Bloat is an umbrella term for two different disorders of your dog’s stomach: gastric dilatation and gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). With gastric dilatation, the stomach gets filled with trapped stomach gasses. It can swell to an uncomfortable size and even to where it’s putting pressure on other organs like the lungs and heart. Gastric dilatation and volvulus occurs when that gas filled stomach actually twists on itself, cutting off blood flow to the stomach and preventing blood from returning to the heart. Both conditions can lead to shock and death if left untreated.
Every large breed dog parent, and veterinarian for that matter, have their own theories on what causes a dog to bloat. Drinking ice water, the size of the dog food kibble, inhaling their food, vigorous exercise after eating, too many carbs, too much food or water at once, or even stress. With a list of possibilities that long, it’s no wonder that everyone has their own opinion, but the truth is, the exact science behind it is widely unknown. One thing is for sure, while bloat can occur in any and all breeds and sizes of dogs, large breeds are by far more commonly affected. Especially those large breeds with deep chests and narrow waists, like Great Danes, Weimaraners, Rottweilers, and several members of the setter variety.
A few other factors that may increase a dog’s risk of developing bloat are a familial history. Meaning that if any of your dog’s littermates have experienced bloat, your dog may be higher at risk. The occurrence of bloat also seems to be higher in nervous dogs, dogs that are fed only one meal a day, and histories have shown that most dogs presenting to emergency veterinary hospitals engaged in some form of moderate exercise immediately following a meal. The idea behind this is that large amounts of food or water, coupled with immediate exercise can cause blockage of the exit route for stomach gas, allowing a balloon-like effect where the stomach inflates. Once inflated, romping around the backyard or jogging along the greenbelt allows that ballooned stomach to flip-flop on itself creating discomfort and possibly irreversible damage.
Whatever the actual cause behind bloat is, it’s a very serious condition that all dog parents need to be aware of. Whether your best friend is as teacup Chihuahua or a hip-high Great Dane, the signs and symptoms are the same. These symptoms come on quickly, so it’s important to recognize them and then get them to a veterinarian. Initial signs may be subtle and can include:
- Pacing, acting restless or anxious: As a pup’s stomach starts to inflate with trapped gas, they become uncomfortable. Laying down can increase that pressure, so many dogs will continue to walk or pace instead of lying down. They may become nervous or anxious due to discomfort and uncertainty.
- Swollen stomach: Obviously, if your dog’s stomach is filling with air, there’s a good chance you’re going to notice an increase in their girth as well. This will be more dramatic the smaller-waisted that your dog is. Their stomach may become hard and tight like a drum and be painful if you touch it.
- Stretching: In order to try to relieve some of the pressure and discomfort that comes with bloat, your dog may try to stretch with their front legs down and their hind legs up in a sort of bowing position. This is their way of increasing the space in their abdomen to accommodate their growing stomach.
- Drool and retching: Drooling can be a sign of discomfort or it may be because they can’t swallow their saliva because of a blockage to the stomach. A dog with bloat may also retch or try to vomit without bringing anything up.
As bloat gets worse or if the stomach gets twisted, all of the above signs are still in play, but you may notice a few additional ones as well.
- Short of breath: With a large stomach pressing on their chest and lungs, dogs may appear short of breath or be gasping for air. If the stomach has twisted and is keeping much-needed blood from returning to the heart, rapid breathing in an effort to oxygenate what blood is left may happen as well.
- Collapse: Due to low blood volume return or simply out of pain, a dog with severe bloat may collapse.
- Pale gums: Pale gums are a sure sign that a dog is going into shock. Again, this is due to a lack of blood returning to the heart.
- Feeling weak: Any of the above reasons can cause a dog to feel weak, with pain and lack of oxygen being the main culprits.
The most effective treatment of bloat is getting your dog to the vet as soon as possible. After that, treatment will depend on the severity. First and foremost, veterinarians will treat any shock by giving fluids intravenously. They may then take an abdominal x-ray to determine if the stomach is twisted or just bloated.
For dogs with gastric dilatation only, the vet will try to pass a tube down your dog’s throat in order to open up the route to the stomach and release the built-up gas. They will usually do some bloodwork to screen for other organ damage and treat it as necessary. If a stomach tube can’t be passed, either because the stomach has twisted and won’t allow it or for some other reason, your vet may release the built-up gas with a large-bore needle inserted into the stomach from the outside. The sooner this gas pressure can be released, the less likely further damage will be caused.
In cases of gastric dilatation and volvulus, these dogs will get all of the above treatment plus surgery. Surgery is the only way that a twisted stomach can be fixed. While in there, your vet will check the stomach and other organs for signs of damage. If the twisting was severe and left long enough, parts of the stomach or spleen may need to be removed as well. The stomach is then stitched to the body wall to prevent it from happening again. Dogs with GDV aren’t out of the woods following surgery. In fact, far from it. Nearly one-third of dogs that undergo surgery for GDV won’t make it due to damage to other areas of the body. Dogs may experience heart or further stomach complications even days after a successful surgical repair.
A GDV surgery is pretty major, so even with no further complications, dogs will need to be on bed rest for a few weeks, go home on antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and of course, everyone’s favorite E-collar (also known as the take-out-your-legs lampshade for those of you with previous experience!)
Even though we don’t completely understand what brings on bloat in dogs, we do have some ways of preventing it. Since it’s most commonly believed to occur with exercise following a large meal, just make sure that doesn’t happen. Practice the same rule you should for swimming-wait 30 minutes between your meal and getting in the water(exercise). You may also choose to feed smaller meals more frequently and have water available all of the time to prevent your dog from chugging large amounts at once. If you can, try to reduce your dog’s stress levels, especially at feeding time. For example, you may choose to delay their meal until they’ve calmed down from the you-just-getting-home excitement or feed family dogs separately if there are some food aggression issues between them.
A step further that can be taken for those most at-risk breeds is a prophylactic gastropexy. A mouth full, I know, but it basically means having their stomach stitched to the body wall before they ever have a chance to bloat. While most dog parents don’t immediately jump at the thought of putting their pup under anesthesia for something that might or might not happen, it can routinely be done as part of other surgeries, like spaying or neutering. That way your dog is only under once and you can be preventing a potentially life-threatening issue at the same time.
While bloat in humans is just an uncomfortable and possibly embarrassing condition, bloat in dogs is very serious and life-threatening. Recognizing the initial signs is key to successfully treating bloat in dogs, and knowing the potential causes may help you prevent it as well. If your canine companion is a deep-chested, large breed dog with a familial history of bloat, preventative surgery may be your best option.