By Rachele Baker, DVM – Question: Prudence writes: I have a ten-year-old spayed female black labrador retriever. Her stomach seems to have swollen and she has her tail tucked under her rear end. She has difficulty moving her rear end up and down and she walks gingerly. What do you think this might be?
Answer: Prudence, the clinical signs that you are describing could indicate a very serious problem. If you have not already done so, you should take your dog to your veterinarian right away. Without the ability to perform a physical examination and diagnostics (such as abdominal x-rays and bloodwork), I cannot diagnose your dog. Your veterinarian can perform a thorough physical examination and the necessary diagnostics.
Your dog having her tail between her legs and walking gingerly indicates that she is experiencing discomfort or pain. The difficulty she is having moving her rear end up and down could be due to her experiencing pain or discomfort when she tries to stand or sit. Since her abdomen appears swollen, I suspect that the pain or discomfort that she is exhibiting is due to pain or discomfort somewhere in her abdomen.
There are many things that can cause abdominal distention (swollen stomach). Any of the organs within her abdomen could be involved including her stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, or spleen. I will outline some of the more common causes of abdominal distention here.
Sometimes the stomach can become dilated with gas and then twist upon itself thereby cutting off the blood supply to the stomach and preventing the passage of food, fluids, and gas out of the stomach. The stomach then becomes grossly dilated and enlarged. This is a potentially life-threatening situation called Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (also known as GDV or “bloat”). As the stomach distends, the increased pressure within the abdomen causes compression of blood vessels which provide blood to the heart which can result in shock and cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart contractions). We do not know the exact cause of GDV but it is speculated that contributing factors may include eating a large amount of food or excessive activity immediately after eating. Clinical signs of GDV include vomiting or “dry heaves,” abdominal pain, abdominal distention, drooling, and depression. The photo below on the left shows a normal dog stomach. The photo below on the right shows a gas-filled (gas or air appears black in x-rays), grossly dilated (“gastric dilatation”) and twisted (“volvulus”) dog stomach (GDV).
Another potential cause of abdominal distention is intestines distended with gas or fluids. This can occur if the passage of gas and fluids is obstructed by a mass or tumor, a foreign body (such as a tennis ball or other object eaten by the pet), intestinal intussusception (when one portion of the intestine slides into the next like a telescope), or intestinal torsion (when the intestines twist). Clinical signs of intestinal obstruction include abdominal discomfort or pain, vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, and lethargy.
The abdominal cavity itself can become distended with fluids such as blood from a ruptured mass in the spleen resulting in a condition called hemoabdomen. Right-sided congestive heart failure can lead to fluid build-up within the abdomen called ascites.
An enlarged liver, spleen, or other organ can cause distention of the abdomen. The affected organ can be enlarged for a number of reasons including cancer, an abscess, infection, or inflammation. Masses or tumors anywhere within the abdomen can cause abdominal distention.
As you can see, a distended abdomen (swollen stomach) can be caused by many different things. There may be another cause for your dog’s distended abdomen that is not discussed here. The best thing for you to do is to take your dog to your veterinarian right away if you have not already done so. I hope that everything turns out well for your pet.