Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Bloated Belly, Distended Abdomen

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • If you notice signs of colic, along with this sign.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp >101F/38.3C) or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

  • If the horse has lost weight or seems to be doing poorly, in addition to this sign.

Code Yellow - Contact Your Vet at Your Convenience for an Appointment

  • If the horse's appetite and attitude are normal and you see nothing else wrong.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

A bloated belly or abdomen can result from a variety of problems and needs to be evaluated in the context of other signs of illness or disease. Keep in mind that horses of different types and breeds may appear more fat or slender through the abdomen. Depending on weight and feeding management, specific individuals may naturally appear more full through the mid-section than others.

True bloat results from the filling of the intestine with gas and/or fluid. A horse with a gas-filled intestine usually exhibits signs associated with abdominal pain (colic). Gas accumulation in horses usually appears high in the flanks, giving the horse a very round or apple-shaped appearance when viewed from behind.

In contrast, the so-called “hay belly” refers to a pendulous, sagging belly that usually results from accumulation of large quantities of feed roughage in the intestine.

In rare cases, (in ill horses), the space around the abdominal organs may fill with fluid, resulting in a slightly different appearance.

WHAT TO DO

Assess your horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE). Look at and feel the top-line and rib cage to get an assessment of body condition. Tap on the highest part of the distended belly with your finger tip. Is it tight like a drum (gas) or soft? If your horse is exhibiting other signs of illness or colic, call your vet immediately with your findings and concerns.

WHAT YOUR VET DOES

Your vet will take a history and perform a physical exam to determine whether this is distention from obstruction, a “hay belly” or something else. If this finding is accompanied by signs of abdominal pain (colic), distention usually indicates obstruction or dysfunction of the intestine and additional diagnostics may be recommended.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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