Abdominal or tummy pain is one of the hardest conditions to pick up on in our pets. Generally, pets that have a sore belly are depressed and quiet, but there can be few symptoms that indicate why they aren't themselves.
The abdomen is the way your vet will describe your pet's tummy. It is the area of the body that contains the stomach and intestines, the liver, kidneys, pancreas, and bladder. In male pets, we also find the prostate gland and in females, the ovaries and uterus. There are also lymph nodes, connective tissue, and fat. All these things can cause pain, but the nerve endings in the abdomen are not particularly specific, which is why when you have bellyache you cannot pinpoint exactly where or what in your tummy is hurting – you just have pain over the whole area.
The most common causes of abdominal pain in our pets include:
- Stomach pain, which can be caused by repeated vomiting or inflammation of the stomach.
- Foreign bodies, which could be anything solid stuck in your pet's stomach or intestines. Blockages will cause the guts to cramp and swell, which can be very painful.
- Pancreatitis, an inflammatory condition of the pancreas
- Bladder issues, including cystitis or obstructions in the urinary tract
- Prostate problems, especially infections
- Uterus infections (pyometra)
There are very few ways for our pets to show us that their tummy is hurting. The dull, ache of abdominal pain is often very depressing, so your pet may just be quiet and lethargic. Common symptoms associated with the cause of the pain may be more obvious, such as vomiting, diarrhea, a gurgling tummy, or an abnormality with their urination. Occasionally, your pet may cry out or growl when you pick them up or touch their abdomen, but this is less common. Sometimes pets, particularly dogs, adopt the "prayer position" – front end on the ground, with hindquarters in the air -- which is thought to be one way they attempt to relieve their discomfort.
Your vet will diagnose abdominal pain by palpating (examining) your pet's tummy and looking at their response. However, it is important to remember that pets can be very stoical, especially in the vet's office, and may not always show their pain in an obvious fashion. The vet will also feel for any abnormalities such as misshapen organs or lumps.
If they are suspicious of an internal issue causing pain, they are likely to advise further testing to diagnose the problem. These can include blood tests to assess organ function, and imaging using radiographs (X-rays) and ultrasound to view any abnormalities. In the most serious cases, or ones which don't respond to treatment, the vet may advise surgery to open up the abdomen to identify the issue fully.
Treatment of abdominal pain will very much depend on the cause of the problem. In some cases, simple pain relief might be all that is required; for others, it will be necessary to treat the underlying issue to alleviate the discomfort. These can include specific medications, dietary changes, antibiotics, catheterization to empty the bladder, or even surgery – especially in the cases of pets with intestinal abnormalities, foreign bodies, pyometra, or tumors.