- Bloat is a condition when a dog’s stomach gets over distended (swollen) with food and/or gas.
- The condition becomes particularly dangerous when a dog’s stomach turns on itself, known as GDV.
- Large breed dogs and dogs with deep chests are more susceptible to bloat.
- Immediate emergency treatment is necessary, and even with treatment, some dogs don't survive.
- Slowing your dog's eating and avoiding raised dog bowls can help prevent bloat.
Bloat in dogs is a severe and rapidly progressive condition in dogs that is often life threatening. If you believe your dog is suffering from bloat, it is important to see an emergency veterinarian right away.
Let’s look at the causes of bloat in dogs, the symptoms, and how veterinarians treat bloat in dogs.
What is Bloat?
Bloat is a condition when a dog’s stomach gets over distended (swollen) with food and/or gas. The normal functions that typically allow food or gas to be dispelled, such as burping or normal digestion, is disrupted due to increased pressure in the stomach.
The condition becomes particularly dangerous when a dog’s stomach turns on itself, which is known as gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV). GDV is the life-threatening form of bloat in dogs that requires immediate, emergency treatment.
Only about 25 in 1,000 dogs experience bloat, but even in dogs that seek treatment, the mortality rate remains around 15 percent based on statistics reported by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Causes of Bloat in Dogs
Veterinarians and researchers have not been able to determine the exact cause of bloat and GDV in dogs, but there are certain things that can increase a dog’s risk of developing bloat.
Several studies have been conducted to pin down risk factors for bloat. One study found that dogs fed large volumes of food once per day were more at risk, and another study found that the risk of GDV in general increases with age.
Of note, a dog’s body shape and breed are both well-researched factors contributing to bloat. Typically, large-breed dogs are more at risk. However, some small dogs with deep chests, such as Dachshunds, may have a higher chance of suffering from this dangerous condition than other small-breed dogs.
What breeds are more at risk for GDV (bloat)?
Breeds that are more likely to be at risk of bloat and GDV include:
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- Chow Chow
- Curly Coated Retriever
- Doberman Pinscher
- German Longhaired Pointer
- German Shepherd
- Gordon Setter
- Great Dane
- Great Pyrenees
- Greater Swiss Mountain Dog
- Irish Setter
- Irish Wolfhound
- Labrador Retriever
- Old English Sheepdog
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Saint Bernard
- Scottish Deerhound
- Standard Poodle
While these breeds are typically more at risk, all dogs can experience bloat. It’s important to be vigilant and know the warning signs even if your dog’s breed is not on this list.
What are other risk factors for bloat in dogs?
Not only is a dog’s breed a risk factor, but a dog’s genetics can also predispose him to suffering from bloat. If your dog has a family history of bloat and GDV, he is at higher risk.
Eating behaviors may also contribute to a dog’s likelihood of developing bloat. Dogs that only eat one meal per day, eat their food very quickly, or exercise right after eating are more likely to experience bloat as opposed to dogs that eat slowly or are fed a few small meals per day. Anxious dogs may also inhale and ingest more gas, increasing their risk.
Feeding from an elevated food bowl can also increase the risk of bloat in dogs. This set-up may lead to increased and repetitive air swallowing.
Finally, dogs that have had their spleens removed (splenectomy surgery) are at higher risk of developing GDV because they have extra space around their stomachs.
Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs
It is important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms and signs of bloat in dogs so that you can seek immediate veterinary care. If not treated with urgency, bloat can lead to irreparable harm and even death.
The most common signs—which typically show up shortly after eating—are:
- General anxiousness
- Looking at the abdomen
- Standing and stretching
- A swollen (distended) abdomen
- Retching without producing anything
What are the phases of GDV (bloat)?
The progression of bloat in dogs often happens swiftly and severely. Veterinarians chart the timeline in four phases. Familiarize yourself with them in order to recognize the warning signs and get your dog the appropriate care:
Pre-Bloat. Dogs who have just eaten and who engage in some of the risk factors of GDV (like intense exercise, large gulps of water, or large amounts of swallowed air) may show signs of pre-bloat. This phase occurs when gas accumulates in the stomach but does not empty as it should. Your dog may seem slightly uncomfortable but is otherwise acting as normal.
Phase I. If the gas does not clear from your dog’s stomach, he may enter into Phase I of GDV. This phase occurs as the stomach starts to dilate and twist. Your dog will now start to act anxious and restless, pacing around the house and retching without any food coming out.
Phase II. Blood supply to the stomach occurs in Phase II and shock begins to settle in. Physical symptoms in your dog will intensify: he will be very restless, start salivating copiously, and his gums will become a dark red color.
Phase III. In the final phase of bloat in dogs, the spleen and stomach tissue become necrotic. Your dog’s heart begins to fail and the shock becomes irreversible. Unfortunately, if a dog’s bloat has progressed to this point, it likely means he will succumb to it.
If you see any early signs of bloat or GDV—especially a dog that is retching without throwing up anything—get your dog to an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible. Dogs that show later signs, such as collapse or weakness in their hind legs, are already extremely sick and may be more difficult to treat and save.
Diagnosing Bloat in Dogs
Your veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian will work quickly to diagnose bloat in dogs. Your vet will conduct a physical examination and look for a distended and painful abdomen that is firm or hard. The dog may also appear nauseated in the early stages and may continue to exhibit other symptoms of bloat.
In more advanced cases, a dog’s blood pressure may be low and their heart rate may be high, which can help veterinarians diagnose dogs with bloat. Some dogs will also exhibit difficulty breathing.
Abdominal X-rays will show a large, gas-filled stomach. If the stomach has rotated, there will be a “double bubble” effect on the X-rays, which can confirm GDV.
Veterinarians may also perform an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check for an increased heart rate and premature ventricular contractions in the heart, which are two common cardiac complications of GDV.
Although not critical to the diagnosis, blood tests can help your veterinarian determine if there is any additional internal damage secondary to the rotation of a dog’s stomach.
Bloat Treatment for Dogs
If a dog’s stomach has rotated, emergency surgery is required. This includes rotating the stomach back to its normal position and suturing the stomach to the interior body wall to prevent rotation in the future.
Prior to surgery, depending on your dog’s signs and symptoms, a veterinarian may try to decompress the stomach. This will happen by passing a tube through the dog’s mouth into the stomach to evacuate its contents and remove the gas. If the vet is unable to pass a tube, then veterinarians may perform another procedure where a needle is passed through the dog’s body wall into the stomach to remove the gas from inside the stomach. This procedure can cause damage to the stomach and there is also risk of lacerating the liver or spleen, so it must be performed carefully. Dogs are usually sedated for this procedure.
After decompression and treatment with IV fluid therapy and pain medication, your veterinarian will assess the need for surgery. Even in cases of bloat without GDV, surgery may be recommended to prevent future episodes.
Dogs that undergo successful bloat surgery require very close post-operative monitoring and care. They are usually kept in the hospital for at least 2-3 days and given IV fluids, antibiotics, and pain medications.
Unfortunately, even dogs that receive treatment for bloat may not make it and prognosis is guarded. The earlier you seek treatment, the better chance your dog has of survival and recovery.
General Cost to Treat Bloat in Dogs
This emergency can be quite expensive to treat since dogs with bloat or GDV are critically ill before, during, and after surgery.
The average cost of diagnostics, treatment, and post-operative hospitalization will likely be between $3,000-$10,000 depending on where you live and if your dog is treated at an overnight emergency facility or at your local veterinary office.
Preventing Bloat and GDV
While some risk factors of bloat cannot be controlled—such as genetics or breed predisposition—there are things that pet parents can do to help prevent their dogs from experiencing bloat and GDV.
Non-surgical ways to prevent bloat in dogs
Providing high-quality nutrition is the first place to start. You should also put practices in place to slow down your dog’s eating. Slow feeder bowls or food puzzles can help prevent dogs from eating too fast and gulping in too much air. If you are concerned about bloat in dogs, or have a dog breed that is at a higher risk of developing bloat, you should avoid using an elevated dog bowl and place dog bowls directly on the floor. Smaller meals offered more frequently can also be helpful for prevention.
If your pet is anxious, talk to your vet about herbal or prescription medications and other modifications you can make at home to prevent anxiety from progressing to GDV.
Certain underlying gastrointestinal diseases like decreased gastric motility (characterized by abnormal intestinal contractions) or delayed gastric emptying (where the stomach doesn’t empty food as quickly as it should) can be risk factors for GDV. If your pet has these conditions, your pet may need medication to treat these signs to prevent a subsequent episode of bloat and GDV.
Surgical intervention to prevent GDV (bloat)
If your dog is at high risk for bloat, or has recently experienced it, your veterinarian may recommend a surgical procedure called a Gastropexy. This procedure may be used as a prophylactic or as a treatment to regularly recurring bloat.
Gastropexy is a surgical intervention that involves “tacking” the dog’s stomach to the side of its body cavity. This strategy aims to keep the stomach in place, preventing it from twisting and cutting off the blood supply to vital organs. Gastropexies can be performed either via a traditional surgery or laparoscopically using a small incision and camera.
While surgery should only be performed if necessary, gastropexies are statistically very safe and effective. Recurrence rates of GDV fall on average from 55% to 4% after a gastropexy is performed. As with any medical concern you may have, always consult your veterinarian for the most personalized advice for your dog.