Dog Stomach Cramps: a sign of something sinister?

Seeing your dog in regular discomfort with apparent stomach cramps can lead to worry about what is really going on in their belly. Worries that these cramps are a sign of more serious disease.

Here’s the action you should take

a dog stretching out in the prayer position with stomach cramps

Dog Stomach Cramps

I have a small mix terrier 8 years old. Every now and then she has stomach or intestines cramps. I come back from work and she just wants to go out straight to the park and start eating grass like a crazy. Then she is not vomiting or having diarrhea, she just keeps stretching her belly and she walks slowly. After half hour she is back to normal and eats her food as usual. In the past she had problems with giardia and other parasites that we treated properly, now I am worried that she might have something serious at her stomach or liver or intestines. - Barbara

Barbara is worried that her dog might have something serious going on in her stomach, her liver, or in her intestines.

The first thing to say is that Barbara should definitely be getting her dog checked over by her vet to make sure there is no clear pain or other problem in her abdomen. It’s not fair on her dog to do anything less.

Film The Episodes

If it is at all possible, film one of these episodes. Very often, when we're having dogs (and cats!) brought into our consulting room, they don't do whatever it is that they're doing at home. They don't do the behavior. It is tough to get a picture of exactly what's going on without being able to see the problem. It's also very hard to accurately describe these episodes too!

Taking your phone out when she's having one of these episodes and recording it can be really important. It can make a difference when it comes to the speed at which a diagnosis can be made, or which tests are run. It can help save time and money.

Film something if you can.

Common Causes of Stomach Cramps

  • Pancreatitis

  • Inflammatory bowel disease

  • Abdominal cancer

  • Infectious kidney disease (pyelonephritis)

  • Peritonitis

  • Arthritis of the spine

  • Intervertebral disk disease


If you do have your dog checked over and everything is normal, then there could be a number of different causes of apparent abdominal pain or stomach cramps.

This could be something like mild pancreatitis. The pancreas is up by the stomach, at the front end of the abdomen. When it’s inflamed, it hurts. With pancreatitis, you will often see a dog stretching out. The classic prayer position is what we call it. It is where their bum is in the air and their back legs are straight. They are crouching down so that their head and their chest are on the ground and their front legs are stretching forward.

This is a sign of abdominal pain in general, but it is something that they will often get with pancreatitis.

Pancreatitis can vary from just being a mild grumbling, chronic pancreatitis where that discomfort is the only thing that's going on. It can get more severe, and ultimately progress into life-threatening, acute pancreatitis. In that case, a dog would be very unwell.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

There might also be something like inflammatory bowel disease, or even a dietary sensitivity, where the lining of the intestines gets a little bit inflamed. This will often cause diarrhea (and possibly vomiting) in the first instance, but intestinal discomfort may also be a feature. Especially given the episodes are intermittent and infrequent.

Tumors and other disease

It could even be something slowly growing in her abdomen. I am thinking really of tumors here. They are not always felt when a vet is feeling the belly. It depends on how tense the abdomen is, where the mass is, and what size it is.

Arthritis of the spine and intervertebral disk disease can also be mistaken for abdominal pain. Inflamed kidneys, peritonitis, and various other diseases can also cause pain.

You can see why an examination is important!

Diagnosing the Problem

Most likely, given Barbara’s description, there is nothing too serious going on. That means there are likely to be several options are going forward depending, of course, on what your vet suggests, what the examination findings are and any other history there may be for this terrier.

Diet Sensitivity

You could potentially try and switch to a hypoallergenic diet. A nice bland, easily digestible diet that is designed for intestinal upsets as well as potential allergies or dietary sensitivities. Just see if a change in diet helps.

Whenever we change a dog’s diet, sometimes we will get an improvement very quickly. More often, however, it can take several months before we see the full benefit of that diet. If you are going to change diet, continue to feed it for at least 8 weeks before giving up if the attacks continue.

Blood Tests and Ultrasound

Another strategy, and the safest option, would be to run a screening blood test for some of the conditions I've discussed. You can get blood tests that would rule out or make pancreatitis very, very unlikely.

Depending on these results, you can also have a screening ultrasound scan performed. That would be useful to have a little look at the lining of the intestines. To see if there's any inflammation which may be an indication that we are dealing with inflammatory bowel disease. One thing to bear in mind here though is that inflammatory bowel disease and cancer look very similar on ultrasound. A biopsy is needed to confirm any diagnosis of either.

An ultrasound is also going to show you if anything is growing where it shouldn’t be. If there is a mass in the liver, the spleen, or the stomach.

Vet Check

Now, as I said, I suspect that there is nothing too serious behind what is being described, but there's no way that I can say that for sure. It's causing a problem to this wee terrier. It's causing some distress. It's causing some discomfort.

Getting a check over and then discussing the options with your vet is going to be the best idea. If there is something going on and there's a proper treatment that can be given, if you get onto it early you are more likely to get a diagnosis that is actionable. There is more likely to be something you can actually do to help.

With some conditions, if we leave things too late, even if we make that diagnosis, the treatment that we give will not have the best effect. Treatment may not have any effect.

If it's nothing, then you've got peace of mind. There's nothing more that we need to be doing or nothing serious we need to be treating. We can try some of these longer-term management steps to try and reduce these periods of stomach cramps and discomfort, safe in the knowledge that nothing has been missed.

The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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