Bloat in dogs is a term that refers to excessive dilation of the stomach. In some cases, bloat can be caused by overeating (referred to as food bloat) and managed with supportive medical management by your vet.
But bloat can be more severe and occur in conjunction with a twisting of the stomach, referred to as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV).
GDV is a true medical emergency and your dog will need immediate attention from your vet.
Knowing the signs of bloat and GDV can make the difference to your dog's survival. Let’s take a look at what bloat in dogs looks like, signs to watch for, and what can be done if this happens to your pup.
What exactly happens with GDV?
Normally, the stomach works as essentially an ‘open-ended’ system. The esophagus opens into it on one end, and the first portion of the small intestines (the duodenum) is at the other end waiting for digested food/liquids to come through. There are sphincters on each end providing closure, but if gas builds up it can easily escape to prevent build up of pressure.
When the stomach bloats and twists around on itself, gas cannot escape and the stomach becomes increasingly distended. As this progresses, the large stomach starts to compress other nearby structures such as the spleen and the caudal vena cava.
The caudal vena cava is one of the largest veins in the body and is meant to return blood back to the heart and lungs to be oxygenated. All of this eventually leads to major issues, including:
Low blood pressure
Vital organs not getting the blood/oxygen they need
Release of toxic substances into the bloodstream
Changes in the acid/base balance in the blood
These changes can happen quickly, in a matter of hours, so timely medical intervention is a must!
What dogs are at increased risk of bloat and GDV?
We still don’t truly know what causes GDV in dogs, but we do know that it seems to be most common in dogs that are large or giant breeds, and those that are deep chested.
Some breeds that tend to get bloat are:
But any dog, big or small can in theory be affected. I’ve even seen a case in a standard Dachshund.
What causes bloat in dogs?
Some suggested causes and contributing factors are:
Eating too quickly,
Only eating one meal per day
Being stressed while eating
Eating right before or after exercise
Research is still being done, but the veterinary community will often recommend that you avoid the above list as a precaution.
Additionally, at-risk breeds can elect to undergo a procedure called a prophylactic gastropexy.
Prophylactic means ‘with the intention to prevent’, and gastropexy is where the stomach is permanently stitched to the wall of the abdomen to prevent rotation and bloating.
You can have a prophylactic gastropexy carried out at the same time as your dog’s spay or castration.
Signs and symptoms of bloat and GDV
Classic signs of GDV include what vet professionals refer to as ‘non-productive retching’, essentially meaning dogs will hack/gag like they are trying to vomit but do not produce anything. I’ve even had a few owners confuse this with coughing.
This symptom often occurs because dogs experiencing a GDV are unable to vomit as the stomachs entry/exit points are blocked. Dogs may also act restless, pace, and pant excessively.
Other signs include:
High heart rate
Unwillingness to stand
When examined by a veterinarian, as the disease progresses the dog will start to show signs of shock like pale gums, increased capillary refill time, weak femoral pulses, and trouble breathing among others.
Recognising these signs and seeking veterinary medical care immediately are an absolute must for a dog’s best chance at survival.
What will my vet need to do?
The first priorities in triaging a dog that comes in with a suspected GDV are stabilising them if signs of shock are present, and decompressing the stomach itself. Diagnosis is typically made on what vets call a ‘double bubble’ type appearance of the stomach on an x-ray.
Your vet might recommend taking your dog to an emergency or out of hours clinic if they’re unable to see you as soon as possible.
ManyPets had 76 claims for GDV in 2021, with the average cost being £1,871. This cost can easily be two or three times higher in an emergency/specialty facility. As a vet, I encourage pet owners to take out pet insurance for many reasons, but unexpected emergencies such as GDV is absolutely one of them.
A veterinary team tackling a GDV case works like a well oiled machine. Vets and nurses work together to get the x-rays needed to confirm the GDV, place an IV catheter to give fluids and medications, supplement oxygen, and attempt to decompress the stomach.
This all helps stabilise the patient for surgery and buys the team time before more damage is done inside the abdomen.
The dog will need surgery correct the rotation (volvulus) of the stomach and assess if the tissue is still healthy. In some cases, the spleen is removed due to damage from the stomach's compression.
If the patient remains stable under anaesthesia and the stomach tissue itself is still healthy, the stomach will then be stitched to the abdominal wall to prevent future rotation. This procedure is the gastropexy.
What’s the prognosis for GDV?
Unfortunately, approximately one quarter to one third of dogs seen for GDV will not survive, as the condition is rapidly progressive and causes serious secondary problems for the rest of the body.
How can I help my dog avoid bloat?
Due to the serious nature of bloat and GDV, ‘at home’ therapies are not recommended – you need to get your dog to a vet for treatment.
But it’s a good idea to make sure you’re familiar with the signs of bloat/GDV so that you can contact your vet immediately and seek care.
My best advice for dog owners in terms of being prepared for this emergency are:
Be familiar with the clinical signs of GDV, and consider the tips above especially if you have a higher risk breed.
Have your vet and a nearby emergency vet’s phone number saved in your phone so you’re always ready in an urgent situation.
Have a financial plan in place for emergency pet care so finances are less of a concern when making medical decisions for your pet.