Bloat in Dogs

dog laying on couch

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Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation volvulus or GDV, is a life-threatening condition that can affect all dogs. However, large-breed or deep-chested dogs are more susceptible to this condition. It can happen very quickly and should be treated as an emergency

What is Bloat?

Gastric dilatation volvulus, or dog bloat, occurs when the stomach fills with gas causing it to dilate or bloat. In some cases, the stomach is distended with fluid or food. When this occurs, the stomach can twist upon itself so that both the entrance and exit are blocked. The twist in the stomach is painful and blocks the blood flow to the stomach. This pinching off of the blood supply can block the main vein (vena cava) that leads from the back half of the body to the heart. This decrease in blood flow to the heart can cause shock. Shock, a condition in which there is not enough blood going to the body, is fatal if not treated. 

Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs

  • Distended/bloated abdomen 
  • Retching with little to no food coming up
  • Restlessness due to discomfort
  • Abdominal pain
  • Excessive drool
  • Fast, heavy, or otherwise difficulty breathing 
  • Pale mucous members
  • Lethargy
  • Collapse

Distended, hard, or bloated abdomen: Dogs suffering from bloat may have a swollen or an enlarged stomach, which may or may not be visible just by looking at your dog. The swelling would be noticed between the rib cage and the hips. In the earlier stages, swelling may not be visible. You can gently touch your dog's belly and if it feels hard, and if your dog appears to be in pain (vocalizes, turns head quickly towards your hand, or tries to get away), he or she can be possibly suffering from bloat. 

Retching with little to no food coming up: Dogs suffering from bloat may try to vomit without anything or very little coming out. You may see small amounts of water or large volumes of thick saliva. It can appear as if your dog is trying to cough something up or they are gagging.

Abdominal pain: Due to the pain associated with bloat, your dog may be whining or howling, have a difficult time getting comfortable or lying down and may be standing and stretching frequently. Your dog also may appear to have a hunched back. Pacing and restlessness is often one of the most obvious and early signs.

Excessive saliva/drooling: Dogs suffering from bloat may have an excessive amount of saliva accompanied with lip smacking. This is partially a result of the dogs feeling nauseated.

Fast, heavy, or otherwise difficult breathing: The enlarged stomach pushes on the diaphragm resulting in decreased space in the chest that’s available for the lungs to expand, thus breathing is often shallow and fast. The pain and distress caused by bloat also contributes to these breathing changes. 

Pale mucous membranes and prolonged capillary refill time (CRT):  The color of your dog’s gums can be an indication of the health and function of their circulatory system, their heart and blood vessels. Pull back your pet's upper lip and examine his or her gums. Normal mucous membranes are pink but in the case of bloat, your dog’s gums will be a pale color or white.  

Collapse: Collapse is a late sign of bloat and often, by the time the dog collapses, the condition has been going on for a while. Many conditions in dogs can result in collapse, and collapse is always a sign of a serious problem that warrants immediate evaluation by a veterinarian.

Not all dogs with GDV/bloat will exhibit all of these symptoms. In some cases, the symptoms may be mild and not easy to see. If you are noting any of these symptoms or suspect your dog may be suffering from GDV, your dog needs immediate veterinary attention. If your veterinary clinic is not open, contact the closest veterinary emergency clinic. It’s important that you recognize this condition and act quickly.

Causes of Bloat

The exact cause is still unknown. We know air accumulates in the stomach (dilatation) and that the stomach twists (the volvulus part). We don’t know if the air builds up and causes the twist or if the stomach twists and then the air builds up.

Are Some Dogs More Prone Than Others?

Yes, there are several risk factors for this condition:

  • Large, deep chested breeds (such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Weimaraner, Standard Poodles, Basset Hounds, Doberman Pinschers, Old English Sheepdogs and German Shepherds)
  • Dogs that are fed a large single meal once a day
  • Are related to another dog that has experienced this condition

Most commonly, this condition occurs two to three hours after eating a large meal, although bloat and GDV can occur at any time

Treatment

GDV requires immediate intervention because it is a life-threatening emergency. This condition cannot be treated at home. The sooner your dog gets to the veterinarian, the better his or her prognosis is. 

At the veterinary hospital, X-rays will be taken to determine if your pet is suffering from GDV. Then treatment for shock and stabilization of your pet for surgery will begin. Treatment for shock typically involves the placement of an IV catheter and giving the dog medications, fluids, and oxygen.

While stabilizing your dog, the veterinarian will also attempt to decompress the stomach. To do this, they may attempt to pass a stomach tube through the dog’s mouth. If this is not possible due to twisting of the stomach, a large bore needle may be inserted through the skin into the stomach to decompress it.

Once stabilized, your dog will need surgery to de-rotate the stomach and tack it to prevent rotation again in the future.

Prognosis of Bloat in Dogs

The prognosis for most dogs to recover from GDV is good with supportive care and surgery. There are several factors that are associated with an increased the risk of death from GDV. These factors are:

  • If the dog has been symptomatic for more than 6 hours
  • If there are abnormal heart rhythms during surgery
  • If a portion of the stomach dies and needs to be removed
  • If the spleen needs to be removed

Keep in mind that the longer you wait, the poorer the prognosis.

Can This Condition Be Prevented?

There is no guaranteed way to prevent GDV, but there are several steps you can take to minimize the risk to your pet.

  • Gastropexy (surgical attachment of stomach to the body wall) is the most effective means of prevention. When a veterinarian performs a gastropexy surgery, they tack the stomach to the body wall so that it cannot twist and cause a life-threatening bloat. In high-risk breeds, some veterinarians recommend preventive gastropexy to be performed at the time of spay or neuter.
  • Careful attention to diet, feeding, and exercise regimens to prevent gastric dilation. This includes feeding two or more small meals per day, not using elevated feeders for dogs, and slowing down eating with a puzzle bowl and/or a puzzle toy. 
  • Decrease stress for your dog, especially around eating time. If your dog is protective of his or her food and scarfs it rapidly to prevent your other dogs from getting to it, consider separating your dogs during feedings so everyone can eat more calmly.