Bloat is a serious condition that is potentially life-threatening and a genuine emergency.
If ever you suspect your dog has bloat, contact a veterinarian immediately — time is of the essence. Even with emergency treatment, around 30 to 45% of dogs with bloat cannot be saved.
The key signs to recognizing bloat are a rapidly swelling tummy along with nonproductive retching or vomiting. Any dog “dry heaving,” especially if his belly is getting bigger, must be seen by a vet as a matter of urgency.
Bloat is more correctly called gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV). These terms describe the stomach dilating with air and then twisting on its axis. The condition is dangerous because the twisted stomach seals in air and continues to expand. This restricts the blood supply to the stomach, and the tissue of the stomach dies off.
In addition, toxins filter into the bloodstream and cause organ failure. Eventually the combination of circulatory collapse, toxemia and shock are fatal.
Symptoms of Bloat in a Dog
The most obvious symptoms are a swollen belly and a dog that tries to be sick but brings nothing up.
Sometimes the swollen tummy, however, is not obvious because giant breed dogs with large rib cages can “hide” the gas-filled stomach within the confines of the ribs — don’t rule out GDV if your dog shows signs but doesn’t have a distended belly.
Bloat is a distressing condition; other signs include the dog being unable to settle, pacing restlessly and vocalizing as if in pain (such as groaning, whining or howling). He may stand with an arched back and keep turning to look at his belly. The dog’s condition may deteriorate rapidly over the course of a few hours, resulting in collapse.
Other signs to be alert for are those of shock, including:
- Pale gums
- Racing heart rate
- Rapid shallow breathing
- Groaning or whining
- Arched back
- Distended abdomen
- Nonproductive vomiting or retching
This is because of their anatomy, where the deep chest means their stomach is suspended in the abdomen like a hammock from two trees. If there is a weight in the stomach (i.e., food) and the dog then rolls or goes for a run, the stomach swings on its mountings and potentially flips over.
The twisted stomach is a sealed unit, and gas produced as a result of digestion cannot escape. Thus pressure builds up inside the stomach, causing it to swell. The blood supply to the twisted stomach is cut off, and this piece of bowel rapidly dies off. A combination of toxins, circulatory collapse, organ failure and shock means this condition is almost certainly fatal without treatment.
The history and presenting signs give the clinician a good idea of what is going on. To confirm suspicions, an X-ray with the dog lying on his right side can quickly show if the stomach is out of position and twisted.
The GDV needs surgical correction to untwist the stomach and remove any dead stomach wall.
This means operating on a toxic, shocked animal, which increases the risk of losing the patient under anesthetic. Thus the dog first needs to be stabilized with aggressive, high-volume doses of intravenous fluids. Once the dog is anesthetized, emergency surgery is carried out to reposition the stomach, empty out the gut contents, remove any dead tissue and then suture the stomach to the body wall (to prevent recurrence).
Never exercise a dog within 90 to 120 minutes of eating.
Also, avoid high-cereal-content foods; these tend to produce more gas when digested (think baked beans). Some veterinarians even perform an elective procedure on at-risk breeds where they suture the stomach to the lining of the tummy to decrease chances of the stomach twisting and a GDV occurring.
- Small Animal Surgery. Therese Welch Fossum. Publisher: Mosby.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2018.