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What is Distended Abdomen?

In dogs, a swollen or distended abdomen may be a sign of a significant medical condition or disease, or it may be due to a resolvable bacterial infection. Due to the possibility of organ failure or breathing difficulty, however, any swelling in the abdominal area warrants an immediate veterinary visit. Some underlying causes of a distended abdomen are potentially fatal and indicate a dysfunction or disease process involving a major organ such as the heart, lungs or kidneys. Additionally, most cases of abdominal distension carry pain and discomfort that can be alleviated with treatment. One probable cause of abdominal distension in dogs is a condition called ascites (or abdominal effusion), which is a general term that refers to the build-up of fluid in a dog’s abdominal cavity. In a healthy animal, there should be no more than a nominal amount of fluid present in the abdominal cavity. The purpose of this fluid is to keep the organs operating and “gliding” smoothly around each other. In fact, the amount of fluid in a healthy dog’s abdomen should be low enough not to appear in radiography. Any imaging that reveals the presence of free fluid is an indication of a serious health problem. Ascites is a symptom of many other conditions, including liver and cardiac disease, specifically congestive heart failure (CHF). In congestive heart failure, the heart cannot pump enough blood throughout the body, causing fluid to swell in tissues both in the lungs and stomach. The dog’s overall prognosis will depend on the source of the swelling or ascites. Another possible cause for the abdominal distension is a pooling of blood that may have originated in the stomach or elsewhere in the canine’s gastrointestinal system. In the case of a GI bleed, immediate veterinary care is critical.

Rapid-pooling gas, or “bloat,” is another emergent cause of abdominal distention in a canine. In the veterinary world, bloat is an alarming term that signifies something far different than feeling full after a big dinner. Bloat, in a dog, will cause the abdomen to become untenably swollen and tight. The abdomen may take on an uneven appearance in which one part of the abdomen distends beyond another. If your dog appears to be bloated, this is a highly emergent situation, and the dog must get veterinary care immediately. 

Other common causes of abdominal distension in dogs include pregnancy, which is distinguishable from other conditions due to the presence of swollen mammary glands and teats. Obesity is another possibility; in this case, the stomach should be soft and fat should be visible elsewhere on the body, not only in the stomach area.

In canines, a distended abdomen may signify a disease or dysfunction related to a major organ such as the heart, or another condition such as pregnancy or obesity.

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Symptoms of Distended Abdomen in Dogs

Clinical signs associated with distended abdomen in dogs include:

  • Distended abdomen
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Signs of discomfort when touched
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary changes
  • Exercise intolerance
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Causes of Distended Abdomen in Dogs

  • Bloat- A very serious condition in which gas rapidly fills the abdomen

  • Bleeding -An emergent condition in which blood is pooling in the abdomen
  • Free fluid (also called abdominal effusion or ascites) - A serious condition when fluid builds in the abdomen, may signify disease or failure of major organs

  • Pregnancy - The female usually presents with a swollen abdomen by 6 weeks of expectancy, and will also have swollen mammary glands and teats
  • Obesity - The abdomen should be soft and weight should be distributed around the body

  • Growths/tumors - Benign or may signify a disease such as cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Heart disease
  • Uterine infection (UTI)
  • Hormonal condition
  • Peritonitis - Swelling of the peritoneum, the tissue that lines the abdominal wall and covers most of the abdominal organs

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Diagnosis of Distended Abdomen in Dogs

The veterinarian may make an initial diagnosis based upon the dog’s presentation of symptoms at the physical examination. Radiography and ultrasounds may confirm the presence of fluid in the abdomen, or perhaps reveal another cause. Blood (CBC), urine and sample of (if any) fluid will be subject to laboratory testing, and may offer insight into the dog’s overall condition. Other testing will be performed based on the veterinarian’s suspicions.

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Treatment of Distended Abdomen in Dogs

Treatment options will depend upon the cause of the abdominal distension, and any underlying conditions. If there is a fluid buildup, that will have to be eliminated; however, without treating the source of the ascites, improvement is not likely. Treatment examples would be:

  • Obesity - The veterinarian will advise on a healthy weight loss and maintenance program

  • Growths - A tumor may need to be removed
  • Bloat - Surgery may be necessary in order to reverse volvulus (twisting of the stomach)

  • Fluid - Draining will be required
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Recovery of Distended Abdomen in Dogs

As with any illness, provide your dog with a quiet place to rest and heal. Follow veterinary advice regarding any nutritional changes, and follow-up medications. The dog’s prognosis will depend upon the cause of the distension. Keep a watchful eye on the abdominal area, and notify the veterinarian if changes are noted.

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Distended Abdomen Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

Need pet health advice? Ask a vet

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Labrador Retriever

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Eleven Years

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Unknown severity

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9 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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Distended Abdomen

Took dog on a walk this morning. He used the restroom and all of a sudden refused to walk. I noticed his belly was really distended and he was just saying back and forth. Have him home now and is laying down but belly still painful. Not sure if this is an emergency or not

Dec. 18, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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9 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. I do think that this is an emergency, yes. I would call that an 'acute abdomen', and it would be best to have him seen by your veterinarian right away. I hope that all goes well for him, and that he feels better very soon.

Dec. 18, 2020

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Boxer

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Eleven Years

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Unknown severity

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3 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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Stomach swelling titties filling up not active won't eat but will drink water not pooping

Dec. 18, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Sara O. DVM

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3 Recommendations

Hello so sorry to hear that your dog is having issues. Heart issues can cause her stomach to fill up with fluid. Also other things such as a mass in her abdomen or pyometra could cause her to have issues. From your description, I think the best thing is for her to see your vet for an exam. There are many things that would really need vet attention right away.

Dec. 18, 2020

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English Bulldog

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Three Months

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Moderate severity

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0 found helpful

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Painful Urination

She got in the trash an now her belly is swollen. More on one side. She can’t get comfy I don’t know what to do.

Oct. 22, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Linda S. MVB MRCVS

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0 Recommendations

Hi there, you are through to Dr Linda. Poor pup, I'm sorry to hear this has happened. At such a young age, a dog's stomach and intestines are not especially big and we see obstructions quite commonly. Similarly, young pups are more prone to stomach upset and bloating as their gut is less developed. You didn't mention what was in the trash but if there was anything indigestible (such as foil, bones, plastic) we would worry it has lodged and caused an obstruction. She may also develop signs such as vomiting and a refusal to feed. Another possibility is that she has over eaten and is now full of gas and food so is very uncomfortable. Given her age and as you say there is visible swelling, I would have her seen by a vet as soon as you can. Fingers crossed she just needs some medicine (such as an ant acid and some pain relief) as well as some time to let things digest, but we need to ensure there is nothing more serious going on.

Oct. 22, 2020

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Lab and border collie

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8 weeks

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Unknown severity

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3 found helpful

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Unknown severity

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She Ate And Her Belly Is Kind Of Tight And Was Alittle Uncomfortable At First Trying To Sleep.

So my puppy ate dinner and her belly got kind of tight and she had a little trouble getting comfortable and she did pee and poop, just this is my first puppy and I'm worried I just want to make sure its not serious bloating or anything I need to worry about

Sept. 29, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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3 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. Conditions like bloating, or twisting of the stomach are almost unheard of in eight week old puppies. More commonly, that age group tends to eat a lot and just be really full. As long as your puppy is defecating normally, not vomiting, and generally comfortable, I think you are okay. If you are concerned, it is always best to check with a veterinarian who can examine your puppy, but that sounds pretty normal for a puppy.

Oct. 1, 2020

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Borador

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Three Years

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Unknown severity

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4 found helpful

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Unknown severity

Has Symptoms

Swollen Abdomen

My dog has a swollen abdomen but doesn't appear to be in pain, isn't vomiting, is relaxed/playful, and is willingly eating. Should I be concerned of bloat or the other serious potential causes of a swollen abdomen

Sept. 28, 2020

Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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4 Recommendations

Thank you for your question. If the swelling is something that you have noticed as different, and the swelling is not changing or improving, I think that having your dog seen by a veterinarian would be a good idea, yes. Many causes of abdominal swelling can be treated if caught early. I hope that your dog is okay.

Oct. 7, 2020

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cleo

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miniature poodle

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2 Years

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Mild severity

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0 found helpful

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Mild severity

Has Symptoms

Crying

i have a mini poodle and cocker spaniel mix she turns 2 years old next month, for the past two days her belly has been swollen towards the bottom and she has been randomly crying/making whimpering noises. she is still drinking water and eating a little but she doesnt usually eat a lot anyway.

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Roro

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Rottweiler

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10 Years

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Serious severity

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1 found helpful

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Serious severity

Has Symptoms

Bloated Stomach, Coughing,

My Rottweiller has a bloated stomach, coughing, difficulty breathing and is very lethargic. She is now 10 years old. Also seems to be panting more often and drinking lots of water. She is still eathing, wagging her tail but she is definitely not the same as she was a week ago. She is passing stools.

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Cleo

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American Staffordshire Terrier

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15 Years

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Moderate severity

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Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Vaginal Discharge
Constipation
Distention

We have an unaltered female, which we don't breed but she hasn't had a heat in years. She is so old we thought it was best to just let her live out her days. Well about 2 months ago my nephew brought his dog over who was in heat which threw our 15 year old into heat.. she had bleeding or discharge for 3 weeks. I had tried to get her into the vet but there is only one vet and the next closest big town is about 200 miles. So we waited for the next week. Keep in my we love our animals they are all rescues and wanted to give them the best possible life they can have for however long. We have had her since she was little. Anyway I finally get her into the vet you can see her belly is distended she had stopped eating, and we were struggling with if we should put her to sleep. They did a blood work up an her WBC was 74k everything else seemed to be in order obviously her neu were really high as well, and he said she had pyometra and said there are 2 options.. euthanasia or do the surgery 800-1200$ but we have to look at the age of the dog. He said we should have brought her in sooner so explained I had tried to but they told me they couldn't squeeze her in.. we have been battling for 3 weeks. The vet did xrays he said she wasn't constipated.. I asked about other options since she was still eating in good spirits and not dehydrated, he gave us an antibiotic, and I had asked about prostaglandins low dose to keep her uterus open and flushing and he said he doesn't think that therapy works.. he has only done 3 of the pyometra surgeries and one was a fatality. We aren't comfortable with it. I did call other vets and they quoted $2000 for the surgery. Otherwise to euthanize her. Why doesnt anyone want to try alternatives?why not try to flush her uterus? Anyway he gives us an antibiotic and I researched this for days, there was nothing saying this was the antibiotic to use. I'm in the medical field and have been for 11years. After day 2 of her vomiting up her antibiotics and her slowly getting worse I tell my husband we are taking her in for an ER vet visit. The vet says he'll meet us there after an hour and a half of waiting I have my husband text again he shows up shortly.. this whole time she had still been leaking. He takes her in examines her, and then gives me the antibiotics I thought he should have given her in the first place a fluoroquinolone and a second Antibiotic. So again I ask about the prostaglandins still didnt wanna try it. Well she stopped leaking that day it was a Sunday. She still never had a fever started eating fine I started cooking her food. Well Tuesday her body started having contractions to push out the infection.. she had some big clots and the smell woke me up from my sleep all along this dog i great spirits. The vets I've talked to especially the one we've been dealing with is very confused by what's going on. We did a retest and her WBC dropped to 50k, and then we continued antibiotic therapy, the next Saturday she pushed out some more fluid this time was not as much and no where near as smelly.. we rechecked her numbers and they jumped to wbc 86k and we were told we had to make a decision. I had to talked with another vet who said dont get your Hopes up but there's an off chance her body beat this infection but is still producing soldiers for the battle. Still eating, no fever, still drinking, happy as can be. We he had a family meeting and decided if we had to make a decision she would be euthanized. She also has some sort of autoimmune that had caused her body to turn on her skin.. but it has been under control for about 2 yrs I'm wondering how much the autoimmune disease could mess with her wbc. I just had her wbc kidney function all done again a few days ago and her wbc was back down 62k. But now her rbc has went low, and her alb bun are on the low end the vet is not concerned with this though. The last visit I also said her belly was pretty distended he felt said she was fine I told him I was giving her some fiber cause she hadn't been pooping asked if there could be a blockage he didnt think so got me a couple enemas I asked about rupture and he assured me it wouldn't be an issue. She continued leaking an fluids cleared, no sign of infection, no bad smell, no blood tinged puss, but wbc still that high. Did the first enema she pooped quite a bit. Belly still seems distended though. Any help? Thoughts or concerns? She is still on antibiotics at this time.

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Gino

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Cane Corso Italiano

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4 Years

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Serious severity

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0 found helpful

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Serious severity

Has Symptoms

Distended Stomach
Distended

Our sons 4 yr old cane corso has a bloated/distended stomach. His physique has changed in the last 3 months. He has lost weight and his spine, ribs and hipbones show thru his skin. its as if all weight is pulled down to his stomach. He still has an appetite and is still eating and drinking. He appears to be urinating and has regular bowel movements. He has less energy but still goes out for walks etc. Due to his breed and termperment his vet will not see him unless he tranqilized which is costly. What do think may be going on?

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Gizmo

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Chihuahua

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15 Years

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Moderate severity

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0 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Bloating
Breathing

We have a 15-year-old Chihuahua majority of his life no major health issues. just last week he’s been having loose bowels, they stopped Two days later his stomach started bloating and is having difficulty breathing, we are going on day 4 with no bowel movement and his abdomen area is still bloated . He is still eating small portions of food and continues drinking water. Any advice

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