It’s early evening. The dogs have been fed, had their after-dinner potty break, and everyone is settled in for a little chill time before bed. A typical, drama-free night . . . until suddenly one of the dogs becomes oddly restless — standing up, sitting down, standing again, sitting again. You give him a favorite chew toy and tell him to settle on his bed. He doesn’t. He begins to pant and then retch, but nothing comes out. He doesn’t seem to be choking, but is obviously distressed.
Deeply concerned, you call your veterinarian and describe your dog’s symptoms. They ask you if his stomach seems larger than normal. When you affirm it does look swollen, the receptionist says to get in immediately.
The above scenario is not uncommon and often results in a diagnosis of “bloat,” the generic name for a potentially fatal condition those in the veterinary world call Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV).
Bloat happens when a dog’s stomach becomes distended with air or food and then twists, essentially creating a tied-off balloon inside the abdomen — nothing can go in or out — causing all kinds of problems as the gas inside the “balloon” expands and normal blood supply is blocked. If not treated quickly, dogs can experience shock, irregular heartbeat, in some cases lost blood supply to the spleen and/or parts of the stomach, and even death.
Scary stuff — even more so given how frequently it occurs.
“Bloat is a very common problem,” says Michael Flynn, DVM, DAVCS, a surgeon with Cascade Veterinary Referral Center (CVRC) in Tigard, OR. “Not only is it common, but when it does happen, it constitutes, in every sense, an emergency.”
Because of the seriousness of this condition, the mere mention can cause shivers and even terror for pet parents — even those with years of professional experience.
Patricia London, DVM, an emergency veterinarian for nearly a decade, has seen more than her share of bloat cases working in the ER at DoveLewis in Portland, OR. “It’s really very scary,” London says, offering a personal anecdote. “I went backpacking with my own dog. We were three days out and I kept thinking, ‘this would be the most horrible place for bloat to happen.’”
Fortunately, Dr. London and her pup made it out of the woods without incident, but the very nature of bloat — no known causes, cases occur suddenly without warning, and they’re frequent — is cause for grave concern. “You could be looking at your dog,” says London, “maybe they’ve just eaten their dinner and they’re acting normal, and then they’re not. It’s not like you missed something — you just watched it happen.”
While vets aren’t absolutely sure what causes GDV, some dog breeds are more susceptible than others. Statistically, larger, deep-chested dogs seem more vulnerable to bloat. These include Great Danes, German Shepherds, Weimaraners and St. Bernards. But you can’t rule out smaller dogs. Dr. Flynn has seen bloat occur in a Bassett Hound. Dogs with littermates or parents that have suffered the condition seem high-risk as well.
As to causes, you can scan the Internet for a dozen possible reasons why, ranging from ingredients in your dog’s food to variations in canine temperaments.
Common preventions for bloat include not elevating a dog’s food bowl, feeding several small meals throughout the day instead of one big one, and reducing water intake before and after meals — all of which can help minimize the amount of air going into a dog’s stomach, something many vets agree is a common factor with bloat. Avoiding feeding dry kibble is also recommended as a preventative. If dry kibble is preferred, some vets advocate presoaking the kibble.
Dr. Flynn also suggests that feeding a food-competitive or nervous dog separately can be helpful, preventing him from bolting his food. This is especially important for the more at-risk breeds. It is also recommended to allow a dog to rest after eating, and not immediately going for a walk, to the park, or playing.
One thing both Drs. Flynn and London know for sure is that bloat is NOT a “wait and see” illness.
“Don’t wait for your vet to open in the morning,” says Dr. London. “The longer the stomach sits in that twisted position, the more things can become complicated very quickly. I always say, ‘I don’t like a bloat in the morning’ because that means a dog could have been sitting overnight with this.”
Dr. London notes that while it’s not uncommon for a dog to lose its spleen from this condition, that can be the least of the vet’s concern. “The scarier part comes when a portion of the dog’s stomach has died and the condition still hasn’t been treated, so fluids start leaking into the body. Now we have a septic abdomen to worry about.”
Dr. Flynn agrees that time is of the essence. “There are other things it could be, but the only way that distinction can be made is by a veterinarian doing an evaluation and getting an X-ray.”
Once GDV has been confirmed immediate surgery is usually indicated, during which the stomach is rotated to its correct position and fluids and gas are expelled safely.
Typically during this procedure doctors will also perform a gastropexy, attaching the stomach to the abdominal wall in an effort to reduce the risk of the condition recurring. Some guardians of high-risk breeds like Great Danes have the gastropexy procedure done preventatively, hoping to reduce the chances of bloat happening in the first place. The procedure can easily be done when a young dog is spayed or neutered, and in some cases, by laparoscopy.
Bloat is a serious condition and dog guardians should know the signs. If caught quickly, the prognosis is good in the majority of cases, according to Dr. Flynn. “In the hands of experienced personnel, recognized early, there’s a very good chance these dogs will survive the emergency and go on to a normal life.”