Bloat in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms and Prevention Tips

When it comes to dog diseases you should be aware of, bloat is high on the list. Sure, bloat in humans is fairly harmless, but for dogs it can be deadly. Treatment for bloat is needed as soon as possible. – Elizabeth Xu @ petmd.com

Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), can be deadly in dogs if it’s not treated quickly. There are some theories about its causes but in many cases the cause is unknown. With bloat, the stomach fills with gas, food, or fluid. This is “dilatation.” If the stomach twists, this is torsion or “volvulus.” If your dog experiences bloat and/or torsion, he needs emergency veterinary treatment or he could die.

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If your dog is bloating, his stomach will expand and become distended. This puts pressure on his diaphragm, leading to difficulty breathing. The pressure also cuts off the blood flow to the heart and stomach lining. This extreme pressure in the stomach can cause tissue to begin to die, leading to a stomach rupture. In some cases the dog’s stomach will twist or rotate. This is gastric dilatation volvulus. Blood is trapped in the stomach when this happens and it can’t return to your dog’s heart. Blood flow is cut off. Your dog can go into shock.

In some cases the spleen will twist in the stomach causing damage to its tissue, too.

You must get your dog to a vet immediately for treatment if he is to have any chance to survive.

Why does bloat occur?

Researchers and veterinarians aren’t completely sure what causes bloat, though there can be some common denominators.

  • Large and giant breed dogs appear to be more susceptible to bloat, especially dogs that have a deep, narrow chest.
  • Statistically, male dogs are twice as likely to bloat as female dogs.
  • Middle-aged dogs are more likely to bloat than younger dogs.
  • Eating and drinking a large amount right before strenuous exercise is also cited as a trigger in some dogs.

These are only trends. According to emergency veterinarians, bloat has been reported in almost every breed and mix.

Studies and insurance data have shown that the following breeds are most at risk for GDV:

Spaying or neutering your dog has no effect on your dog’s chances of bloating.

If your dog has relatives such as parents, siblings, or offspring that have bloated, his risk of bloating is higher. Dogs that bloat should not be used for breeding, if possible.

While large and giant breeds are usually the poster dogs for bloat it’s important for dog owners to remember that any dog can bloat. Bloat has been seen in Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, and other small dogs.

Risks of GDV

According to Dr. C. Battaglia:

Early in 2010, Dr. Carmelo Battaglia of the American Kennel Club and Dr. Cindy Otto, at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary collaborated with two other scientists: Marko Pipan, DVM, DACVECC and Dorothy Cimino Brown, DVM, MSCE, DACVS, to study GDV. Data about this disease show that the reported lifetime likelihood of developing GDV is 24% in large-breed show dogs and 21.6% in giant-breed show dogs. Other studies show that the mortality rate ranges from 10% to 33%. The high incidence of this disease coupled with a high mortality rate makes GDV a dreaded disease. Bell reported that Great Danes have the highest average like time risk of 42.4%.

After surveying owners of more than 2500 dogs on the Internet from more than 10 countries, Dr. Battaglia and his colleagues found, among other things, that feeding from an elevated feed bowl, moistening dry food prior to feeding, and restricting water and exercise before and after meals increased the risk of GDV. These are all things that owners have been advised to do in the past.

After looking at numerous studies on bloat from the past 30 years, it seems you can find plenty of contradictory conclusions. We will present the current beliefs about bloat and how you can try to prevent it.

Signs of bloat

Symptoms of bloat include the following:

  • Your dog’s stomach may appear to swell and can feel hard;
  • Your dog may try to vomit without producing anything;
  • Drooling;
  • Restlessness;
  • Panting;
  • Your dog appears to be in pain and may whine if you press on his stomach.

Sometimes owners report that they just felt something was “wrong” or “off” with their dog, even if the dog hadn’t started displaying symptoms yet. Yet other owners report that everything was perfectly normal with their dog before he bloated.

In some cases, a dog can start doing something unusual and that can be a tip off that something’s not right.

Beckie Zimmerman Lloyd, in Minnesota, experienced a case of bloat with her Springer Spaniel, Emma:

On a normal Saturday morning I fed the dogs and was cleaning the house. I look over to see Emma (18-month-old Springer) licking the cabinets. I tell her to knock it off. She starts licking the floor. I tell her to go outside. She is now eating snow, panicking, pacing, licking/eating everything in sight. I had never seen bloat, but my gut instinct told me this was bad news. I put her in the car, raced to the vet, calling them on the way. By the time we got there her abdomen was tight, hard and swollen. She went directly to x-ray and it was determined her stomach was large and her entire system was full of gas. Where was her breakfast? No clue. With no anesthetic, to try to get to this with speed, a roll of tape was put in her mouth and then wrapped. They passed a stomach tube to relieve the pressure and air. Thankfully it was caught the minute it started and she was at the vet within half an hour. That saved her life, because she didn’t have as much time to twist. I always worried I wouldn’t recognize it but knew immediately.

Does diet affect your dog’s risk of bloat?

Some research and anecdotal reports have blamed various ingredients for bloat but the data has been inconclusive. Most dogs today eat food that contains similar ingredients so it’s hard to identify any ingredients that might stand out as triggers. However, research has shown that dog foods that contain soybean meal or that have oil or fat in the first four ingredients seem to be four times more likely to cause bloat.

Many people still like to moisten their dog’s dry kibble but, according to at least one study, moistening kibble that uses citric acid as a preservative can increase the likelihood of a bout of GDV. Citric acid can come from lemons and limes but today much of it is manufactured. It’s used in soft drinks, pet foods, cleaners, and other things. The pet food industry disputes that there is anything harmful about citric acid or that it could be a cause of bloat.

Should you use a raised food bowl?

One study, some years ago, suggested that dogs at risk for bloat should be fed using a raised food bowl to reduce their risk of bloat. In fact, for a long time many people believed that elevated food bowls were better for dogs. This recommendation was later debunked. Experts now recommend that large and giant breed dogs eat from a bowl on the floor.

How many meals per day?

According to research, dogs that eat just one large meal per day are twice as likely to bloat as dogs that eat two meals per day. Spread out your dog’s meals into at least two smaller meals per day.

Should you use a slow feeder bowl?

If your dog eats very fast, a slow feeder bowl can be a good idea.  According to research, dogs that eat very fast are five times more likely to bloat than slow eaters. Slow feeder bowls have fingers or objects in the center, mazes, or other things that make a dog eat more slowly. Bowls are designed to be very difficult to navigate for dogs that wolf down food or just a little difficult for dogs that only eat a little too fast.

Yet not all dogs are fast eaters. Andrea Baird, from Tennessee, reported the following case with her Doberman, Stella, when she took her dog with her on vacation.

My Doberman, Stella, got “the bloat” when she was in the later years of her life. We were taking a trip to the beach and realized she was in distress when we got out of the car. She had not inhaled food. As a matter of fact she was a finicky slow eater, and had a sensitive tummy since puppyhood. We found an after hours vet who sent us home with an IV. That was not an easy one to manage. And said to come back in AM if not better. This vet was in Brunswick GA. We took her back first thing in the AM and they did an X-ray. Somehow determined it was bloat and sent us DIRECTLY to Savannah where she had emergency surgery. Thankfully she survived.

In this case, maybe having a sensitive stomach and traveling were enough to cause Stella to feel some stress that led to bloat.

Other factors

Other risk factors for bloating include a dog’s personality and environment. Dogs that are unhappy or fearful are twice as likely to bloat as dogs that are reported as being happy. Dogs that are experiencing stress and dogs that are hyperactive are also more likely to bloat. Dogs that are anxious can be more likely to bloat, especially if they are fed with other dogs. If you have multiple dogs, separating your dogs at mealtimes and feeding them separately can reduce anxiety and lower their stress levels about food. Your dog might also eat more slowly if he doesn’t have his buddy trying to push him aside to get his dinner.

Can you prevent bloat?

No one can make any guarantees about preventing bloat but you can do some of the things suggested here.

  • Feed your dog at least two meals per day instead of one large meal;
  • Use a slow feeder bowl if your dog eats very fast;
  • If you have more than one dog, feed your dogs separately, in separate rooms, or in crates if you have to so there is less stress;
  • Avoid using raised bowls;
  • Avoid foods that contain soybean meal or that contain oils and fats in the first four ingredients;
  • If you feed your dog a dry kibble, feed foods with larger pieces of kibble;
  • Dogs that eat canned food have a lower incidence of bloat according to some studies; and table scraps and other things that add variety to your dog’s diet can be good.
  • Don’t let your dog run or play strenuously immediately before or after eating.

Many people also keep Phazyme or Gas-X on hand if they have dogs that have bloated in the past or that might be prone to bloating. This is done on the advice of veterinarians. These medications contain simethicone, an anti-foaming agent used to reduce bloating, discomfort, or pain caused by excessive gas (in humans). Many veterinarians recommend them but other vets have concerns about trying to place anything in the mouth of a dog that is bloating. If you are interested in using one of these medicines for your dog in emergencies, talk to your veterinarian.

Why the controversies?

A lot of the problem is due to a study from Purdue in 2000: “Incidence of and breed-related risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus in dogs.” You will often hear this study referred to as the Purdue study on bloat or the Glickman study, after the lead researcher. The study turned up some interesting information about bloat but many of the conclusions/recommendations were later rejected. Unfortunately, the information in the study was widely disseminated. Consequently, there are still people using elevated feeding stations for large and giant breed dogs and following other harmful advice based on this study.

Preventive Gastropexy

In breeds that are prone to bloating, some veterinarians recommend a preventive surgical gastropexy. Gastropexy can be done laparoscopically so it’s not as invasive as major surgery. Yes, that’s a lot of big words. Gastropexy refers to “tacking” the stomach to the side of your dog’s body so it can’t torsion or twist. If your dog bloats and you can get him to the vet before his stomach twists, your vet should be able to help your dog. Once the stomach twists and the blood supply is cut off, your dog will go into shock. That’s when things can get quickly go downhill.

Laparoscopic surgery uses a tiny camera during surgery. The vet makes a very small incision and can see what s/he is doing by using the camera.

If you have a breed that is prone to bloating, the cost of the surgery could be worthwhile. You can check with your veterinarian and/or pet insurance company about costs. If you have a breed that is not especially prone to bloating, this might be a more difficult decision since your dog might never bloat and you might have to pay for the surgery out of your own pocket.

Be prepared with a bloat kit

If you have a breed that is prone to bloating or if you just like to be prepared, you can buy “bloat kits” online. Check around. Lots of places have them, including some breeders of large breed dogs – since they often know from experience what to do. Or, you can make your own bloat kit. This Borzoi web site has good first aid instructions and tells you how to put together your own bloat kit. The instructions on this site for using the kit are very good.

Odds are improving

While bloat still kills many dogs every year in the U.S., prevention and treatment have improved a dog’s odds of surviving. According to one estimate, a few decades ago, a dog being treated for bloat had about a 50-50 chance of surviving if he made it to the vet’s office when he was bloating. Today the estimate is that about 70 percent of dogs will survive if they bloat and go to the vet immediately.

If you have questions about bloat/GDV, talk to your veterinarian, especially if you have a breed that is prone to bloating.

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