Bloat in Dogs Can Be Deadly: Know the Signs to Save Your Pup’s Life

  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

Does your dog gobble down their meals so fast, they practically inhale them? You might be impressed by how quickly they can put away a bowl of kibble—but eating at top speed can put dogs at risk of bloat.

Bloat is the common term for gastric dilation-volvulus (GDV), also called gastric torsion. “Bloat occurs when the stomach fills with gas and expands, which can then lead to the stomach rotating in place and secondary complications that lead to severe consequences,” said Dr. Lindsay Wendt, holistic veterinarian and veterinarian advisor to Badlands Ranch.

Any dog can experience bloat, but it’s more common in large or giant breeds with deep chests. This condition is very serious and may be fatal without prompt veterinary care.

If your dog does develop bloat, prompt action could save their life—which makes it essential to learn the warning signs. Below, learn the signs of bloat and how it happens, factors that can increase your dog’s risk of bloat, and what you can to help prevent this condition.

What Are The Signs Of Bloat?

Bloat can develop without any warning and progress very quickly.

One of the hallmark signs is unproductive retching, or vomiting. Your dog may act like they’re throwing up but will retch without anything coming up, though they may vomit a small amount of white foam.

This retching happens because an overly distended or twisted stomach blocks the valve to the stomach, preventing your dog from throwing up the contents of their stomach.

Dr. Corinne Wigfall, the veterinary spokesperson for SpiritDog Training, says it’s important for pet parents to take note of these additional key signs:

  • Lethargy
  • Swollen or hard belly
  • Signs of pain, including stretching, difficulty moving, or adopting the pray position
  • Distress
  • Excess salivation or drooling
  • Pale gums
  • Restlessness

Without treatment, your dog may begin to have difficulty breathing and eventually collapse.

Vacharapong Wongsalab via iStock

Other conditions that may resemble bloat

Other conditions that may cause a distended stomach include:

  • Mesenteric torsion: This condition has similar symptoms to bloat. Also like bloat, it’s life-threatening and requires urgent vet care and surgery, according to Dr. Wigfall, who adds that mesenteric torsion has a much lower survival rate than bloat. Your veterinarian will use X-rays to distinguish between the conditions.
  • Fluid buildup in the abdomen (ascites): This condition can give your dog’s stomach a similarly distended appearance. Your vet can determine the difference between fluid buildup and bloat with a physical exam according to Dr. Wendt, and recommend the right treatment.
  • Tumors or masses in the abdomen: A mass can affect the appearance of your dog’s stomach and give it a distended look. But unlike tumors that grow slowly over time, bloat happens rapidly, which is a major distinguishing factor. “A GDV is not something that develops slowly over days to weeks,” Dr. Wendt says.

How Bloat Happens

Food your dog swallows enters their stomach through the cardiac sphincter, which acts like a valve. The enzymes and gastric acids in the stomach partially break down the food, which then exits the stomach through the pyloric sphincter and moves into the small intestine for further digestion.

Usually, this process occurs without any issues. But when bloat happens, it create a blockage that can be deadly.

Bloat tends to progress through the following steps:

  1. A dog’s stomach becomes distended with gas, liquid, and food.
  2. If the stomach becomes distended beyond a critical point, it rotates on its axis.
  3. This twisting of the stomach blocks the exit point into the small intestine.
  4. The blockage of the small intestine causes more gas and fluid to accumulate in the already distended stomach.
  5. The stomach’s blood supply gets cut off, so the stomach wall does not receive oxygen and other nutrients usually supplied via healthy blood flow.

What Factors Increase A Dog’s Risk Of Bloat?

“The exact cause of bloat is not known,” Dr. Wendt says, adding that current understanding points to genetics, anatomy, and other triggers.

Factors that play a role in bloat include:

  • Age: Dogs ages 7 and older tend to develop bloat more often.
  • Weight: Dogs weighing more than 100 pounds have a greater chance of developing bloat, even if they’re not one of the at-risk breeds listed below.
  • Family history: Since bloat likely has a genetic component, it may be worth finding out whether your dog has a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, who experienced bloat.
  • Eating habits: Some research suggests eating from a raised feeding bowl and eating food very quickly can increase your dog’s chances of developing bloat. Dogs who eat only dry food may also have a higher risk.
  • Stressful events: An event that leaves your dog feeling stressed, like a prolonged separation from you, can raise the risk of bloat.
  • History of intestinal disease: Dogs with a history of inflammatory bowel disease and other gastrointestinal issues may also be more likely to experience bloat.
  • Temperament: Some dogs with a fearful or nervous temperament may be more prone to bloat, along with those who behave in aggressive ways.

What dog breeds have a higher risk of bloat?

Dog breeds more prone to bloat include:

  • Great Dane
  • Weimaraner
  • Saint Bernard
  • Gordon Setter
  • Irish Setter
  • Mastiffs
  • Saint Bernards
  • German Shepherds
  • Boxers
  • Standard Poodles
  • Doberman

How To Prevent Bloat In Dogs

While experts don’t know exactly what causes bloat, they have identified a few key things you can do, as a pet parent, to lower your dog’s risk.

Some vets may recommend a prophylactic or preventative surgery for breeds with the highest risk. This procedure, called a preventative gastropexy, involves attaching a portion of the stomach to the body wall to prevent it from twisting. .

“This is commonly performed in medium-large and extra-large breeds at the time they are spayed or neutered,” Dr. Wigfall says. But if you’ve already had your dog spayed or neutered, you can still get this procedure done at any time.

She does caution, though, that the procedure doesn’t come with a 100% guarantee of success. In short, your dog may still develop bloat. Your vet can offer more information about this procedure, including risks and benefits of having it done.

A few other steps you can take to reduce bloat:

  • Limit your dog’s activity for an hour before and after eating. Avoid runs, walks, and active play.
  • Use puzzle or maze feeders to help your dog eat more slowly.
  • Work with your vet to get treatment for food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and other health concerns.
  • Reduce stress in your dog’s life by making their crate a positive space and arranging walks and playtime when you have to leave them home.
  • Feed small meals in multiple portions throughout the day.

How To Treat Bloat In Dogs

If you suspect your dog may be experiencing bloat, take them to the vet as soon as possible.

Bloat will not improve on its own, Dr. Wendt emphasizes. Your dog needs immediate evaluation and treatment from a trained professional, who will typically order X-rays and blood tests to make the diagnosis.

Dr. Wigfall adds that bloat is a true medical emergency where time is of the essence. She explains what you can expect once your vet diagnoses bloat:

  • Before surgery, they may try to decompress the stomach by inserting a trochar (a type of large needle) into the side of their belly to release the air. They may also try passing a tube down the stomach to remove gas.
  • If that doesn’t work, your dog will receive pre-operative stabilizing care, which includes fluid therapy, blood tests, and pain relief.
  • The operation itself involves untwisting the stomach and attaching a portion of the stomach to the body wall to prevent the stomach from twisting again.
  • Your dog will receive post-operative care, including fluid therapy, blood tests, and pain relief.
  • Your dog will likely have to stay in the veterinary clinic for at least 2-3 days, and sometimes as long as a week.

As you might imagine from the level of care needed and the lengthy hospital stay, this treatment is quite expensive. In fact, Dr. Wigfall highly recommends pet insurance if your dog has a high risk of bloat.

michellegibson via iStock

How Long Does It Take Dogs To Recover From Bloat?

Once your dog returns home after surgery, they’ll need a significant amount of aftercare.

Dr. Wigfall explains how to care for your dog at home:

  • Give them their prescribed medications.
  • Ensure they rest completely until your vet gives the OK for activity.
  • Offer them lots of TLC with recovery-friendly toys.
  • Keep their Elizabethan collar (E-collar) on to prevent accidental damage to the surgery site.
  • Feed soft food for the first few days, then gradually reintroduce their regular food, as directed by your vet.

As a longer-term change, it may be worth adjusting your dog’s feeding routine. For example, you might switch to feeding them twice daily using a slow feeder, rather than once daily from a regular bowl. Your vet can offer more guidance on the best approach to feeding your dog, based on their specific needs.

Beating Bloat Requires Quick Treatment

According to Dr. Wendt, various studies suggest that bloat is fatal for anywhere from 10% to 45% of dogs who develop the condition. She goes on to add that prompt stabilization and treatment can improve their outlook.

Knowing the warning signs of bloat, along with your dog’s risk, can help prepare you if your dog ever does develop this condition. If your dog has a higher risk, Dr. Wendt recommends discussing a prophylactic gastropexy with your vet, since this procedure could save your dog’s life.

It never hurts to keep the number for your local 24-hour emergency animal hospital on hand—since when it comes to bloat, the sooner you get treatment, the better for your dog!

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