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Signs and Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs

By Elizabeth Xu

When it comes to dog diseases you should be aware of, bloat is high on the list. Sure, bloat in humans is fairly harmless, but for dogs it can be deadly. Treatment for bloat is needed as soon as possible.

“These animals can become critically ill or die within hours if not treated,” says Dr. Jennifer Quammen, DVM, of Grants Lick Veterinary Hospital in Kentucky.

The causes of bloat aren’t often known, but the signs and symptoms are. Knowing what they are could save your dog’s life.

What is Bloat and Why Does it Happen?

Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation and volvulus, or GDV, is not completely understood by veterinarians.

GDV is a condition where the stomach twists and then fills with gas,” says Dr. Anna Stobnicki, DVM, surgical intern at WestVet, an emergency animal hospital in Idaho. “Or the other way around—no one is sure whether it bloats then twists, or twists then bloats.”

Regardless of how the process actually happens, bloat is clearly bad for a dog. Eventually the dog’s stomach becomes distended with gas and puts pressure on the diaphragm, which can cause breathing problems. Additionally, the pressure cuts off the return blood flow to the heart, Stobnicki says. The extreme pressure within the stomach can cause tissue to die leading to stomach rupture, and sometimes the spleen twists with the stomach, which results in damage to splenic tissues as well.

Although medical professionals have a lot of knowledge about bloat, there is a big missing piece—why bloat happens.

“There are several theories as to why bloat occurs, but ultimately it can be caused by a number of variables,” Quammen says. “Most commonly these are large [or] giant breed dogs, more often male than female, and middle aged. Many of these dogs will have a history of drinking or eating a large volume and then being excessively active.”

Stobnicki says that great danes, large hound breeds, Saint Bernards, and standard poodles seem to be more susceptible to bloat than other breeds.

Even though bloat happens more often in larger breeds, don’t think you’re safe if you have a smaller dog. Dr. Lindsay Foster, DVM, an emergency veterinarian at the Milwaukee Emergency Center for Animals, says that bloat “has been reported in almost every breed.”

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs?

Since it’s hard to say exactly why bloat in dogs might occur, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms you should look for.

Outwardly, bloat could look like a swollen stomach, with lots of drooling, panting, and walking around, Quammen says. Some dogs will also make sounds to let you know they are in pain, she adds.

In addition to those visual cues, be aware if your dog is trying to vomit but nothing’s happening. “The dog will look like it's trying to vomit, but not bringing anything up,” Foster says.

If your dog has any of those signs, you must bring your dog to a veterinarian immediately.

What Should You Do if You Think Your Dog Has Bloat?

If you suspect your dog has bloat, there’s only one thing you can do: get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to help at home.

“If an owner suspects that their dog may have bloat, they should rush to an emergency clinic as soon as possible,” Stobnicki says. “It is a life threatening emergency and cannot wait until the morning. If an owner is not sure whether or not their dog has a GDV, they can always call an emergency clinic and ask if the signs are consistent with bloat.”

After important steps like x-rays and bloodwork have been done and bloat has been diagnosed, surgery is the only treatment, Quammen says.

“The only way to treat it is to go into their abdomen surgically and untwist the stomach. The stomach is then sutured to the body wall to prevent it from twisting again. This is called a gastropexy,” Stobnicki says, noting that there can also be spleen issues that necessitate the spleen being taken out, as well as possibly part of the stomach being removed if the twisting is severe enough.

Sadly, even dogs who get treatment can die sometimes. Up to a third of dogs die despite surgery, Stobnicki says.

“The longer a dog is bloated, the poorer prognosis they have, so owners should not delay treatment,” she says. “Generally speaking, if they make it out of the hospital after surgery, they're usually OK.”

What Happens After Surgery?

Like with any big surgery, your dog will rely on you more than usual post-surgery. Your dog will need your guidance to stay calm and less active so as not to tear the surgical site. You will also need to dole out medications like pain relievers and antibiotics.

“After discharge from the hospital, owners can expect exercise limitations for a few weeks, along with medications (often 2-3 times per day), diet change, and the dreaded Elizabethan collar,” Quammen says. “After healing is complete, sutures are removed and many pets can return to a fairly normal life.”

Can Bloat Be Prevented?

For some dogs that are at risk, it’s possible to stop bloat before it becomes an issue. This is something you can discuss with your veterinarian.

“Some veterinarians will recommend prophylactic gastropexy for at-risk breeds,” Quammen says. “This surgery is done on healthy animals to reduce the likelihood of GDV.”

Stobnicki says this preventive procedure is performed at her clinic. “I don't necessarily agree with every dog going under anesthesia just to prevent something that may or may not happen, but in some cases I think it's appropriate,” she says. “For example, if I owned a great Dane, I would elect to do that with my dog.”

If the at-risk dog is undergoing abdominal surgery for another reason, like to be spayed, the two procedures can be combined into one surgery.

The thought of your dog having bloat is scary, especially since it can be so deadly. If you have any question as to whether your dog might currently be experiencing bloat, call your veterinarian immediately for advice and be prepared to get the dog immediate medical care if your veterinarian advises it.

If you suspect that your dog may be at risk of bloat and want to explore ways to prevent it, talk to your veterinarian about your options. Preventive surgery need not be the primary defense; less invasive approaches may be better for you and your dog. Although research has not been definitive on these recommendation, non-surgical bloat prevention often centers on:

  • Feeding several small meals each day
  • Not feeding from an elevated food bowl
  • Avoiding dry kibble
  • Offering water at all times
  • Trying to reduce stress, especially around feeding time

Do you know what causes dogs to bloat? Learn more about some of the different ideas pet owners have come up with.

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