Bloat in Dogs: An Owner’s Guide

By on November 20, 2015

Dog Bloat aka Gastric Torsion in Dogs: An Owner's Guide

Bloat in dogs is a fast, silent killer. Too many dog owners only learn about dog bloat once they're in that devastating position of having a vet explain to them why their recently healthy dog is now deceased. Learning to spot the symptoms of dog bloat and recognise the early warning signs of what gastric torsion looks like by way of your dog's behaviour, mood and actions could very well save their life. When it comes to bloat in dogs, you can never ever be too careful. Here's our guide along with a video showing you how to examine your dog and recognise the early warning signs.

Bloat in dogs is a killer

Dog Bloat: An Overview

Bloat. What a horrible word. What a horrible feeling, to be bloated. What’s bloat got going for it? A bloated body is not too pleasant. A bloated ego isn’t particularly attractive either. OK, a bloated bank balance is at least one desirable association with this generally disagreeable word. A dog with bloat, now that’s really unpleasant and in many cases, tragically fatal.

What is Canine Bloat?

Bloat in dogs (gastric torsion) is a build up of gas in the stomach which is unable to be released by the dog’s intestinal system. Bloat with Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (GDV) occurs when the stomach fills with gas and twists.

Bloat, sometimes referred to as a twisted gut is a more serious problem in large breed dogs. When combined with the difficulties of GDV, bloat is a leading cause of death of dogs, second only to cancer. That’s just HOW serious the condition is.

Worryingly, the exact cause of bloat is not commonly know. It’s thought that excessive eating or drinking a lot of water followed by immediate vigorous exercise could certainly be a major contributing factor.

What Can Cause Bloat in Dogs?

Exercise can cause food or fluid in the stomach to produce a build up of gas. The severity of the condition is increased when the stomach twists, causing the inlet and outlet of the stomach as well as blood vessels which supply the stomach to become constricted at both ends.

As a result, the constriction will cause the stomach tissue to die and in a very short time, the stomach becomes restricted of nutrients and oxygen. If not treated, the dog will die.

The Symptoms of Gastric Torsion in Dogs / Signs To Watch Out For

We’re all hypochondriacs. We read a medical book and then have the uncanny knack of diagnosing ourselves with everything from tennis elbow to the Ebola virus. We’re just as anxious when it comes to our pets and no doubt every dog owner will recognise some of the symptoms of bloat from time to time. Usually we say, don’t worry unduly or bother the vet with misguided apprehension about our pet’s help.

With bloat, we make the exception. Early detection is absolutely critical to the dog’s chance of survival. Never be too coy to at the very least call your vet and discuss possible symptoms, which are:

* Anxiety and restlessness
* Distended or bloated tummy (the stomach may even sound like a water-filled barrel when tapped)
* Attempting to vomit or actual vomiting
* Excessive drooling
* Whining or general lethargy
* Lack of appetite
* Pale gums, dull eye colour
* Increase in heart rate.
* Difficulty in breathing or movement

The Causes of Gastric Torsion in Dogs

There are several possible contributing factors leading to bloat such as

* Stress and worry can create a build up of gasses in the stomach
* Eating or drinking too fast
* Exercise before or immediately after eating
* Having a barrel-like chest (think Rottweiler, Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog etc)
* Hereditarily contracted

Which Dog Breeds are Most at Risk of Bloat?

Canine bloat and GDV as a general rule tends to affect larger dogs but smaller dogs are still at risk. It is thought that some dogs are genetically more at risk than others and it’s always a good idea to as the breeder who supplied your dog if there is a history of bloat in the line.

Though bloat can occur in puppies, it is very rare and the condition usually occurs in adult dogs. Male dogs are more likely to suffer from bloat than female dogs and these breeds in particular are thought to be the most vulnerable to the condition:

* German Shepherd
* Great Dane
* Standard Poodle
* Rottweiler
* Akita
* Bloodhound
* Pyrenean Mountain Dog
* Bernese Mountain Dog
* Irish Setter
* Old English Sheepdog
* Boxer
* Golden Retriever
* Irish Wolfhound
* St. Bernards
* Labrador Retriever
* Newfoundland
* Doberman

Treatment of Bloat in Dogs

Bloat is an incredibly serious and sever problem. If you suspect your dog may have even the slightest symptoms of bloat, don’t hesitate to contact your vet immediately. Every second is crucial and can be the difference between life and death.

If picked up early enough, initial treatment will involve inserting a tube into the dog’s stomach wall to release excess gas and if necessary, the vet may need to operate in an attempt to untwist the stomach. Consequent treatment may involve treating shock, dehydration, fatigue, and other complications resulting from the distension of the stomach.

Prevention of Bloat in Dogs

As there are so many possible causes for bloat, the exact one’s still largely unknown, it is very difficult to prevent bloat in individual dogs. Each case is unique and must be treated on an individual basis. If you have a dog that may be at significant risk there are some measures you can take to minimise the risks.

* Do not overfeed.
* Feed smaller meals through the day if possible rather than one large one in the evening
* Do not allow your dog to drink large amounts of water immediately after eating a large meal.
* Try not to allow your dog to exercise vigorously either directly before or, more crucially, immediately after eating. Allow the food in their system to digest a little or let them have a short toilet break on a lead.

As is often the case, arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible about your dog and their lineage if at all possible could ultimately be a life saver. Be prepared, be aware and never, ever underestimate the seriousness of the condition.

Bloat in Dogs: A Dog Owner's Warning

Shortly before 3 o'clock on the morning of August 5, 2007, Donna Hedl was jolted awake by shouts of her niece and nephew, who were visiting Donna and her husband Joe in their Roselle, Illinois, home.

Something was wrong with Congo, the family's six-year-old German Shepherd!

“He was retching, but to no avail,” Mrs. Hedl recounted later. “There was a slight foam around his mouth and he was constantly swallowing.”

As she watched, Congo's behaviour became more peculiar. The dog would sit glassy-eyed and hang his head, or crawl behind a chair and stoop as if to defecate... but, again, to no avail.

Then Mrs. Hedl noticed a slight swelling in Congo's abdomen.

“My first thought was bloat... but of course that just couldn't happen to my dog,” she said. “Besides, the last time he had eaten was more than twenty-four hours earlier.”

When she called the animal hospital in nearby Dundee at 3 a.m., Mrs. Hedl said that the dog had been poisoned, an assumption based on the fact that the Hedl's yard had recently been sprayed with weed killer. But when she mentioned the abdominal swelling, she was told to bring the dog to the clinic immediately.

Within an hour, Congo was under the glaring lights of an operating table and the Hedl's original fear had been confirmed. The dog was suffering from acute gastric dilatation – bloat.

Congo's experience was by no means unusual. He was just one of the thousands of dogs that are stricken by bloat each year.

(Some veterinary authorities claim that more than 60,000 dogs per year in the United States have attacks of bloat. That's nearly 200 dogs per day. Others put the estimate even higher, claiming that many dogs die of the disorder annually.)

Strike Two

Although Congo was saved by the prompt work of Dr. Raymond Norlin and Dr. David McLaughlin, the Hedl's troubles did not end with just the bill for surgery.

On November 4, nearly three months to the day after the first incident, Congo had a second attack. The circumstances and symptoms (beginning with dry vomiting) were almost identical to those of the first episode. It was late at night and the dog had not eaten since midnight of the previous day – and then only about two cups of a commercially prepared dry dog food.

“I tried getting him to drink water, hoping he had something caught in his throat,” Mrs. Hedl said, “but knowing that wasn't what was wrong.”

By the time the Hedls rushed Congo to the clinic he “looked like he was in whelp with twenty pups.”

After being unable to pass a stomach tube or stimulate the stomach muscles with drugs, Dr. Norlin and Dr. Roger Yates were again forced to operate. They found a stomach solidly packed with pasty, partially digested food, and swollen so much that the stomach wall was badly torn.

The veterinarians repaired the damage as best they could, then kept the dog under observation for three days.

(Congo has had more corrective surgery than you can imagine. In addition to the two bloat operations – the first requiring removal of the spleen and the second leaving a foot-long external scar – the dog has had the pectineus muscle in one leg severed and the ball of the hip removed to relieve hip dysplasia, and had two growths removed in another operation.)

At last report, Congo was home with the Hedls, romping and playing as if nothing had happened – but restricted to a special diet and constantly under the watchful eye of his owners, who fear another attack would kill him.

Canine Bloat: Searching For Answers

Congo was one of the luckier ones. Many dogs do not survive their first bloat attack; fewer still make it through a second. What causes such tragedies and what can be done to prevent them?

At present, neither question can be adequately answered.

In June of 1976, a panel of eight scientists from various areas of veterinary and human medicine met in Denver to discuss these questions and to plot a course for future investigation of the disease.

The panel was organized by the Morris Animal Foundation, which has given canine bloat research high priority and has established a special Bloat Fund to finance it. Though disagreement did exist among the scientists on that panel, a number of observations about bloat can be drawn from the discussion:

Acute gastric dilatation seems to be most prevalent in the larger breeds – Great Danes, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, etc. - although it has also been seen on occasion in the smaller breeds. It has been suggested that the depth of the chest, rather than the actual body size, is the factor that makes certain breeds particularly susceptible.

Congo's case notwithstanding, most bloat attacks follow a big meal and the consumption of large amounts of water. For some unknown reason, the food does not pass normally through the digestive system, but remains in the stomach.

(Congo's small dinner remained in his stomach, slowly swelling, for more than 24 hours; the stomach normally empties within 8 to 16 hours.)

Many bloat cases include a twisting of the stomach, which pinches off the escape routes of the digestive material. However, this twisting is more often the result of bloat than a cause of it, since many instances of gastric dilatation involve no twist.

The first hint the dog owner has that something is amiss would probably be a look of discomfort and restlessness in the dog. The dry vomiting and swelling that Mrs. Hedl described would soon follow.

Exactly What Is Happening To Your Dog?

It is critically important that the dog receive prompt medical attention if these symptoms occur. The stomach can quickly swell to the size of a basketball, damaging and straining many body systems and increasing the likelihood of future trouble.

Let's trace the changes that can take place in a dog's body during an attack of bloat accompanied by twisting of the stomach:

As the stomach swells with gas, it begins turning on a longitudinal axis, always in a clockwise direction. This initial twisting – called torsion – is dangerous, but not as critical as the stage it could lead to. That is volvulus, a clockwise turning of the stomach on a vertical axis.

(If the stomach were pictured as a football lying lengthwise in the body cavity, torsion would be analogous to a spiralling turn, while volvulus would resemble an end-over-end motion.)

The distortion of the stomach shuts off the openings at each end, like putting kinks in a garden hose. This traps food and prevents the escape of gas (which is normally not a major byproduct of digestion in the stomach, but seems to be produced in gastric dilatation cases.)

The spleen, which normally lies to the left of the stomach, is carried around to the right abdominal wall. Although the blood flow from the heart to the stomach and spleen is relatively unimpaired, the returning veins are squeezed, causing those two organs to become congested with blood.

Impaired blood flow results in shock.

Organs other than the stomach and spleen may also be affected. The portal vein – carrying waste products from the intestines to the liver for detoxification – may become blocked, allowing poisons to accumulate in the blood. Some authorities cite this condition as a major direct cause of death when bloat strikes.

Blood returning to the heart from the digestive organ seeks a new pathway when it finds its normal route shut off. Research has shown that this blood enters the vessels along the vertebral column, swelling and probably damaging them. Despite these efforts by the circulatory system to compensate for the blockage, shock results from the loss of blood pressure.

This circulatory chaos has other consequences: If normal circulation is not restored quickly, portions of the stomach, spleen and other organs may die from lack of oxygenated blood. Subsequent sloughing of the dead tissue can kill the animal, even after surgery has corrected the immediate problem.

Blood clots may form in stopped-up vessels, depleting the supply of chemical factors necessary to coagulate the blood in the event of injury. Also, changes may take place in the pancreas, eventually affecting cellular and subcellular activities. These changes may be on the biochemical level, invisible to the naked eye.

Some of the effects of a bloat attack are obvious. The swollen stomach pushes forward on the diaphragm, making respiration difficult. A bloating dog may literally have to labor for every breath.

Treatment For Dog Bloat

Here is a summary of methods suggested by both veterinarians and scientists whom have studied this major health issue:

The first step is to relieve the mounting pressure in the stomach. This not only eases the pain and makes breathing less difficult, but is also important in bringing stability to the shock situation.

In cases of simple dilatation (and sometimes in torsion cases,) a stomach tube can often be passed to allow trapped gas and digestive material to escape. But in cases involving volvulus, the “kink” in the esophagus usually prevents the use of a tube.

If this happens, some veterinarians recommend gastrocentesis – release of the gas through a needle inserted into the stomach from behind the last rib. However, others fear this procedure could damage the spleen, which may have moved into the area where the needle is inserted.

Authorities also disagree as to whether surgery is necessary in all cases involving torsion or volvulus, while others recommend it in every instance.

Surgery may be limited to putting the digestive organs back in proper alignment, but other techniques have been tried with some success. A pyloric myotomy (an operation to weaken the muscle regulating the flow of food from the stomach to the small intestine) is thought to help prevent recurrence by allowing food to pass quickly from the stomach.

Another surgical technique, called gastropexy, involves sewing the stomach to the abdominal wall to prevent excessive movement. If the impaired blood flow during the bloat episode results in tissue death, the spleen and parts of the stomach may have to be removed. In addition, biochemical tests should be run on the pancreas to detect any subtle damage to that organ.

Recommended pre-operative medications include corticosteroids, fluids, and antibiotics to alleviate shock. After surgery, the dog is usually given lactate solution, cortisone, and an antacid containing simethicone, an effective anti-gas agent.

Even though the immediate success rate for surgery is fairly high (about 80% in some clinics), the rate of recurrence is also high. Nearly half the dogs that survive one bout with bloat will be stricken again.

It has been suggested that recurrence is the result of damage to the stomach wall, which prevents that organ from functioning properly again. The time factor may be critically important in averting serious damage to the stomach.

Bloat in dogs

Learning From The Cow

It might be interesting to compare canine bloat to bloat in ruminant animals, which are susceptible to the problem due to the nature of their digestive systems. Because of the economic importance of the cattle industry, bovine bloat has been studied extensively.

The first and largest of the cow's four stomachs, the rumen, contains bacteria to help break down cellulose. This process releases methane gas, which normally is expelled from the body by belching.

Occasionally, when the animal has fed heavily on young clover or other protein-rich legumes, a tough, tenacious foam forms in the rumen and cannot be eliminated naturally. The rumen can become grossly swollen and the animal may be asphyxiated by the pressure of the lungs.

Scientists now know several things about this type of ruminant bloat. It is apparently caused by soluble proteins and two other chemicals – saponin and pectin – found in young legumes.

Some cows can be more susceptible to bloat than others, for two reasons:

1) Some cattle produce less saliva than others. (Saliva contains an anti-foam agent).

2) Some cattle have certain rumen bacteria that destroy the anti-foam agent in saliva. (A medication is now available that will prevent this kind of bloat in cattle by stopping the production of foam in the rumen.

Cattle fed a grain diet are prone to another kind of bloat known as feedlot bloat. This is caused by rumen bacteria that function normally when the animal is on a varied diet, but produce a slimy foam when the diet is primarily grain. Researchers have sought after medication that will inhibit slime production.

Is There A Connection Between Dog & Cattle?

In cattle, then, bloat seems to result from an interaction of dietary factors and bacterial action. Could the same be true in the dog?

It has been suggested by one scientist who analyzed the stomach contents of dogs which had died from bloat that the swelling was caused by carbon dioxide gas, and that the gas was produced by bacillus and clostridium bacteria. Bacilli and clostridia are probably present in the digestive tracts of most dogs, yet not all suffer from bloat attacks.

Diet and Bloat in Dogs: Is There a Link?

Much research is needed to determine what relationship, if any, diet has to bloat. It has been suggested that some modern dog foods containing partially digested material might enhance gas production on the stomach. Control studies are needed to confirm or refute this hypothesis.

If feed is a factor, why is bloat confined mainly to the larger breeds? Do owners encourage engorgement by feeding these dogs one large meal per day, rather than four or five smaller meals?

One theory is that environment could be part of the problem. Today more large dogs are being subjected to apartment living than ever before, and possibly a special diet and exercise program are needed.

It would be useful to know whether bloat is more common today than it was a few decades ago. A comparison of incidence between confined dogs and physically fit dogs (such as racing greyhounds) might also be helpful. Is the environment of the apartment-dwelling dog at all connected to that of the cow confined to the feedlot?

Studies are needed to determine whether bloat might be a purely mechanical problem – a result of anatomical irregularities in large dogs. (It is known that some of the larger breeds are predisposed to certain neurological and orthopedic disorders).

Other possible factors should be examined, including age (two years seems to be the peak danger period); sex (one breeder has claimed all the bloat cases he has seen were in males); familial inheritance and seasonal effects.

Of course, one of the biggest mysteries is how stomach gas is produced in the first place, and why it is not expelled normally. Is the gas produced by the digestion of certain “bloatagenic” foods? Is it formed as a result of bacterial action?

Could it be that most of the gas is merely swallowed air? Clearly, an understanding of this gas production would be an important step toward solving the bloat riddle.

Closing Remarks

Veterinary science is a long way from understanding why dogs such as the Hedl's Congo suddenly fall victim to this disease, and how it can be prevented or successfully treated.

Answers can only be found through the concerted efforts of veterinary practitioners, research scientists, dog breeders and pet owners. Perhaps when those answers are found, Donna Hedl and thousands of other dog owners can rest easier at night.

Dog Bloat: Further Reading

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6 Comments

  1. suzanne

    September 25, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    My mums Akita died of this last year it was only 4 yrs old,she let it out at 8am to go the toilet and it started crying so she assumed it was having difficulty urinating due to a kidney stone or UTI, she took it the vet 6hrs later and whilst in the vet its stomach swelled and the vet put it down straight away.
    There are a few things i believe you can do to really help prevent bloat and ease your mind, in deep chested dogs such as boxers an elevated bowl is a must, it stops gulping of air, there are also special anti gulp bowls etc available now in pet shops to stop dogs eating too fast, i dont let my dog eat an hour before or after excercise so their food can digest.
    i think its important to split there meals into at least 2 a day first thing in morning and last at night, can you imagine starving yourself all day then eating three meals in one? not only does it struggle to digest such a big meal but because its starving it gulps it down as fast as possible causing wind. another thing i think probably contributes to gas and indigestion in dogs is poor diet, if you dog suffers from wind then you probably need to change their food to a good quality dried food.

  2. Devon Salter

    October 3, 2011 at 1:34 am

    The British Borzoi club did a lot of research on bloat and it’s links to diet quite a few years ago and they found that their results definitely pointed to a dietary link.

  3. Dawn P

    October 4, 2011 at 3:05 am

    A tip I was given from a vet if you have a dog that bolts down its food – put a ball in the bowl! It seems to have slowed down my Rotti cross who is a rescue and we think she had to compete for her food as she barely takes a breath when eating. She still eats fast but because she has to move the ball around the bowl to get the food she definitely takes longer to eat it.

  4. elain

    March 20, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    I’ve just lost my adored standard poodle, to this. Although the op was a success, he was just too old to recover from such major surgery. I am devastated.

  5. Evon Shires

    June 5, 2014 at 4:17 am

    I have a deep-chested herding breed who is currently 9 years old. He has bloated each summer for the past 3 years on July 31, August 1, & August 12. The 1st time he was being fed 2 x/day. The second year 4x/day. The third year I decided to feed him in the evening 1hr. after any excitement in portions 2- 4 hrs. apart…I.e. 6p, 10p, 12a. None of it appears to have made any difference, nor did it matter if the food was dry or water-soaked. What IS consistent is the time of year which makes me wonder if something is in the ground @ that time of year. He plays soccer actively with his Boomer Ball & has worn out the lawn so he does tend to swallow dirt & he will munch on grass. It is quite puzzling!!! After the 1st time he has been savy enough to alert me @ onset & other than that he has never been I’ll.

  6. tania tofts

    June 21, 2016 at 5:44 am

    I have a Neapolitan mastiff who had a kink in his stomach about a month ago and he is not putting weight back on the vet told me to feed him dog roll and small amounts two time aday but he is getting really skinny I’m really worried for my dog what should I feed him so hes not Starving

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