DIY Dog Physical Exam: Dog Stomach

An “owner’s manual” for your dog. (Part 4 of 4)
By Shea Cox DVM, October 2012, Updated July 2020
how should a dog’s stomach feel

This is the last installment of the DIY physical exam for your dog! We have reached “the tail end” of things so to speak, and will be finishing up our discussion with learning some “belly basics” as well as what to watch out for with the musculoskeletal system.

To identify an illness or abnormal situation with your dog, you must first be able to recognize what is normal for your dog. You know your dog better than anyone else and you will have to decide when an abnormal situation warrants professional help. Sometimes the condition is so serious it leaves no doubt. Frequently, however, the changes are subtle, or happen over a longer period of time, making noticing a problem more difficult.

I will provide you with information on how to perform an at-home physical exam on your dog, helping to determine and establish what is normal for your pet. It is recommended that you occasionally perform this exam- while there is nothing wrong- so that you can begin to get used to what is normal. This practice will help allow for the early detection of changes in your dog’s health.

Examining The Stomach

Start with examining your stomach for this dog physical exam: check for lumps and bumps on the dog stomach, find out how should a dog’s stomach feel, and how to check for musculoskeletal issues. This is the last part of the series, you should now have a complete home guide on how to perform a screening exam on your dog.

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CHECKING YOUR DOG’S STOMACH:

The exam is pretty straightforward: touch and feel the dog’s stomach, starting just behind the ribs and gently press your hands into the belly. Like all other parts of the body, you will be getting a feel for what is normal, and then continuing to monitor for any future changes. If your pet has just eaten, you may be able to feel an enlargement in the left part of the belly just under the ribs (where the stomach “lives”), which can be normal just after eating. Continue by proceeding toward the rear of the body, passing your hands gently over the entire area. A dog's normal stomach should feel soft and not swollen. If your dog’s stomach is hard, that could be a sign of bloat and requires immediate veterinary attention.

Normal

  • No lumps, bumps, or masses
  • No discomfort on palpation
  • No distention of the belly

Abnormal

  • Any lump, bump, or mass may be abnormal
  • Any examination with your fingers and hands (palpation) that causes groaning or difficulty breathing.
  • Any evidence or indication of pain is a serious finding and requires immediate attention; sudden and marked belly pain is what we refer to as “an acute abdomen” and can be caused by various conditions including pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), sepsis (an infection in the belly that can be caused by a ruptured bowel or foreign body such as a foxtail), bleeding into the belly (such as from rat bait or a ruptured spleen), trauma, tumors or abscesses
  • If the abdomen feels hard or tense and it appears distended: this is one of the major signs of bloat or GDV and immediate attention is needed! 

MUSCULOSKELETAL:

There are many conditions that can all look like “a basic lameness” in our pets. Below are a few of the more common presentations I see and their potential causes.

Abnormal

Lameness in any single leg: when a pet becomes lame, sources of the discomfort can be from the bone, soft tissue, joints, or tendon/ligaments.

A persistent, non-resolving lameness despite rest and medications: another thing that needs to be considered is a type of bone cancer called Osteosarcoma; this can be common finding in the long bones of large breed, older dogs and an X-ray can be performed to screen for this type of cancer; another typical presentation for bone cancer that I see is a pet that develops a very sudden and severely painful lameness following a “simple” act, such as jumping off the porch.

Swelling of the joints: common causes include infectious diseases (tick-borne disease, septic joints), immune mediated disease, vaccine-related reactions, and degenerative joint diseases.

Loss of function or paralysis in hind legs: some causes include disease processes such as a herniated disk, cancer, infection, narrowing between the vertebrae of the spine, or degenerative myelopathy; losing the ability to walk is an emergency and immediate care is needed to help improve your pet’s chances of regaining mobility!

Recurring, shifting leg lameness, pain, and fever in a young dog: Panosteitis is a disease of the long bones of mostly young, growing large breed dogs; German Shepherd males are most frequently affected but any large breed dog can be affected.

Limp tail: this is also known as “limber tail,” or “cold tail” and is a condition in which a working dog suddenly develop a flaccid tail; affected dogs usually have a history of prolonged cage transport, a hard workout the previous day, swimming, or exposure to cold or wet weather; most dogs recover spontaneously within a few days to weeks but evaluation by your veterinarian should be done because there are other diseases that can mimic a “limber tail” such as a tail fracture, spinal cord disease, impacted anal glands, and prostatic disease.

I hope this systems approach to an “at-home physical exam” helps you to become familiar and stay in tune with what is normal for your pet. Performing this exam in the comfort of your own home is the best way to learn what is normal and helps you to recognize any early changes in your pets behavior. Consult your veterinarian if an abnormal condition exists or you are concerned about any exam finding.  Early recognition can save the life of your pet! 

By no means is this list exhaustive, and this information is intended as a general reference; it is not intended to replace professional advice or an examination by a veterinarian. 

DIY Physical Dog Exam

A complete home guide on how to perform a simple screening exam on your dog.

Part 1: Check Temperature and Heart rate
Part 2: Exam Your Dog’s Head
Part 3: Exam Your Dog’s Neck, Chest and Breathing
Part 4: Exam Your Dog’s Stomach Area

Consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about any of these dog physical exam findings; early recognition can save your dog’s life.

Photo of Mocha by Anne Marie

Shea Cox earned a veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine since. In 2006, she joined PETS Referral Center. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb and cook up a storm. She shares her days with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman.

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