How Serious is Bloat in Dogs?

Angela Tague
June 22, 2017

A dog's swollen belly and dry heaving indicate a serious health problem.

Unlike when humans just eat too many pretzels, bloat in dogs is a very serious, time-sensitive medical issue. Also known as gastric dilatation (distended stomach), or gastric dilatation and volvulus (distention and twisting), bloat is an emergency and potentially fatal condition where the dog's stomach stretches due to food, gas, or both, causing extreme discomfort in the abdomen.

Action must be taken quickly. If you suspect your pet, or a canine in your care, has bloat, call your veterinarian's office immediately. "Not only is the pain a problem, but the stomach may rotate or twist, cutting off blood circulation to the stomach as well as blocking the ability for gas to be released," says veterinarian Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA, who also serves as the executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association. "This is a rapidly developing and progressive condition that will lead to death in a very short period of time unless significant action is taken."

What are the Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs?
Dr. Weinstein offers these signs to look out for:

  • Abdomen Swelling
    The pet's stomach will be round and puffed out. It may feel firm to the touch.
  • Vomiting
    The pet will repeatedly attempt to retch, but nothing, including liquids, will come up.
  • Drooling
    In attempts to vomit, the dog begins to drool excessively.
  • Activity Level Decreases
    The dog will often start pacing or, in advanced cases, act lethargic.

A dog might even collapse, says Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, staff doctor at The Animal Medical Center in New York. "Distended stomach impedes blood flow and the dog develops shock," says Hohenhaus. If you note any of the above symptoms, call the veterinarian's office and tell them you are on your way to the clinic.

What Causes Bloat?
Any breed, age or size of dog can experience bloat. However, large breed dogs with deep chests, such as Great Danes, Saint Bernards, greyhounds and Weimaraners, are affected the most.

Dr. Hohenhaus and Dr. Weinstein offer these possible reasons dogs get bloat:

  • exercising right after a meal
  • eating rapidly, or gulping food
  • eating one large meal daily
  • eating from an elevated dish
  • anxiety
  • eating dry foods that have been moistened
  • a family history of bloat

How is Bloat Treated?
The only treatment option is veterinary care to stabilize the dog and return his bodily functions to normal. First, if the pet is in shock, he is given intravenous fluids. Then, the stomach must be decompressed, releasing the buildup of air. Dr. Hohenhaus explains, "a tube can be passed into the stomach to relive the distension."

If the stomach has flipped, however, the tube method doesn't work. Emergency surgery must be performed to untwist the stomach and sew it to the abdominal wall (known as gastropexy) to prevent another episode.

During this process, the pet is closely monitored. Dr. Weinstein says, "Concurrently impact on the heart must be evaluated, monitored and treated." Depending on how long blood flow has been restricted, damage to other internal organs is possible. Dr. Weinstein says it's common for pets to have a portion of the stomach or spleen removed.

Some veterinarians will suggest a preventative gastropexy operation when the pet is spayed or neutered, according to Dr. Hohenhaus. In addition to elective surgery, pet owners and caretakers can help prevent bloat. "Adding canned food to the diet, minimizing anxiety at meal time, feeding multiple small meals frequently throughout the day and certain diets" can help prevent bloat, "although, even these precautions may not be enough in high risk cases," Dr. Weinstein says.

Talking to Pet Caretakers
When introducing your pet to a caretaker or boarding service attendant, have a discussion about health. Discuss your pet's medical problems and medications, if any. Then, explain the common symptoms of bloat and how you're working to prevent it.

If they have any concerns, they should seek veterinary assistance without hesitation. Remind them you'd rather have an unnecessary trip to the vet than lose your pet.

Angela and her husband live in Iowa with their two large breed dogs, including their Weimaraner, Belle, a bloat survivor thanks to their quick recognition and a talented on-call veterinarian. Angela writes about pet care topics and shares them on Twitter @AngelaTague.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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