Physical Exam Series: THE ABDOMEN Author: Dr. Brenda Gough

Wow!  There’s a lot of stuff in there…..

I’m sure it looks like I’m just squishing their belly.  There’s a whole lot of things I’m doing while I’m palpating an abdomen.

The abdomen contains many very important organs.   There’s the liver, the gallbladder,  the spleen, the kidneys, the adrenal glands, the bladder, the stomach, the small intestine, the large intestine, the pancreas, the reproductive organs ( if not already spayed or neutered) and lymph nodes!

We don’t have enough pages for me to explain all the different things we are feeling for when we palpate, but let me give you a few examples.

First and foremost, we hope that what we feel is normal.  We like normal.  We don’t want your pet to be sick or have anything bad going on.  But if it’s not normal, we have to investigate further with either an ultrasound or radiographs, or bloodwork, or all of the above.

We cannot feel everything in the abdomen.  How much we can feel depends on the dog or cat.  If they are obese, we can’t feel much of anything – too much fat in the way to be able to define the organs.   If they are tense, we can’t feel anything either.  If they are deep chested, a large portion of the liver and stomach are up under the last ribs and we can’t feel everything there either.

What we can feel tells us a lot.

We may feel an enlargement of the borders of the liver.  This can indicate many things, such as liver disease, Cushing’s disease, or sadly cancer.  We usually cannot feel the stomach unless the dog is suffering from bloat or a gastric-dilation-volvulus (twisted stomach).  If a dog or cat has pancreatitis or a foreign body in the intestines, they will sometimes show signs of pain when you palpate certain areas of the abdomen.

Some foreign bodies in the stomach or small intestines are easily palpated, such as socks, golf balls, earplugs, peach pits, and other objects that like, which get lodged in the small intestines and cause a blockage.  Other foreign bodies are not easily palpated, including string,  sticks, etc.

The spleen actually moves around quite a bit inside the abdomen and it’s quite fun to palpate, as it can be in different positions and you can, in some animals, move it around while palpating.  It’s important to check as much of the spleen as you can feel, as sometimes the spleen will grow tumors, unfortunately; and will sometimes be increased in size, if the animal has been exposed to certain toxins or medications.

The kidneys both sit very high in the abdomen, almost tucked under the rib cage and spine, but they are palpable in most cases, at least the caudal pole of them.  Cat kidneys are usually very easy to palpate.  We check as much as we can, making sure that we make a note about the size, if they are small and nodular, that may indicate kidney failure.  If they are large and nodular, that may indicate cancer.

We feel as much of the small intestines and large intestines that we can get to, just by running them through our fingertips.

We also feel the bladder for shape, size and presence of stones.

So, there is a lot of things going through our fingertips and our minds while we are ‘squishing’ your pet.

It takes years of training and experience to get really good at it.