Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), is a common yet life-threatening condition most often affecting large and giant breed dogs. Dilatation occurs when the stomach fills up with gas and/or fluids, while volvulus refers to a twisting or rotation of the stomach, which in turn prevents the normal release of its contents. Twisting of the stomach can also damage the stomach’s blood supply. GDV is a painful, potentially fatal condition that requires immediate medical and surgical attention.
Breeds with a narrow, deep chest have the greatest risk for developing GDV because they have more room for stomach movement in the abdomen and behind the rib cage. Here are some of the breeds most at risk of bloat:
- Standard Poodle
- Great Dane
- Irish Wolfhound
- German Shepherd
- Labrador Retriever
- Golden Retriever
- Saint Bernard
- Siberian Husky
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- German Shorthaired Pointer
However, it should be noted that any dog — of any breed, size, or age — can suffer from bloat.
Signs and Symptoms of Dog Bloat
Early recognition and treatment of GDV can mean the difference between life and death for a dog. The condition usually comes on quickly, so if your dog displays any of the following signs, contact your vet immediately.
Here are some of the first symptoms of bloat:
- Swollen stomach
- Agitation / restlessness
- Unsuccessful attempts to vomit (which may look like gagging or retching)
- Pain (indicators: panting, guarding of the stomach, pained facial expressions)
As the condition progresses, you may notice these additional signs:
- Pale gums
- Rapid, weak pulse
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Weakness or collapse
If you’re unsure of the symptoms you’re seeing, err on the side of caution and bring your dog to the vet or nearest animal hospital as soon as you can.
How Did My Dog Get Bloat?
The exact cause of dog bloat is unknown, but there are certain risk factors that can increase a dog’s chances of developing this condition. They include:
- First-degree relatives that have had GDV
- Lean body condition
- Advancing age
- Fearful / nervous / aggressive temperament
- Eating quickly
- Eating only dry food
- Eating one large meal a day
These risk factors suggest that both genetics and environmental factors play a role in the development of GDV.
The vast majority of bloats are the result of gastric volvulus (dilatation and twisting). Occasionally, bloat can be caused by gastric dilatation only.
Diagnosing Bloat in Dogs
Diagnosing bloat is usually very straightforward: history, clinical signs, and abdominal x-rays are usually sufficient. Bloodwork is also usually performed in dogs with bloat, to provide a better assessment of dehydration, glucose levels, and kidney and liver function.
Imaging tests allow doctors to examine the distended stomach and check for something called the “double bubble,” which is when the stomach divides into two gas-filled sections suggesting a twist (volvulus).
Treating Your Dog for Bloat
Without medical attention, almost all dogs that develop bloat will die. That’s why it’s so important to seek immediate veterinary advice if your dog displays any signs of GDV.
There are several steps that must be taken in order to save a bloated dog’s life, beginning immediately upon arrival at the veterinary office.
- IV fluids: Fluids may be administered even before x-rays are performed. When the stomach fills with air, the pressure builds up and prevents normal blood flow, which means the blood cannot make its way back to the heart. The blood then pools at the back of the body, reducing the working blood volume and sending the dog into shock. Aggressive IV fluid therapy can help fight this.
- Decompression/alleviating gas pressure: There can be no recovery until the stomach is untwisted and the gas is released. After the dog is anesthetized, a tube is inserted down the dog’s throat to release gas. If the tube cannot pass due to the twist in the stomach, a large-bore needle or catheter is inserted into the side of the abdomen to relieve the pressure. If the stomach is still twisted after decompression, emergency surgery must be performed in order to straighten it out. Recovery cannot begin until the stomach is untwisted.
Even after the bloated stomach is decompressed, the vet’s work is far from over. Once the dog is stable, the next step in addressing GDV is surgery, in order to assess the condition of the stomach and spleen; remove any dead tissue; reposition the stomach to its normal location; and attach the stomach wall to the body wall in order to prevent it from twisting again. This procedure is called a “gastropexy.” In some cases, the spleen is also removed.
Without surgery, a dog may bloat again at any time, even within hours. Studies have shown that 76% of dogs that have had an episode of GDV but do not undergo gastropexy will bloat again, with more than half bloating within three months. Some veterinarians might advise owners of breeds that have a higher risk of developing GDV to have the gastropexy done as a preventative measure instead of waiting for an episode of bloat to occur.
As with any type of surgery, there can be complications associated with gastropexy. They include:
- Heart arrhythmia
- Blood infection
- Severe inflammation of the abdominal lining
- A serious clotting disorder called “disseminated intravascular coagulation”
Is There a Cure for Bloat?
In most cases, if caught in time, dog bloat is curable. However, you must act quickly to save your dog’s life. Testing and treatment should begin upon arrival at the veterinary clinic or animal hospital. Once your dog is stable, if gastropexy surgery hasn’t already been performed, your vet may recommend the procedure in order to prevent future episodes of bloat.
Is Dog Bloat Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?
Dog bloat is not contagious. However, dogs that have a parent, sibling, or offspring with this condition have an increased risk of GDV.
What Is the Cost for Treating Dog Bloat?
Treating dog bloat can be costly, with numbers reaching the thousands. Expenses include:
- Office visit: Emergency animal hospital visits are usually more expensive than a regular veterinary clinic.
- Diagnostic tests: These include X-rays, radiographs, blood work, and urine analysis.
- Surgery: This can cost anywhere between $1500 and $6000 or more, depending on the complexity of the bloat and where the surgery is performed (general practitioner versus emergency or specialty hospital). A postoperative hospital stay and follow-up treatment will add to the bill as well.
As with any type of healthcare, veterinary costs will vary depending on your geographic location. The bigger the city, the more expensive healthcare tends to be.
Recovery and Management of Dog Bloat
In some cases of bloat, the dog may need only medical therapy, but for those that require surgery, the recovery time is longer.
Dogs that undergo gastropexy will require a hospital stay of at least a week, possibly longer, depending on the severity of the bloat.
Post-op care may include:
- A special diet
- A wound-management regimen
You may also be instructed to feed your dog multiple small meals over the course of the day as opposed to fewer large meals. Your dog should avoid excessive activity after eating. Finally, limit excessive water consumption after exercising. This will keep the stomach from distending.
Preventing Dog Bloat
Here are a few precautions owners can implement to try to avoid dog bloat.
- Avoid stress
- Feed your dog two or more small meals a day instead of one large meal
- Include canned food in your dog’s diet
- Limit exercise after meals
- Avoid using elevated food dishes (which can lead to faster consumption)
- For predisposed breeds, preventative gastropexy may be recommended
Is There a Vaccine for Dog Bloat?
There is no vaccine for dog bloat.
Bloat in dogs is a life-threatening condition where the stomach twists or fills up with gas/fluids, resulting in a painful, swollen stomach, restlessness and retching. It progresses quickly and is often fatal, however it is treatable, as long as it’s caught and addressed immediately.