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Bloat in Dogs – Do You Dread It?

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Bloat in Dogs

I thought everyone had heard about bloat. Turns out one of the most pet savvy people I know hadn’t. So when her middle-aged German Shepherd started retching non-productively, she thought it was the result of a new food she was feeding… and thought it could wait ‘till morning.

Not so. Within a couple of hours, things had worsened and before she knew it… he was gone. That fast.

I know what you’re saying: That’d never happen to me. Any sick dog sees the vet ASAP. What kind of a dog person waits around? But here’s the thing: Bloat dogs can go from 0 to 100 in just a few minutes. They can look okay-to-wait one minute… and die the next.

But it’s undeniably the case that this dog’s odds would have been improved a whole lot if only his owner had understood that a) bloat is a disease entity of dogs, 2) unproductive retching is its most common early indication, and 3) immediate medical attention must be sought.

How about you? Have you ever heard of bloat? If you’ve got a dog –– especially a large or giant breed dog –– then I certainly hope you have. In fact, if you’ve got any kind of dog (any dog can “bloat”), you should know the basics of this catastrophic condition.

To that end, I offer you this quick take on bloat, which includes a roundup of the literature and what’s new in bloat research and recommendations:

Bloat is also known as “gastric dilatation volvulus” (or "GDV" for short). It happens when the stomach twists and fills with gas or fills with gas then twists.

Either way, the twisting is the part that really matters here. Because when the stomach twists, the vessels that supply it get pinched off. As a result of this crimping action, the blood supply is cut off and the stomach tissue itself starts to die. And once that happens, shock can set in quickly, leading to deadly cardiac arrhythmias and sudden death. In fact, studies agree that dogs must get to the vet within five to six hours if they’re to have a better than average chance at surviving this deadly event.

Which means owners have to know what to look for: nausea, retching (usually non-productive, as I mentioned earlier), abdominal distension (which is not always visible), restlessness (usually in the early stages), depression (in its later stages), and death (in all cases if left untreated).

Once identified as a possibility, bloat requires immediate transport to a veterinarian where we’ll a) siphon off the gas, b) offer fluid therapy to help counteract the shock and address electrolyte imbalances, c) administer drugs to combat dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities and, d) almost always, perform surgery to reposition the stomach and "tack" it to the body wall (to prevent future events).

Looking at the research, 6% of all large and giant breed dogs are likely to bloat in their lifetimes––usually as they get older––but any dog of any breed can bloat at any time. In fact, it’s impossible to predict which dogs will bloat and which will live their lives GDV-free.

We know that very big dogs are more likely to bloat (Saint Bernards, Great Danes and Weimaraner are most affected according to one paper). We also know that rapid eating, raised food bowls (yes, you read that right) and having a history of first-degree family members who are bloated increases the risk. (Here’s the source for those findings.) Yet despite all our efforts, our research hasn’t yet given us the means to predict or prevent it.

This is especially troublesome because the disorder is so damn deadly. Only about 67-85% of bloat sufferers will survive and that’s only if they receive treatment. Surgical treatment. Dogs who receive no treatment almost always die… painfully.

What’s worse is that treatment is considered expensive by almost anyone’s measure. Costs range anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 on average, but can reach up to $10,000 or more if the process is complicated by other problems (for example, the presence of cardiac arrhythmias and the need for partial stomach removal, splenectomy, or both).

Luckily, there is good news! Bloat can be prevented to a large extent. A surgical procedure known as a “gastropexy” can be used to “tack” the stomach to the body wall. The goal of this relatively simple procedure is to keep it from twisting in the first place. And while it doesn’t always work in all cases, it does a whole lot of good in most patients who undergo it. That is, should they subsequently bloat.

The bad news side of this particular silver lining is that a) it’s also expensive (vets usually charge anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for this procedure), b) it requires abdominal access, and c) it’s not without its risks (as for any intra-abdominal procedure).

Nonetheless, based on the literature, it’s recommended that dogs hailing from predisposed breeds and those with relatives who have bloated should be "tacked." Recently, it was also determined that dogs with gastric foreign bodies and those who’d had their spleens out were more likely to bloat, suggesting that owners of dogs with either a history of eating things they shouldn’t or splenectomies should consider the gastropexy procedure.

As far as non-surgical forms of prevention go, the following recommendations are currently in effect:

  • Reduce eating speed (lots of bowls are made for such a purpose).
  • Don’t feed food from a height (discontinue use of those raised dog bowls, especially if your dog’s a speed-eater).

Though not so strongly correlated with bloat, the following risk factors should perhaps be avoided as well:

  • Small food particle size (dry kibble, in particular)
  • Once daily feeding
  • Anxiety

Reference this recent article for some of these findings.

Ultimately, however, bloat can prove itself a wily disorder. So knowing what it looks like and getting a dog to the vet as soon as possible is the most important thing for most dog owners to know.

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