Distended Stomachs May Quickly Become Medical Emergencies if Dog Parents Aren't Looking Out for Possible Causes

Posted by Dr. Roth on

sick overweight dog with distended stomach

When it comes to dogs, a big belly usually isn’t a big problem. There are many causes of a distended (swollen) stomach in dogs. Most of them aren’t emergencies. Some of them may be, though, so always be on the lookout for major warning signs.

Signs of an Emergency

When a bloated dog is in the throes of a medical emergency, they’ll look distressed and uncomfortable. The biggest red flags are:

  • ‌A suddenly bloated or distended stomach
  • ‌Trying to vomit without bringing anything up
  • ‌Pacing around restlessly
  • ‌Breathing rapidly and shallowly
  • Physical discomfort and lethargy
  • ‌Pawing or looking anxiously at their belly
  • ‌Standing and stretching, seeming unable to lie down

These are signs of a potentially fatal condition called gastric dilation and volvulus. GDV can kill a dog within hours if untreated, so bring the dog to the emergency vet immediately if they show any of the above symptoms.

GDV is more than simple bloating. When the dog eats a large meal, their stomach swells with food and gas. It can get to the point where, if there is a blockage, neither can escape. As pressure increases, the stomach starts to turn, cutting off blood flow. Immediate medical care is crucial. GDV is most common in:

  • Older dogs
  • Larger dogs
  • Dogs with deep chests
  • Dogs who eat just one large meal daily
  • Dogs with a breed or family history of bloat

Dogs that have consumed chocolate may experience a distended or bloated stomach and show signs of physical illness. If a pet has consumed inedible materials and has a digestive tract blockage they may also show severe signs of bloat that may require emergency medical treatment. 

sick dog with distended stomach laying on ground

Other Causes of a Bloated Belly

If a dog’s belly seems bigger than usual but they’re not trying to vomit, there’s probably a less serious culprit. 


A dog may just have plain old gas. Look for mild bloating and listen for stomach grumbling. There’ll probably be some unpleasant-smelling flatulence involved. There are probiotics and other digestive supplements available for dogs with gas problems. Ask an online vet for recommendations.


Pet parents often think their dog is bloated, only to find out that the dog is just getting fat. Usually this confusion comes from a lack of awareness around the dog’s nutrition or portions, not necessarily because they are not getting enough exercise.

Overweight dogs have a higher risk of many medical conditions including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Consult with a vet about ways to help an obese dog slim down. 


Intestinal parasites can cause a dog to look pot-bellied. Puppies are more likely to have worms, but this can happen in older dogs, as well. A simple at-home worm test can tell you if your dog has this kind of parasite and a veterinarian can recommend deworming treatments.


If a female dog gets pregnant, they’ll start to gain weight in about the second month. Before that point, the dog may show other signs of pregnancy—including morning sickness and increased appetite. 


Certain illnesses can cause enlargement of a dog’s internal organs or fluid buildup inside the belly. These include:

  • ‌Thyroid disease
  • ‌Adrenal gland disease
  • ‌Heart disease
  • ‌Fluid accumulation
  • ‌Tumors

Finding Dog Medical Advice

Even though a distended stomach in dogs isn’t always an emergency, there’s always something a pet parent can do to help. Online vet advice is a great place to start, and Fuzzy members have access to it 24/7 with Live Vet Chat.

Become a Fuzzy member today and get on-demand answers to any dog care question, from what to do with an overweight dog to what digestive supplements work best.

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