Bloat in dogs: signs, symptoms, and treatment

September 6, 2023 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
doberman with head lowered sits on metal table while two vets discuss treatment options. One vet has his arm on the doberman's back.

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 in 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 is Bloat in Dogs?

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 or liquids to come through. There are sphincters on each end providing closure, but if gas builds up, it can easily escape to prevent the buildup 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

  • Hypovolemic shock

  • Vital organs not getting the blood or 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!

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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 or contributing factors may include:

  • 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/GDV in Dogs

Classic signs of GDV include what vet professionals refer to as ‘non-productive retching’, essentially meaning dogs will hack or 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 and can be confusing because dogs experiencing a GDV are unable to vomit as the stomach's entry and exit points are blocked. Dogs may also act restless, pace, and pant excessively.

Other signs of bloat/GDV in dogs include:

  • High heart rate

  • Distended abdomen

  • Depression

  • Unwillingness to stand

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.

Recognizing these signs and seeking veterinary medical care immediately is an absolute must for a dog’s best chance at survival.

How Do Vets Treat Bloat in Dogs?

The first priorities in triaging a dog that comes in with a suspected GDV are stabilizing them if signs of shock are present and decompressing the stomach itself.

A diagnosis is typically made based 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.

german shepherd lays on table with paws outstretched while female owner and vet comfort it

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 stabilize the patient for surgery and buys the team time before more damage is done inside the abdomen.

The dog will need surgery to 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 anesthesia and the stomach tissue itself is still healthy, the stomach will then be stitched to the abdominal wall to prevent future rotation (gastropexy).

How Long Can a Dog Live with Bloat?

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. Dogs with true bloat/GDV need to be assessed by a vet team as soon as possible.

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How to Avoid Bloat in Dogs

Unfortunately, this is likely a bit of a misnomer since vet professionals are still learning and researching the true causes of bloat/GDV. Outside of getting a preventative gastropexy in a larger or giant breed pup, it’s challenging to know for sure what other actions may decrease the likelihood of this condition.

My best advice for dog owners in terms of being prepared for this emergency is:

  1. Be familiar with the clinical signs of GDV and consider the feeding and activity tips above, especially if you have a higher-risk breed.

  2. Have your vet's and a nearby emergency vet’s phone numbers saved in your phone so you’re always ready in an urgent situation.

  3. Have a financial plan in place for emergency pet care such as dog insurance, so finances are less of a concern when making medical decisions for your pet.

Can You Treat Bloat in Dogs at Home?

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.

However, it's a good idea to make sure you’re familiar with the signs of bloat or GDV so that you can contact your vet immediately and seek care.

Veterinary surgeon Dr. Kirsten Ronngren joined ManyPets in 2022. Alongside her extensive experience as a vet in small animal and feline-only clinics, Kirsten is passionate about online content creation. Kirsten’s a regular on ManyPets’ social media and video content with her no-nonsense attitude to keeping our customers’ pets happy and well.