What you see. The starting point for addressing any equine health related issue is your observation.


Bloated Belly, Distended Abdomen


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.

  • 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.
You also might be observing
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your role


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.

your vet's role

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.
Questions Your Vet Might Ask:
  • When did you first notice this problem?
  • Are you seeing other signs of abdominal pain (colic)?
  • What is the horse's age, sex, breed and history?
  • How is your horse's attitude and appetite?
  • What are the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE)?

Diagnoses Your Vet May Consider

The cause of the problem. These are conditions or ailments that are the cause of the observations you make.

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Treatments Your Vet May Recommend

A way to resolve the condition or diagnosis. Resolving the underlying cause or treating the signs of disease (symptomatic treatment)

Very Common
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Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP