Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog: Swollen Abdomen

A swollen abdomen might not seem like much of a scary problem but it can be a sign of a life-threatening emergency. How does one tell the difference?

Understanding what might be happening and looking at the big picture comes in handy.

Acute or chronic?

If your dog just broke into a bag of kibble or biscuits, or otherwise helped themselves to an unusual volume of food, their stomach might be swollen due to what is called food bloat. The same thing might happen to you after a Thanksgiving dinner. And since you're still here reading the article, chances are your dog will be fine as well.


They also might not be. Here is what the difference is. Containing all that food, the stomach will expand--dilate. That might be uncomfortable and followed by a digestive upset and that might be it. The big trouble ensues when this enlarged stomach manages to turn around on itself. Not only that it is extremely full, but everything that is in there becomes trapped. With all the digestive action that happens in there, it will continue to expand, becoming more and more painful. As well, this will cut off blood flow, compromise breathing and the stomach can even rupture.

This is called gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) and it is a dire emergency when hours and even minutes can mean the difference between the life and death of your dog.

Some breeds are more predisposed to suffer from this problem; do you know whether your dog is on the list?

Beside an enlarged abdomen, a dog with GDV will also be extremely restless and distressed, pace around, pant and drool excessively, and try to vomit with nothing coming out.

This is the mother of all emergencies.

Without immediate veterinary care, your dog will die. The treatment involves managing shock, stabilizing your dog's heart, and decompressing their stomach, followed by surgery.

A closet full of boogeymen

What we're talking about here is acute abdominal distention. Things like pregnancy, obesity or hormonal disorders can cause the belly to grow large or to look like it did. In general, the faster it happens, the more serious it likely is.

A rupture or puncture of your dog's stomach or intestine can cause another life-threatening problem--peritonitis. Peritonitis is inflammation of the lining of your dog's abdominal cavity, most commonly because of bacteria that spilled out from the wound.

Peritonitis too is extremely painful and dangerous.

Your dog's stomach can swell up from internal bleeding or fluid build up.  As you can guess, regardless of the cause, this too is scary and dangerous stuff.

A splenic tumor, for example, can rupture and bleed into the abdomen.

Excess fluid in the abdomen can be a common side-effect of some types of heart disease, liver disease,  or low blood protein levels that lead to fluid leaking out of the blood vessels.

The more acute and severe the signs, the faster you need to see a vet.

Swollen belly rarely happens in isolation. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

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Do you know what your dog is telling you about their health?

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog now available in paperback and Kindle. Each chapter includes notes on when it is an emergency.

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is an award-winning guide to help you better understand what your dog is telling you about their health and how to best advocate for them. 

Learn how to see and how to think about changes in your dog’s appearance, habits, and behavior. Some signs that might not trigger your concern can be important indicators that your dog needs to see a veterinarian right away. Other symptoms, while hard to miss, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or limping, are easy to spot but can have a laundry list of potential causes, some of them serious or even life-threatening. 

Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog is a dog health advocacy guide 101. It covers a variety of common symptoms, including when each of them might be an emergency. 

An award-winning guide for dog parents