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.

What to Do

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your dog uncomfortable? If your dog appears to be absolutely unaware of her increased girth, it is unlikely to be anything other than the aforementioned dietary indiscretion that has caused it. Watch and wait but be sure to keep her away from any source of food for at least twelve hours. If, on the other hand, she is weak and listless or making attempts at vomiting, immediately try to evaluate her predicament. In some instances a dog that has recently suffered some form of blunt trauma, such as being hit by a car or a baseball bat, will exhibit a swollen and tender abdomen. If you pay strict attention to your dog's behavior and conduct a safe, level-headed evaluation, you will be able to determine how serious the problem is and whether immediate action is necessary.
  • What breed is your dog? Large, deep-chested dogs - such as Great Danes, greyhounds, and German shepherds - are more prone to developing a life-threatening form of abdominal distension known as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). While an exact cause is not currently known, it appears to happen more frequently in dogs that are fed one large meal per day or have recently endured some trauma or stress, such as surgery or long distance transport. If your exam reveals a drum-tight abdomen and ghost-white gums, head directly to a veterinary emergency facility. Dogs with GDV that are not treated within a small window of time often die as a result.
  • Is your dog panting rapidly? Dogs that are uncomfortable will often breathe rapidly, particularly if they have just gorged themselves to the point of distension. This behavior may also be a prelude to a vomiting episode. If the gums are pink and healthy, you can watch and wait for a short while to see what develops. If failed attempts at vomiting occur and your dog appears to be getting worse, get him right to the veterinarian.

When to Get the Vet

If your dog is in acute pain and you can't isolate it, veterinary care is critical. Use a large blanket to help protect you and the dog in your attempts to transport her. If the pain is present but it can be isolated and her color is good, you have a little more time to plan your next move. Let your dog have thirty to sixty minutes to recover, monitoring her behavior throughout, then conduct your exam once again.

Any dog, especially deep-chested breeds, with a swollen abdomen and pale gums should be rushed to an emergency facility!

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