Swelling of the Abdomen, Weight Loss, & Yellow Gums

Advanced liver disease can be deadly but many cases are manageable.



Our beautiful old dog is getting a little weak. And her stomach is getting big but when I feel her head and her back, she’s skin and bones. When you push on her stomach, it’s soft and mushy. She still feels pretty much OK but I also notice that her gums are a little bit yellow. Why is her belly big?


Dr. Nichol:

I’m glad you are getting advice. This old girl needs help for what sounds like liver failure. Let me explain.


The liver does many important things. In one sense it acts like a filter for the blood to strain out harmful particles and bacteria. While there is a large vein through the abdomen that carries blood back to the heart, a major portion of the returning blood is carried through the liver. When a liver becomes swollen due to infection or cancer it can’t filter the blood efficiently which forces some of the fluid portion of the blood to seep out into the abdomen. Chronic (long term) scarring of the liver does the same thing. The fluid in your dog’s abdomen (called ascites) could be caused by two or even all three of these problems.


This will be hard for you but these are very grave symptoms. The yellow color of her gums (jaundice) is also a result of her liver getting behind in its work. The plumbing inside her liver is swollen internally and the normal bile pigment (yellow color) isn’t getting pumped into the intestines where it belongs so it’s ending up in her blood instead. Hence you see it in her mouth.


What you must do for your old friend is to find the cause(s). Have your veterinarian examine her. Blood and urine tests will answer many questions. But x-rays of her abdomen as well as ultrasound evaluations will tell whether cancer is a likely cause. Last a biopsy of that liver is essential for showing exactly what’s ailing that poor old organ.


It all sounds terrible but a lot of pets with abdominal fluid and jaundice can be helped. With special diets, medication, and possibly surgery, you may improve her quality of life for a while. Have her checked out soon while there is still time.