The disease commonly known as “bloat” is a life-threatening emergency in dogs. Its scientific name is gastric dilatation and volvulus, or GDV for short. GDV affects many breeds of dogs, particularly large breeds. It is important for all dog owners to familiarize themselves with the risk factors and signs of bloat, as well as how to recognize and prevent it.
Types of bloat
There are two different conditions that are commonly called “bloat.”
Food bloat happens when an animal gorges itself on too much food. Usually, this happens when a dog (or cat) has access to a lot of food, such as an unattended bag of food or treats. The stomach becomes overly full and dilated, which can lead to abdominal discomfort, pain, panting, fast heart rate, a swollen abdomen, and lethargy. Generally, food bloat is not a life-threatening condition, but it does require a veterinary visit if you see these signs in your pet.
Gastric dilatation and volvulus or GDV is the more severe and life-threatening condition. It happens suddenly and progresses very quickly. This condition involves the stomach filling with food and gas, then twisting and continuing to distend. It can rapidly become fatal, and always requires an emergency veterinary visit.
Multiple factors play into whether or not a dog will contract GVD. Typically, dogs have several risk factors that contribute to this condition.
Large and giant breed dogs are at high risk for contracting GDV, along with breeds who have deep, narrow chests. This includes German Shepherd Dogs, Rottweilers, Great Danes, Labrador Retrievers, hounds, Standard Poodles, and many others. However, if conditions are right, any breed of dog can bloat, even small or toy breeds.
Dogs in lean/ideal body condition are at higher risk of getting bloat than overweight dogs. To learn more about this topic, check out How to body condition score.
Dogs who eat just one large meal each day are at a much higher risk of getting GDV than dogs who eat two or more smaller meals per day. Dogs who eat very quickly are also at a much higher risk for GDV. Dogs who eat from elevated food dishes (a popular “prevention measure”) have increased risk of bloat. Additionally, dogs who exercise within 1 hour before or after eating may be at increased risk.
As dogs get older, the likelihood they will get bloat increases.
Dogs with direct relatives (parents or siblings) who have had bloat are at a higher risk of getting it themselves. It is important to ask your breeder if they know the bloat history of the dogs they have produced.
Dogs who are very stressed or have a nervous or aggressive temperament may be more likely to bloat than dogs who have a happy or easygoing personality.
Dogs eating a dry diet may be more likely to bloat than dogs on canned or fresh-type diets (this may simply be because predisposed breeds are more likely to eat kibble). However, pre-moistening dry food with water decreases the risk of bloat (unless the diet contains citric acid), as does mixing kibble with other types of food. Diets with fat/oil listed in the first four ingredients are associated with increased risk of GDV. Diets with smaller kibble size may encourage gorging behavior and may increase the risk of bloat. Many pet parents believe that diets containing grains (soy, wheat, corn, etc.) are associated with increased risk of bloat; however, there is no evidence to support this myth anywhere in the scientific literature.
Normally when an animal eats, the stomach produces acid, mucus, and enzymes to begin the digestive process. Gas is formed during digestion, which is typically expelled through the mouth at the beginning of the process (belching, or eructation).
During GDV, however, the dog’s stomach becomes so full of food and gas that it is unable to get rid of the gas. The stomach continues to dilate until the gas forces the stomach to “flip” or twist on itself. This movement blocks the esophagus (so nothing can come out the mouth), and the pylorus (so nothing can move into the small intestine). The enlarged stomach can put pressure on the diaphragm and lungs, large blood vessels, nerves, spleen, and other digestive organs.
Signs and symptoms
Dogs with GDV will quickly fall ill and then deteriorate rapidly. They may begin by acting nervous, looking at their belly, or showing other signs of pain. They may drool, pant heavily, or attempt to vomit. Their heartrate will increase but their gums will become very pale, meaning blood isn’t getting where it needs to go. Then, they will become weak and collapse, with shallow breathing. Dogs with any of these signs should be taken to an emergency veterinarian immediately, because this condition can quickly cause death.
The emergency veterinarian will take radiographs (x-rays) of the dog’s abdomen to diagnose GDV. They will give the dog IV fluids to treat the shock, and then they will take the dog to surgery to decompress (empty) the stomach, untwist it, and fix it in place (gastropexy) so GDV doesn’t happen again.
GDV can have varying degrees of severity; therefore prognosis and outcome will also vary. It is extremely important to monitor your dog for signs of GDV and take them to the emergency veterinarian earlier on in the progression of this process, to decrease the likelihood of complications and death.
There are several ways you can decrease the risk of your dog developing GDV:
Be aware of the breeds and body types that are at risk for developing bloat.
Ensure your large-breed dog comes from a reputable breeder who knows the bloat history of dogs they have produced.
Consider a prophylactic gastropexy for your dog when s/he is spayed or neutered. This is when the veterinarian sutures the stomach to the abdominal wall to prevent twisting of the stomach in the future. Many owners of large breed dogs choose to do this, to decrease their dog’s risk of getting GDV.
Feed your dog in a bowl on the floor, not in an elevated dish.
Feed multiple smaller meals per day. This is the most important part of nutritional prevention of GDV.
Consider adding a bit of water or another type of food to a dry diet. If you add canned food to the diet, make sure you are using a complete and balanced diet, calculating the calories, and measuring each type of food properly (for more information, visit How to calculate your pet’s calorie needs and How to accurately measure your pet’s food). If you add fresh food, people food, or a food topper to your pet’s regular kibble, make sure what you add to the diet does not exceed 10% of your pet’s daily caloric intake (see Treats, table scraps, and food toppers for much more information).
Try to increase the time it takes your dog to eat his food. This can include using puzzle feeders or toys designed to release only a few kibbles at a time. You can also choose a diet designed to increase chewing time and decrease gorging behavior, such as some breed-specific diets with large, uniquely-shaped kibbles. (Learn more about food gorging and how to discourage it here.)
Wait an hour after exercising or playing with your dog before you feed them. Then, keep them calm and quiet for another hour.
Always monitor your dog during and after eating to ensure he doesn’t show signs associated with GDV.
Believe it or not, cats can get bloat too, though it is much less common than in dogs. Typically, cats get “food bloat” more often than GDV. It is difficult to say if there are specific risk factors for bloat in cats because there have been so few cases in the scientific literature. However, using preventive measures such as feeding smaller meals and preventing food gorging may help decrease the risk of GDV and food bloat in cats.
American College of Veterinary Surgeons: “Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus”
American Veterinarian: “Feline Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus”
Case et al. (2011). Canine and Feline Nutrition, 3rd edition. Pages 459-461.
Dr. Justine Lee: “Food bloat in dogs”
Hand et al. (2010). Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition. Chapter 53.
Merck Veterinary Manual: “Bloat”
Merck Veterinary Manual: “Gastric Dilatation (Bloat)”
Merck Veterinary Manual: “Gastric Dilation and Volvulus in Small Animals”
Tufts University: “Risk Factors for Canine Bloat”
VCA Hospitals: “Bloat: Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus in Dogs”
Veterinary Partner: “Bloat - The Mother of All Emergencies”
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