while. If your dog is on her side, the surface beneath her will serve as the stabilizing surface. The purpose of this test is to check for fluid in the abdomen. If it is the reason for the distension, you should feel a distinct “return wave” of fluid come back to the pressing hand a moment after the press-and-release has been performed.