As dog parents, we don’t like to think about what can go wrong with our pets. Most of us would prefer to focus on the good times — the belly rubs, cuddles on the sofa, and long hikes that improve our lives in innumerable ways.
But part of being the best pet parent you can be is knowing the potential red flags that may indicate your dog is experiencing a health-related issue. Bloat should be at the top of your list if you have a large or giant breed dog, like a German Shepherd or a Great Dane.
To help you more quickly identify stomach bloat in dogs, we’ve compiled the essential information you need to know to keep your pet as healthy and safe as possible from this potentially fatal problem.
What Is Stomach Bloat in Dogs?
Stomach bloat in dogs, also called gastric dilation-volvulus (or GDV), is a dangerous condition where the stomach enlarges and rotates in the abdomen. GDV includes two different health issues that occur back-to-back, although veterinarians are unsure which happens first.
One-half of GDV is gastric dilation, where a build-up of gas in the dog’s stomach leads to its enlargement. While some gas in the stomach is an expected byproduct of eating, too much gas can cause distension that blocks blood flow to the stomach. In some cases, the stomach may even rupture or become so large that it impacts the dog’s ability to breathe normally.
Likely, this gastric dilation is due to sudden twisting of the stomach (volvulus). As the stomach flips, it traps gas inside of it and causes it to expand. Volvulus can have life-threatening consequences, including significantly reduced blood supply throughout the body, leading to tissue damage or death and hypovolemic shock.
Stomach bloat in dogs is always an emergency, so it is essential to recognize the signs and symptoms in their early stages and act quickly if this condition occurs. Other than traumatic injuries (like being hit by a car), GDV is likely the most serious health emergency that can happen to your dog.
What Causes Stomach Bloat?
There is no known cause of stomach bloat in dogs, but several risk factors have been identified that may increase the likelihood of this medical condition occurring.
One of the most frequent triggers of GDV is exercising too soon after eating a large meal or drinking a large amount of water. This risk is commonly seen in dogs fed one large meal daily and most often occurs with dry food-only diets.
However, not every potential cause of stomach bloat in dogs can be reduced with lifestyle changes. The risk of bloat is naturally higher in large-breed, deep-chested dogs, especially those with a higher anxiety level.
Older dogs also have a higher risk of GDV, and genetics may even play a factor (dogs with a first-degree relative — mother, father, litter mates, or puppies — also have an increased likelihood of developing GDV).
We’d also like to note that any dog can develop bloat, even small breed dogs like Chihuahuas and Dachshunds. Just because you don’t have a big dog doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of the signs of bloat.
What Are the Signs of Stomach Bloat?
Recognizing the signs of stomach bloat in dogs is crucial — the earlier you can catch this potentially fatal condition, the quicker you can get your dog to the vet for life-saving measures. Dogs with GDV tend to go downhill fairly quickly, so don’t hesitate if you think your dog may be showing the signs.
One of the easiest-to-spot signs of bloat is a distended (swollen) abdomen. In many cases, the bloated stomach is also “tympanic,” which sounds like a hollow drum when tapped.
As their condition progresses without treatment, dogs may try to relieve their discomfort or abdominal pressure by standing or stretching. A common position a dog with bloat will take is the “praying position” — stretching with their rear end in the air and their chest on the ground with their feet straight out in front of them.
If you notice that your dog is unusually positioning themself and their stomach is larger than normal, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.
In addition to a bloated stomach and odd positioning, many dogs with bloat also exhibit restlessness. The physical symptoms of bloat are uncomfortable or even painful, and because dogs can’t tell us when they’re not feeling well, pet parents also need to watch for behavioral changes.
Restlessness in dogs with GDV may include pacing, not being able to lie down comfortably, or looking anxiously at their stomach. Any out-of-the-ordinary behavior that dogs may show, especially when combined with physical symptoms, should also be taken seriously.
Drooling and Rapid Breathing
Drooling and rapid breathing in dogs is often a cause for concern. Dogs normally breathe between 15 and 30 times a minute, so anything higher than that (especially if the breaths are shallow) should trigger a trip to your veterinarian. Changes to your dog’s vital signs can indicate that they are starting to go into hypovolemic shock, a crisis all on its own.
Attempting To Vomit
One other tell-tale sign of stomach bloat in dogs is nonproductive retching. Because the stomach is so distended and potentially twisted, dogs with this life-threatening condition will feel the urge to vomit but be unable to do so.
How Is Bloat Treated?
Diagnosis of GDV is made based on history and clinical signs, as well as x-rays to verify the position and status of the stomach. Once a diagnosis of GDV has been established, surgery is almost always required to reduce the distention, de-rotate the stomach, and verify there is no dead or dying tissue in the stomach wall.
Depending on the dog’s status, they may require stabilization before surgery. Stabilization often involves rapid IV fluid replacement to help with shock, flow-by oxygen, and gastric decompression via a stomach tube.
If a stomach tube can not be passed (which may be the case if the stomach is completely flipped), the veterinarian may need to insert a needle or catheter into the stomach from the outside to release air before proceeding. Although time is tissue, taking an unstable dog into surgery poses an even greater risk.
After the dog has stabilized, the next step is emergency surgery. The surgeon will manually decompress the stomach, releasing any trapped air, before untwisting it and returning it to its normal anatomical position. After the GDV has been corrected, they will also take the time to evaluate the stomach and the spleen, looking for and removing any areas of dead or dying tissue.
Finally, the surgeon will empty the stomach and likely perform a gastropexy. With gastropexy, the surgeon will permanently affix the stomach to the abdominal wall. This surgery helps to prevent the reoccurrence of GDV, which has more than a 70 percent likelihood of happening again (and a much higher mortality rate with subsequent occurrences).
Once your dog has made it through surgery and is discharged home, you will likely need to make a few lifestyle changes to further reduce the risk of recurrence. These changes may include feeding your dog multiple smaller meals more frequently (instead of one large meal), exercise restriction (especially just before and after eating), and stress reduction at mealtime.
Is It Possible To Prevent Bloat?
Although there is no way to prevent stomach bloat in dogs completely, there are some preventative measures that you can take as a pet parent to reduce their risk.
For instance, establishing precautionary measures, like purchasing pet insurance and developing a relationship with your pet’s veterinarian, can be helpful if GDV does occur. You don’t want to worry about how you’ll pay for a life-saving surgery or struggle to find a veterinary clinic when an emergency does occur (not just GDV, but any emergent situation).
Taking these steps in advance of a crisis can give you room to breathe so you can focus more on what’s going on with your pet.
In addition, pet parents of large breed dogs — Great Danes, Irish Setters, St. Bernards, Doberman pinschers, boxers, and Weimaraners — may want to talk to their veterinarian about preventative gastropexy. This surgery is often performed at the same time as the dog’s spay or neuter procedure and is the same technique veterinarians use during an emergency.
There are also smaller factors that can make a difference, especially if your dog is in a higher-risk group. A good example is removing elevated feeding platforms, which can increase the risk of air consumption when eating.
The Bottom Line
Stomach bloat in dogs is always an emergency, as it can quickly become life-threatening. If you notice symptoms of GDV, don’t hesitate to take your dog to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Bloat has a mortality rate of 20 to 45 percent, so quick recognition of symptoms and fast treatment are crucial to improving the outcome and giving your dog their best chance.
Check out our blog for more information on all things pet health.
Gastric Dilation and Volvulus in Small Animals – Digestive System | Merck Veterinary Manual
Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus | ACVS
Key gastrointestinal surgeries: Incisional gastropexy | dvm360