Charles Hurty, DVM
Grove Veterinary Clinic
Canine stomach bloat and stomach twisting are serious and life-threatening disorders that can occur suddenly. Bloat is when a dog’s stomach becomes tremendously and painfully distended with food, foreign material, gas, or fluid. Stomach twisting, or gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV), is when a bloated stomach rotates and twists; this results in extreme pain and further distension of the stomach. It is important to know about these conditions, as quick attention and actions are needed to resolve the problem and save your dog’s life.
Bloating is more common in large, deep-chested or barrel chested breeds. The larger breeds appear to be at a greater risk for GDV; the breeds we most often see affected by this disease include the Labrador retriever, boxer, golden retriever, Great Dane, standard poodle, chow chow, Weimaraner, German Shepherd, basset hound, collie, St. Bernard, and Greyhound. It is thought that the combination of body shape (barrel-chest) and potentially a genetically-determined weakening of the ligament that holds the stomach in its correct position or orientation make these breeds at greater risk for this condition.
It is often thought that allowing dogs to gorge quickly on large quantities of food will bring on this condition. Sometimes, we will see this condition after a dog has accidentally gorged on large quanities of food (i.e. the dog got into the food bin or got into the trashcan and ate lots of garbage). Additionally, it is recommended to have your dog avoid vigorous exercise after eating.
The clinical signs of bloat or GDV can be quite dramatic and come on quickly. You may first notice that dog’s belly is distended, rounded, and swollen. Your pet may also start retching and have nonproductive vomiting (i.e. your dog repeatedly tries to vomit but is unable to bring up any material other than a small amount of foam). These dogs are also extremely restless and are unable to get comfortable. We hear about these dogs wanting to rest and lay down, but because they are in so much pain, they can’t relax and immediately get up to try to find a different body position. If the stomach has twisted, these patients will also start to experience dramatic problems with their hearts and circulatory systems. They typically will have pale mucus membranes, weak pulses, and irregular heart beats. Often they will suddenly collapse and have extreme weakness; they may be unable to stand and become unresponsive. This is a true emergency and is life threatening; you must call your veterinarian immediately if these signs are recognized, as time is of the essence with this condition.
Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam first to determine if bloat or GDV is happening. To confirm the diagnosis, a radiograph (x-ray study) of the abdomen must be taken. Upon presentation to your veterinarian, other life saving procedures may be necessary while the condition is being diagnosed; this may involve administration of IV fluids or pain medications, as your pet may be in shock.
If GDV is diagnosed, immediate surgery to decompress, untwist, and reposition the stomach will be necessary. Sometimes the stomach and even the spleen (which can sometimes be involved) has experienced irreparable damage, resulting in poorer outcomes. It is so important to present to your veterinarian quickly, so that damage to your pet’s internal organs can be halted as quickly as possible. Vigorous post-operative care and scrutiny are required; your veterinarian will determine the specific course of treatment for your companion.
Prevention of this condition is difficult, but there are some tips that may help to prevent this from happening. You should discuss prevention of GDV specifically with your veterinarian to determine which tactics may be appropriate or helpful. Some ideas to consider include feeding smaller meals more frequently, allowing only smaller amounts of water to be consumed more frequently, limiting vigorous activity after eating, and keeping your dog away from garbage or unknown food sources that may contributed to intestinal distress and excess intestinal gas.