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How do dogs act when they have bloat?

Is Your Dog at Risk of Bloat? Here’s What You Need to Know

Bloat is a common emergency condition in dogs, often affecting large breeds. Learn how to spot the early warning signs of bloat and get tips for preventing this painful condition.

By Kristi Valentini August 24, 2020
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Most people have experienced bloating, that uncomfortably stuffed feeling in your stomach that happens when you’re feeling gassy. But while bloating normally subsides in people, it can be deadly in dogs.

«Bloat is one of the more common major illnesses that we see,» Jessica Romine, DVM, a veterinary internal medicine specialist with BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Southfield, Mich., says. «If your dog has signs of bloat, it’s always an emergency.»

Learn what you should watch for and the steps you can take to prevent bloat from happening in your pup.

What is Bloat in Dogs?

Bloat occurs when gas, food, or liquid gets trapped in the stomach and expands. Bloat can cause the stomach to grow so big that it takes up the entire abdomen space—even getting as large as a basketball in some dogs.

Pressure from a ballooning stomach pushes on the lungs, making it difficult for the dog to breathe. The pressure also narrows both ends of the stomach, keeping contents from escaping. Your dog’s stomach isn’t able to empty into the intestines or by vomiting or burping.

The most dangerous situation is when the stomach twists over on itself—like a wet towel being wrung out—and cuts off blood flow to vital organs like the heart and spleen. This condition is called gastric dilation volvulus (GDV), gastric torsion, or twisted stomach, and without treatment, it’s almost always fatal.

What Are the Signs of Bloat in Dogs?

There’s a time and place for watchful waiting at home, but not for dog bloat. The condition has a rapidly progressing timeline. If your dog has signs of bloat, you should seek treatment right away. Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine warns that the condition can become life-threatening within one to two hours.

The American College of Veterinary Surgeons (ACVS) notes that signs of bloat may initially start with your dog being restless or pacing. It’s common for dogs with bloat to drool and have dry heaves, which may bring up a small amount of foam or mucus. You might also notice a swollen belly, but it can be difficult to see in bigger or overweight dogs, Romine says.

As bloat progresses, symptoms worsen and include:

  • Whining
  • Excessive drooling
  • Frequent dry heaves
  • Panting
  • Shallow breathing
  • Collapse

You won’t be able to tell what stage of bloat your dog has by symptoms alone. X-rays are needed to determine if your dog’s stomach has twisted.

«If your dog suddenly becomes agitated or painful and is trying to vomit, see a veterinarian immediately,» Romine advises. «Time is of the essence with these cases.» The AKC Canine Health Foundation says that with early treatment, more than 80 percent of dogs with bloat survive.

closeup of sad boxer dog face
Credit: MICHAEL LOFENFELD Photography / Getty

How is Bloat Treated?

There’s no at-home treatment for dogs with bloat. It’s an emergency that requires veterinary care as soon as possible. Depending on how advanced the condition is, your vet’s treatment of bloat can involve several steps:

Step 1. Stabilization and Diagnostic Tests

Many dogs with bloat go into shock, so the first step is stabilizing your pup’s vitals with intravenous (IV) fluids. Your veterinarian will also run tests and take x-rays, which will reveal if the stomach is just bloated or if it’s twisted as well. Your dog may also need an echocardiogram (ECG) to evaluate heart function since bloat causes abnormal heartbeats in about 40 percent of dogs.

Step 2. Emptying the Stomach

If your dog’s stomach hasn’t twisted yet, the goal is to relieve mounting pressure by emptying the stomach. Your vet will sedate your dog and then pass a tube down to the stomach to pump out the contents. An alternative procedure releases air by inserting a needle through the skin into the stomach.

Step 3. Surgery

It’s common to follow stomach emptying with gastropexy, a surgery that prevents bloat. The procedure involves attaching the stomach to the abdominal wall to keep it from twisting. «If the stomach is only decompressed but not surgically tacked in place, there’s a 75 percent chance your dog will develop bloat again,» Romine says. «But with gastropexy, that rate drops to 6 percent.»

When the stomach is twisted, your dog will definitely need surgery to untwist it. Your vet will also remove damaged tissue in the stomach or spleen. Once the immediate danger has been taken care of, your vet can then perform a gastropexy.

Are There Risks That Increase a Dog’s Chances of Getting Bloat?

Although bloat has been widely studied, researchers still don’t fully understand why it happens. But they do know that biggest factor is dog breed. Any dog can develop bloat, but large and giant breed dogs are prone to it. The theory is that dogs with deep, narrow chests have more room in their abdomen for the stomach to move around and get twisted.

«Overall, about 5.7 percent of dogs will develop bloat,» Romine says. «But that goes up to 20 percent for dogs weighing 100 pounds or more. Great Danes have the highest risk of all—42 percent of them develop bloat if they don’t have a preventative gastropexy.»

Other breeds that are often affected include:

  • Akitas
  • Bloodhounds
  • Boxers
  • German shepherds
  • Irish setters
  • Irish wolfhounds
  • Saint Bernards
  • Standard poodles and their mixes like goldendoodles and Aussiedoodles
  • Weimaraners

Dogs can also inherit a predisposition or tendency to develop bloat too. If one of your pup’s parents or siblings had bloat, your dog is more at risk. Other factors associated with increased risk for bloat include:

  • Being older (over three years for giant breeds; over five years for large breeds)
  • Consuming dry food with high fat or oil content
  • Eating one large meal a day
  • Going through a stressful event (such at a boarding kennel)
  • Gulping down food
  • Having a nervous or reactive demeanor

Is Bloat Preventable?

If you’re concerned about your dog’s risk factors, there are things you can do to help prevent bloat. A preventative gastropexy is the most effective way to ensure your dog doesn’t get GDV, the fatal progression of bloat.

«[A gastropexy] can be done at the time of spay or neuter or as a separate procedure,» Romine says. «It’s highly recommended for particularly high-risk dogs like Great Danes.»

What and how you feed your dog can make a difference too. Experts once thought that raised feeding bowls could help prevent bloat, but new research suggests that using them might actually increase risk. However, there are other mealtime changes that may be helpful. Instead of feeding your dog one large meal, divide it into two or more meals a day, Romine suggests.

As for the food itself, a diet that’s rich in protein and carbs is best. Mixing canned and dry food could help. But Romine recommends avoiding dry food that lists fat or oil as one of the first four ingredients since diets with high fat or oil content are associated with increased risk of bloat. Serving smaller-size kibble may also be beneficial.

Taking preventative measures is a great way to avoid bloat. Talk to your veterinarian about your dog’s risk and the best diet for your pet. Remember though, the most important thing you can do is keep an eye out for worrisome signs. If you spot them, take your dog to the vet right away.

Bloat

Bloat info graphic

Bloat, also known as gastric torsion, and also as gastric dilation volvulus (GDV) syndrome, is a life-threatening disorder that happens when a dog’s stomach fills with gas and becomes twisted. It mainly occurs in deep-chested breeds.

What causes gastric torsion?

We don’t really know why bloat happens. It is thought that if there is enough room in the abdomen for gas-filled organs to move, then occasionally they will. This is why the condition is most common in deep-chested dogs.

Why does the stomach become gas filled?

Vets believe that there are two likely triggers:
anxiety

Animals (including humans) usually swallow more air when they are anxious. This is known as aerophagia (literally «eating air») and it is usually seen in stressed, kennelled dogs. The constant intake of air causes the stomach to balloon in size, which changes the abdomen’s normal organ layout.

diet

If dogs are moved onto very fermentable foodstuffs that produce gas at abnormal rates, the stomach can struggle and not deal with the gas efficiently by burping or passing it into the intestines.

Either way the dog is now bloated, which is an emergency in itself even if not one requiring surgery. If this inflated stomach twists however, the situation rapidly changes from serious to catastrophic.

How can I tell if my dog has bloat?

As with any emergency with your dog, if you suspect something is wrong, speak to a vet immediately, as time is crucial.

Signs to look out for:

  • Gut bloating: if you notice a distended stomach, seek advice fast
  • Anxiety
  • Problems breathing: the expanded stomach prevents the dog from breathing properly
  • Dribbling or drooling
  • Trying to be sick, without success
  • Pain around the stomach

How is bloat treated in dogs?

Treatment for bloat will depend on how unwell your dog is. Your vet will usually x-ray them to see whether surgery is needed. Animals critical with GDV are high anaesthetic risks, so your vet may use heavy intravenous sedation first to make sure the dog is pain free and lying still.

How might my vet treat a severely bloated stomach?

If the stomach is an abnormal size your vet may:

  • pass a stomach tube through the mouth and down the oesophagus to try to decompress the bloated stomach
  • clip a small patch of skin on the left flank and puncture the abdominal wall with a catheter to release excess gas, which immediately decompresses the bloated stomach and restores normal breathing patterns and blood flow

Why is it important to act fast?

Time is very important in bloat cases because a twisted stomach can reduce blood flow, causing death of the dog’s stomach wall (necrosis). This can lead to perforation and fatal peritonitis. Once the stomach has been partially decompressed and intravenous fluids are flowing and breathing is improved, the next step is invasive surgery. Sometimes the vet may reposition the stomach and fasten it to the inner abdominal wall to help prevent GDV happening again.

How long is my dog likely to be at the vet?

Patients are usually hospitalised for at least 48 hours as post-operative effects such as toxins released by traumatised tissues can cause major complications including heart attacks, peritonitis and sudden death.

Help raise awareness

Gill Arney & Derek Hamilton set up the canine bloat awareness campaign after Beau, their Dobermann, survived gastric torsion in 2008. They produced the above flyer (in conjunction with several vets) detailing the signs to look out for and a very simple message — if you see these signs then get your dog to the vet.

  • Gill will send packs of flyers (free of charge) to any UK address, or you can email to request a PDF copy
  • There is also a Facebook group: canine bloat awareness

Article author

This article was written by Marc Abraham , a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you’re worried about your dog’s health, always contact your vet immediately!

We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can’t give veterinary advice, but if you’re worried about any of the issues raised in this article then please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you’re looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons’ Find a Vet page.

  • TheKennelClubUK on Facebook
  • TheKennelClubUK on Instagram
  • TheKennelClubUK on Twitter
  • TheKennelClubUK on YouTube

Copyright © The Kennel Club Limited 2023. The unauthorised reproduction of text and images is strictly prohibited.

Causes and Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs

dog causes of bloat

Bloat is a generic term for distention of the abdomen. This is sometimes used interchangeably with a disease called “Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus,” but a bloated abdomen does not always indicate this condition. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the types and causes of bloat, so be sure to contact a vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s condition. Here we’ll discuss a few common symptoms and causes for the appearance of a bloated stomach in dogs.

What is Bloat? What breeds are at risk for bloat? Top Causes of Bloat in Dogs What should I do if my dog’s stomach looks bloated? Read more: Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding bloating in your dog or another condition?

What is Bloat?

In a simple “bloat” situation, a pet has often ingested a large volume of food or other material (such as dog food, bread dough, foreign material, etc), or has a stomach full of air. When this happens, it causes the stomach to stretch like a balloon and can become very uncomfortable for the pet. Although this is quite uncomfortable, it’s not typically a life-threatening condition at this stage. However, due to the stomach enlarging, it can twist on itself inside the abdomen which cuts off the blood supply to numerous organs. When this happens, it is then called gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). Because of the loss of oxygen to numerous organs and the damage that is done when the stomach enlarges and twists, this condition is often fatal and requires immediate medical attention.

What breeds are at risk for bloat?

Many people with pets have heard of the dreaded “bloat” in dogs. Bloat most commonly affects large breeds like Great Danes, German Shepherds, Mastiffs, and other deep-chested dogs. However, any dog can become bloated.

Top Causes of Bloat in Dogs

1. Intestinal Parasites

Have you ever heard someone refer to a puppy’s appearance as having a “wormy” belly? That’s because many intestinal parasites cause a bloated appearance to the abdomen of young puppies. These parasites commonly include hookworms and roundworms and are often found by vets on a fecal screening test.

Some symptoms you may encounter are round long worms in the stool or vomiting worms up. You may also notice a poor haircoat, pale gums, or diarrhea (with or without blood). Generally, intestinal parasites are a treatable condition with proper deworming and can be corrected easily if diagnosed early.

2. Dietary Indiscretion and Overeating

Did your puppy get into a large bag of dog food? Did they swallow a ridiculous amount of dirt or ingest your toddler’s Play-Doh? Dogs really do eat some weird things. And if eaten in large enough volume, can cause a significant and very uncomfortable distention of the stomach.

In most cases, the food will be digested (sometimes very slowly). Your puppy may still need supportive care, including hospitalization and IV fluids. In more serious cases, especially in the case of swallowing things like stuffing from a dog bed, or mulch in the yard, surgery may be needed to remove the foreign material.

Other possible causes of an enlarged stomach may include decreased gastrointestinal motility (slow intestinal movement), or even constipation. Your vet will need to examine your dog to determine if additional testing, like blood work or x-rays, are needed to uncover the cause of her bloated stomach.

3. Abdominal Fluid

Another reason why a dog’s abdomen will swell up is ascites, also known as abdominal effusion. This is described as the accumulation of fluid inside the abdominal cavity. Depending on the volume, the dog’s abdomen can increase in size mildly or to the extent where they start to look pot-bellied.

Although less common than the first two causes, fluid in the abdomen can certainly lead to a distended or “bloated” appearance. This can be from a variety of problems including heart failure, low body protein (sometimes due to problems with the liver or kidneys), cancer, and even bleeding from other organs. Free abdominal fluid occurs more commonly in older dogs and is often associated with more severe disease.

Treatment options depend on the underlying cause. Identifying the type of fluid as well as making sure the dog is stable is the first step in diagnosing most underlying conditions.

4. Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV)

Known as “The mother of all emergencies” in veterinary medicine, GDV is an extremely dangerous condition in which the stomach fills with air, and then twists on itself inside the abdomen. This leads to a distended appearance of the dog’s torso and is often accompanied by a distressed appearance, heavy breathing, and attempts to vomit. In some cases, the stomach is filled with air but hasn’t twisted yet (Gastric Dilatation) and imaging is required for further evaluation (like x-rays).

5. Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing’s disease)

Hyperadrenocorticism, also known as Cushing’s disease is commonly triggered by hormone-producing tumors in the adrenal glands or pituitary glands. This results in a wide range of clinical signs which can be tricky to detect. Dog’s with Cushing’s disease typically have a pot-bellied appearance due to weakened abdominal muscles that result from the body’s overproduction of cortisol.

What should I do if my dog’s stomach looks bloated?

Due to the wide variation in conditions causing a bloated stomach appearance, it’s recommended that medical care be sought early. Your vet will perform an exam and discuss further tests or treatments based on their findings. Early intervention can be lifesaving, and your pet will thank you for it!

Contact your vet or take your dog to an emergency clinic if she is showing any of these signs:

  • Distended, hard abdomen
  • Sudden onset of frequent vomiting, gagging, or retching (nonproductive vomiting)
  • Drooling excessively (hypersalivation)
  • Signs of distress including heavy panting, pacing, or inability to rest
  • Weakness, decreased ability to walk or stand
  • Pale or purple gums

Read more:

Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding bloating in your dog or another condition?

Click here to schedule a video consult to speak to one of our vets. You can also download the FirstVet app from the Apple App Store and Google Play Stores.

Published: 2020-11-27
Last updated: 2022-03-23
Reviewer: Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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