Taking Care of Bloated Puppies

Illustration of a bloated puppy and symptoms
Illustration: Catherine Song. © The Spruce, 2018 

In puppies, bloat goes beyond a cute potbelly tummy common to youngsters after a full meal. In fact, a bloated stomach in puppies may be a sign of intestinal worms. Bloat—or gastric dilation-volvulus (GDV)—is a leading cause of death among large and giant breed puppies. Most often, bloat develops from the air that rapidly accumulates in the stomach until the puppy’s tummy twists. Then, stomach contents are trapped and can’t be expelled through vomit or burps.

Bloat also refers to stomach distention with or without the stomach rotation. The twist cuts off blood circulation to the stomach and spleen, which compresses a vein that returns blood to the heart, and severely restricts normal blood circulation. Sadly, this process can cause death within hours.

Puppy Bloat Risks

Large and giant puppy breeds have three times the greater risk than mixed breeds. Oddly, nobody really knows why the stomach ultimately rotates. Great Danes have the highest incidence, with about a 40 percent chance that they’ll have an episode before they reach age seven. Dogs that are underweight also have an increased risk.

Dr. Larry Glickman of Purdue University conducted a five-year study of nearly 2,000 show dogs, funded by a grant from the AKC Canine Health Foundation, the Morris Animal Foundation, and 11 dog breed clubs. His work suggested that deep, narrow chest conformation of certain breeds creates a more acute angle where the esophagus connects with the stomach.

Thus, that may be what predisposes them to accumulate gas in their stomach.

However, that alone isn’t the cause of bloat. The puppy's personality also influences risk. Anxious, irritable, nervous, and aggressive characteristics make dogs predisposed to bloat. Some research even indicates that nervous dogs have 12 times the higher risk for bloat than calm and happy dogs.

Thus, proper puppy socialization that reduces nerves, and potential for fear, can help prevent bloat as your puppy grows up. Dr. Glickman’s study also confirmed that bloat risk increased with advancing age, larger breed size, greater chest depth/width ratio, and having a sibling, offspring, or parent with a history of bloat.

Symptoms of Bloat

The pain of the swollen tummy makes affected pups act restless within just a few hours of eating. They’ll whine and cry, get up and lie down again, and pace in an effort to get comfortable. The dog may also strain to vomit or defecate but can’t. You’ll also notice that your puppy's stomach swells and becomes painful. Finally, there will be signs of shock—pale gums, irregular or shallow breathing, and rapid heartbeat—followed by collapse and death.

Treatment and Prevention

If you notice that your puppy has symptoms of bloat, it needs to be taken to the hospital immediately. To treat bloat, the veterinarian decompresses your puppy’s distended tummy by passing a stomach tube down the throat. That allows the gas and stomach contents to empty. The vet will also look to resolve shock with circulating blood flow, correct the position of the stomach, and remove a dying stomach or spleen.

Early treatment is key to increase the chance of survival. Unfortunately, a twisted stomach requires surgery to fix. If your puppy's bloat is caused early enough, and a gastropexy is performed successfully, it's unlikely that another twisted stomach would form. However, some dogs that get bloat die from their condition, even if they're treated surgically.

Preventing Bloat

Although bloat can't be completely prevented, predisposing factors can be reduced, particularly with large and giant dog breeds. Even when the stomach decompresses by stomach tube (without surgery), experts recommend gastropexy surgery, which fixes the stomach to the body wall so it can’t twist. The latter prevents a recurrence of the condition in more than 90 percent of cases.

Gastropexy surgery may be recommended as preventative, particularly in Great Danes or other pups that have a family history of bloat.

It can be done at the same time as spay or neuter surgery as well. Laparoscopic surgery techniques can also make the procedure much less invasive and reduce recovery time. In all, gastropexy intentionally creates a scar that, when healed, fixes the stomach to the body wall.

Dr. Glickman’s study showed that limiting water and exercise before and after meals, as commonly recommended in the past, did not reduce the incidence of bloat. Another recommendation, like raising the food bowl, increased the risk of bloat by about 200 percent. Finally, eating too fast also increases risk.

However, there are some things you can do to prevent your pup from getting bloat:

  • Lower your pup's food bowls.
  • Give your puppy smaller quantities of multiple meal feedings.
  • Don’t give pups a bucket of water. This makes them bury their head into it and suck down several gallons at once.
  • Place a heavy chain with large links in the bowl with the food. That forces the dog to slow down to eat around the chain. Similarly, feeding your puppy with puzzle toys also forces them to not gulp down food.