Bloat in dogs 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, up to 45% of dogs with bloat cannot be saved.
The key signs of bloat in dogs:
- Rapidly swelling tummy
- Nonproductive retching or vomiting
Any dog who is “dry heaving,” especially if the belly is getting bigger, must be seen by a vet as a matter of urgency.
Many things about bloat in dogs — including what “causes” this life-threatening condition — are still a mystery and, unfortunately, give rise to wrong or misleading information on the internet.
We hope this article helps set the record straight.
For people who have dog breeds that are at risk, know that although there are precautions you can take to help reduce the risk, bloat can still happen despite all precautions.
What Is Gastric Bloat in Dogs, or GDV?
- There is gastric bloat in dogs, a condition where the stomach fills up with gas like a balloon, becomes increasingly distended, and the gas cannot escape. This is serious and requires emergency treatment.
- Then there is gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), also known as gastric torsion, where the stomach actually twists on itself, cutting off inflow and outflow from the stomach. GDV is even more serious than gastric bloat.
Both situations are extreme emergencies.
If treatment isn’t instituted within a few hours, the situation can become life-threatening.
Survival rates are correlated with timely treatment. Even with treatment, different studies report that 25–45% of affected dogs will not make it.
Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs
The most obvious symptoms are a swollen belly and a dog who tries to be sick but brings nothing up.
Sometimes the swollen tummy is not obvious because giant-breed dogs with large rib cages can “hide” the gas-filled stomach within the confines of the ribs. So don’t rule out GDV if your dog shows signs but doesn’t have a distended belly.
Classic symptoms of bloat or GDV include:
When a dog has classic bloat, their human calls the vet and says, “His belly looks swollen” or “It looks like she swallowed a basketball.” This is when we tell them to get the dog to us or the nearest veterinary emergency facility immediately.
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)
- Standing with an arched back and turning back to look at their belly
Dogs will often drool excessively while bloating, and they may often exhibit restlessness in the early stages of the disease but then stand in a fixed position with an obviously bloated abdomen. If you “ping” the stomach, it can feel like a drum.
Bloat emergency calls are over-represented in the evening hours or early morning hours, when most veterinary hospitals are closed.
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
What Happens With Bloat in Dogs?
This is because of their anatomy, where the deep chest means their stomach is suspended in the abdomen like a hammock from 2 trees:
- If there is a weight in the stomach (meaning: food) and the dog then rolls over 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.
- So 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.
- Toxins filter into the bloodstream and cause organ failure.
- Eventually the combination of circulatory collapse, toxemia and shock are fatal.
Do Ice Cubes Cause Bloat in Dogs? No.
An old post on social media keeps resurfacing and just won’t go away. It warns about the supposed dangers of ice cubes causing gastric bloat in dogs.
Vets all over the country are once again getting frightened calls from people.
What Breeds Are at Risk of Bloat in Dogs?
When a vet thinks of bloat, he or she first thinks: Great Dane.
This is the dog breed most likely to bloat, with some studies reporting that up to 40% of Great Danes will bloat some time in their life.
As we mentioned earlier, giant- and large-breed dogs with deep, narrow chests are predisposed to bloat.
Here is a list of 15 dog breeds prone to bloat:
- Great Dane
- German Shepherd
- Standard Poodle
- Irish Setter
- Gordon Setter
- Saint Bernard
This list is not exhaustive, though.
Any dog, particularly larger dogs, can bloat. (Of smaller breeds, the Bassett Hound is predisposed to bloat/GDV.)
What Should You Do If You Suspect Bloat in Your Dog?
Get to the nearest vet, preferably a clinic or emergency facility that can handle emergency surgery if necessary.
This is a situation where time is of the essence. Survival rates increase with quick action.
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 their right side can quickly show if their stomach is out of position and twisted.
If one of the breeds prone to bloat is part of your family, make yourself knowledgeable about the disease.
Here are 4 factors:
- Feeding 1 large meal a day is a risk factor for breeds prone to bloat, plain and simple. Instead, we recommend 3 smaller feedings daily.
- Eating rapidly and gulping air is also most likely a risk factor.
- Dry dog food alone may be a risk factor. This is controversial.
- Rigorous exercise 1 hour before or after a meal used to be considered a risk factor. Today, this is also controversial.
- Elevated food bowls are most likely a risk factor. Feeding from the floor or very low to the ground is the current recommendation.
- Stress while eating is a risk factor. Competition and other stresses around the food bowl should be avoided.
2. Age and Genetics
- The possibility of bloat increases with age, the common age being 3–7 years old.
- If a close relative of a pup has bloated, this is a risk factor that your pup could bloat as they age.
Try to do some detective work if you are purchasing a breed at risk for bloat. Make sure a parent, aunt or uncle of your pup has never bloated.
- Studies have found that “happy” dogs have less of a tendency to bloat. This feeds right into the idea that stress can be a risk for causing bloat.
- Nervous, anxious, worried dogs may be under more stress — which means they may be more likely to bloat.
Bloat is higher in dogs who have undergone stresses, such as being in a kennel, being trucked back and forth to dog shows, having had recent surgery, etc.
Time of year might be a factor, or maybe not:
- In some studies, bloats and GDV occurred more in the summer months. Is this attributable to more environmental stresses, changes in routine, more dogs being kenneled or the stress of vacations? It is unknown.
- One other study of military working dogs found a greater number of dogs bloating in the winter when abrupt and drastic changes in cold temperatures occurred.
Bottom line: Stress of any kind may increase the possibility of bloat.
Treatment of Bloat in Dogs
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 must 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).
Preventing Bloat in Your Dog
In recent years, many veterinarians have recommended a gastropexy for breeds or individual dogs at high risk of bloat.
A gastropexy is a tacking of the stomach that can be performed during a spay or neuter as an additional procedure.
Although it’s possible for bloat to occur after a gastropexy, it’s rare. GDV should not occur in a dog with a functional gastropexy.
Things you can do at home to possibly prevent bloat in your dog:
- Don’t exercise your dog within 90–120 minutes of eating.
- Avoid high-cereal-content foods. These tend to produce more gas when digested (think baked beans).
There’s no way to predict when a dog may bloat, but understanding the signs of this potentially fatal condition, knowing your breed’s predilection, and absolute quick emergency recognition and response on your part may save your dog’s life.
- “Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus.” American College of Veterinary Surgeons. https://www.acvs.org/small-animal/gastric-dilatation-volvulus.
- Fossum, Therese Welch, DVM, PhD, DACVS. Small Animal Surgery. Mosby. 2018.